They are greying and in their 70s and even 80s now but the shine is yet to wear off those heroes from our youth. Canada’s winning team in the 1972 Summit Series remains beloved and burned into memory like the leaves ablaze in fall, skates clicking on frozen ponds and that maple taffy poured on snow.
Fifty years to the moment since they put away the Soviets in the eighth and final game, some of those players gathered in Toronto on Wednesday afternoon to relive the historic victory that legions watched on TV in bars, school classrooms and gymnasiums, office buildings and street corners from sea to sea to sea.
“It was the highlight of my whole career,” Paul Henderson said as he sat at the front of a room between Serge Savard and Ken Dryden.
Henderson scored the winning goal in each of the final three games – the last one in Moscow with 34 seconds left – to lift Canada to a 4-3-1 series victory. Henderson, 79, scored 376 goals in his professional career, 375 of which people forget. He is now a preacher.
“I tell people I am the only guy in hockey that played 18 years and only scored one goal,” Henderson quipped.
The players were brought to Toronto to celebrate that occasion by Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment. In the afternoon, the Maple Leafs owners packed a private room across the street from their rink in Maple Leaf Square for a panel discussion and interviews. Then the players were saluted during the evening’s exhibition game against the Montreal Canadiens at Scotiabank Arena.
Maple Leafs goalkeeper Matt Murray stopped all 16 shots he faced in his debut with his new team and Nicholas Robertson, Denis Malgin and Nick Abruzzese scored for Toronto in a 3-0 victory. Erik Kallgren made 10 saves in the third period. Defencemen Jordie Ben and Carl Dahlstrom each left the game with apparent injuries in the first period and did not return.
Toronto skated onto the ice before the game wearing Team Canada 1972 jerseys. A dozen former team members were introduced and four others who have died were represented by loved ones. The biggest applause was reserved for Henderson.
The festivities came together by happenstance when the Maple Leafs realized the Sept. 28 preseason engagement fell on the 50th anniversary of a day that established Canadian hockey supremacy in the middle of the Cold War.
“As this event developed it got bigger and bigger and nicer and nicer,” said Dryden, 75. “It’s a very special occasion for us to gather 50 years later.”
The series was the first to be played between a team of NHL all-stars and the Soviet Union’s Red Army club, which had won three Olympic gold medals in a row and nine world championships.
It started badly with a 7-3 loss in Montreal and ended in elation in Moscow. The series was played over 26 days with four games in each country.
“Probably for all of us it was the greatest moment of our careers,” said the 76-year-old Savard, who is the senior vice-president of the Canadiens. “Everybody thought we would not lose a game and said we would win them all by four or five goals. If we had done that I don’t think we would have been here today.”
Canada got booed after defeats in Montreal and Vancouver and trailed in the series 1-3-1 before winning the last three in the Soviet Union. In Game 5, Dryden looked down at the far end of the ice and saw Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev seated five rows behind goalie Vadislav Tretiak.
“After we lost the first game in Moscow, our coach Harry Sinden told us we had played one of our best games,” Peter Mahovlich recalled. “He felt we weren’t going to lose again.
“None of us realized the impact that it would have, nor the impact of what it would have been like had we lost.”
On Wednesday, the Royal Canadian Mint issued a $2 coin celebrating the triumph of Team Canada over Team USSR. It will rapidly be placed in circulation.
A week ago, Canada Post issued a stamp that commemorates the Game 8 victory. The stamp depicts Phil Esposito in a faceoff in the frame of a boxy 1970s-style television. An estimated 13 to 15 million Canadians (out of 21 million) tuned in to the 1972 game. Canada Post also released a two-stamp series in 1997 to help celebrate the 25th anniversary and a third of Yvan Cournoyer as part of Canada’s 150th anniversary celebration.
“Years ago as a kid you might have dreamed about playing in the NHL or maybe winning a Stanley Cup,” said Dryden, who recorded two victories in net, including the one in Game 8. “Never would you dream about being on a stamp or a toonie.”
Esposito, who was Canada’s best player in the series, did not attend the 50th festivities. He was scheduled to arrive on Wednesday but the Tampa resident’s flight was cancelled because of Hurricane Ian.
He participated via an audio call that was aired during the first intermission.
“I am sorry I couldn’t be there,” said Esposito, who scored seven goals and had six assists in the eight games. “I will miss all the fans and my teammates.”
Dryden said that he was more nervous before the final game than in any time in his career. He won six Stanley Cups with the Canadiens.
“I had experienced that nervous feeling in my stomach but never had my legs feel like jelly,” Dryden said. “But that is the way they were from the end of the seventh game to the end of the eighth.”
Mahovlich understands why it has remained an iconic Canadian moment.
“It was a Hollywood ending,” he said. “The story that led up to the punchline is that we developed the game but the Russians were called the world champions and that was annoying. That was what was inside all of us as the puck was dropped.
“There was a deep feeling about hockey and Canada and somehow the two were connected.”