Hockey’s most pivotal series occurred forty years ago, but its impact upon the game still resonates.
Almost lost amid the constant coverage of the NHL CBA negotiations is the fact this month marks the fortieth anniversary of the greatest series in hockey history.
In September, 1972, a team of Canadian NHL all-stars faced off against the top players from the then-Soviet Union in an eight-game series which would forever change the game.
I was nine years old in September 1972, and had been following hockey – especially the NHL – for barely three seasons.
At the time, the NHL was almost exclusively a Canadian league. Few “foreign-born” players – to Canadians, that meant American and European -were in the NHL at that time. The only European-born NHL star back then was Stan Mikita, who learned the game growing up in Canada.
As a result, I – like so many other Canadian fans young and old at the time – believed our professional players were unbeatable.
Sure, the Soviets were regularly beating our best amateurs, but we all knew those commies wouldn’t stand a chance against our pros.
It was also the height of the Cold War. Tensions between the US and USSR had barely begun to thaw. In September, 1972, it was still very much “us” against “them”, a clash of societies, regardless of which side of the Iron Curtain you lived.
The idea of a team of Canadian NHL all-stars facing off against the Soviet’s best – in September, no less! – seemed a quaint notion, and Canadians were confident of an eight-game sweep of those Russkies.
Team Canada would subsequently be criticized for failing to take the Soviets seriously, entering the series smug, overconfident, ill-prepared and out-of-shape, but who could blame them? They were only feeling what Canadian fans and pundits felt at the time.
It didn’t matter one of our great Bobbys – Orr – was injured and couldn’t play in the series, or the other great Bobby – Hull – was banned from participating because he had the audacity to jump to the WHA for a million bucks earlier that summer. The Soviets still didn’t stand a chance!
Would the outcome of the series been different if Orr and Hull had played? We’ll never know, but my guess is, probably not.
If Hull, arguably the greatest left wing in history, had been allowed to play, left winger and eventual series hero Paul Henderson probably wouldn’t have been invited to join Team Canada. Who knows how much of a difference, one way or the other, that would’ve made.
The reason I doubt the outcome would’ve been different if Orr and Hull played is because Team Canada didn’t know how talented the Soviets truly were. Apart from a half-hearted scouting trip, Team Canada’s staff didn’t bother to find out.
That made the result of the opening game of the series, a 7-3 rout by the Soviets in the Montreal Forum during a muggy September 2 evening, all the more shocking.
Hockey fans not old enough to remember that series cannot comprehend just how staggering that loss was. It truly shook Canada to the core. The sport we were unquestionably the best at was hockey. In one night, that illusion was destroyed.
I only saw the first two periods of Game One– after all, I was nine, and the third period took place past my bedtime – but what I saw – a 4-2 Soviet lead after two periods – was devastating enough.
The next morning, I asked my parents what the final score was, hoping against hope Team Canada had rallied in the third and won. My folks weren’t big hockey fans, but they, like most Canadians, had watched that game, and were stunned by the outcome. Dad merely replied, “7-3”. He didn’t need to say which team won.
What unfolded following Game One over the course of that month was, for lack of a better phrase, a roller-coaster of emotions. Relief as Team Canada won Game Two at Maple Leaf Gardens. Unease following the 4-4 tie in the Winnipeg Arena. Anger at Team Canada during the disastrous 5-3 loss in Vancouver, quickly followed by guilt as an exhausted, emotional Phil Esposito called out the fans post-game on national television for jeering the team.
Heartbreak in Game Five in Moscow after the Soviets rallied from 4-1 to win 5-4. Rising hope as Canada evened the series with gritty victories in Games Six and Seven. The emotional, epochal eighth game, with the most dramatic, memorable winning goal in hockey history, accompanied by sheer joy and relief for Canadian fans.
It was a series which riveted and united Canadians in a way no other series or game has since.
When it was over, Canada had won, but barely, and the hockey world was forever changed. As a fan, I feared and sometimes hated the Soviet players, but deep down, I admired their skills, and learned to respect them. I also had to admit they were every bit the equal of Canada’s best. Sometimes, they were even better than Canada’s best. For the next two decades, defeating the Soviets was the only way to justify Canadian greatness in hockey.
Over time, there were other great series between Canada and the Soviet Union. The 1974 series featuring WHA stars. The Super Series of ’75-76, featuring the memorable 1975 New Year’s Eve match-up between the Montreal Canadiens and Central Red Army, considered by some the greatest game ever played. The 1979 Challenge Cup. The Canada Cup series’ of ’76, ’81, ’84 and ’87.
None, however, packed the same emotional wallop of the Summit Series.
As time went by, the Soviet teams and players became less mysterious. Great Soviet players became more familiar. Canadians gained an appreciation and respect of Soviet hockey, as did the Soviets with the Canadian style. Both sides studied each other’s systems, adapted and learned. The quality of play improved, both in the NHL and international hockey, as the Cold War tensions thawed over time and eventually disappeared with the collapse of Communism throughout Eastern Europe.
More nations – Sweden, Czechoslovakia (later the Czech Republic and Slovakia), the United States and Finland – established themselves as hockey powers. Falling the collapse of Communism, the Soviet Union morphed back into Russia and several independent nations. Starting in the mid-1970s, a rising number of Europeans and Americans entered the NHL. Many became stars in their own right, with some becoming the very best players in the league. Hockey has grown internationally, and the NHL is a better league as a result.
Forty years later, the hockey rivalry between Canada and Russia still exists, especially during the World Junior Hockey Championships, the World Hockey Championships, or the Olympics. A loss to the Russians, however, is no longer an emotional gut punch for Canadian fans. Such is the parity and respect between the two hockey nations, Canadian fans treat a loss to the Russians with mild dejection and a “we’ll beat ’em next time” attitude.
While the Americans are now Canada’s greatest rival for international hockey supremacy, Canadian fans still believe Russia is their natural hockey rival. The fear and hatred, however, is long gone.
We applaud the Russians now out of respect and admiration, which was forged forty years ago in the Summit Series, and honed over time by great series and games involving the best players of both countries.
Hockey is a much better game today because of the Summit Series. That is its lasting legacy.