Impressions: Guest Speakers

at The Summit in 1972

This column features stories and unique views on the Summit'72 submitted by our visitors.

Passion on Ice
by Michael Joyce,

I find it incredible that most Americans are unaware of the most amazing sporting event of the 20th century. It occurred exactly 30 years ago this weekend. Never at any time was so much on the line. It was a battle of pride and ideologies. Favourites became underdogs and bit players became unforgettable stars. Smugness turned to humility and under confidence turned to overconfidence.

What was this remarkable event? It was the 1972 Summit Series. An "exhibition" series between the Soviet National Hockey team and Team Canada comprised of stars from the NHL.

Why was this series so remarkable? The major reason has to do with the world geopolitical situation in the early 1970s. Country after country was falling to Communism. The East Block countries had carted away piles of gold from the previous Olympic Games. The Red Menace was stalking the world. Heck, they even beat the US at its own game: basketball.

Russia was a relative late comer to the game of hockey. Hockey had been played in Europe for some years. While the Soviets had played what they called "Russian" hockey or bandy which was a game played on a frozen soccer pitch, they really didn't get into actual hockey until the late 40s after the game was popularized by Canadians in post war Europe. The Soviet Union was intent on demonstrating to the world that its Communist ideology was superior to all other philosophies. They intended to set an example to the world that the collective form of government was supreme in all things: space, military, the arts, sports. All this done in the name of spreading the Communist revolution around the world. This was the form of hegemony on all fronts that was battled by the West during the "Cold War".

In a very short time the Soviets had emerged as a sporting superpower. In 1954, the Soviets rose from obscurity the win the ice hockey gold medal at the World Championships. The major hockey power in the world at that time had always been Canada. So good were they that Canada would send club champions from amateur leagues to gobble up the gold at practically every international tournament. Canada had been put on notice that there was now another kid on the block when it came to international play. Canada would win a few other major international tourneys in the next few years but the age of total domination was over. In fact Canada stopped competing internationally by the late sixties because their true amateurs couldn't compete against the Russian "amateurs". Why participate when Canada couldn't send its best players? It wasn't a fair contest to match guys who carried lunch buckets during the week against guys who trained three times a day for 11 months of the year with the nominal title of officers in the Red Army.

It was to be settled once and for all. The best from Canada would face off against the best from the USSR in an exhibition series. The USSR were the reigning Olympic Champions from the 1972 Games and Canada would send its stars from the National Hockey League (the fledgling World Hockey Association players were not allowed to join because the NHL resented the competition). The Soviets wanted to show the world that it could do everything and anything better than the west. Canada wanted to cement the fact the they were and would forever be the undisputed masters of the world's fastest game. As far as Canada was concerned the worst thing that could happen would be winning the series so convincingly that they would be accused of poor sportsmanship for piling up goal after goal on the over matched Commie upstarts. The Russians wouldn't stand a chance.

It didn't turn out that way at all. The first game was played in the Mecca of hockey: the Montreal Forum, home of the winningest team in the history of pro sports, the Montreal Canadiens.The teams skated onto the ice that warm September evening. The Canadians to a thunderous ovation and the unknown Russians with the unpronounceable names to the polite applause of the knowledgeable Montreal fans. The Canadians were swaggering and confident. They were about to hand the Soviets a lesson in how hockey was really played. Their pros against the "amateurs" from behind the Iron Curtain. The Soviets were cowed. They had tremendous respect and even awe for the stars of the best hockey league on the planet. This was a chance for the Canadians to set some things straight. Sure, the commies were winning the war in south east Asia and their tentacles seemed to be spreading everywhere but this was the one thing in which they could never match the patriot sons of the "True North, strong and free". The Canadians would send a powerful message to the Soviets: don't think that you can dominate the world any more than you can dominate Canada at its national passion. This was the height of the Cold War after all and Communism was a definite threat to freedom throughout the world.

The Canadians owned hockey. They invented hockey. They were practically born with a stick in their hands. Hockey was their birthright. Canadians worshiped the game. It was a symbol of Canada. It was ingrained in the Canadian heart. A tough, fast game played by real men. Men who would sacrifice all for the team with skills developed from boyhood. A legacy to be passed on through the generations. Masters of the ice.

The Soviets won the Montreal opener 7 - 3.

Shock! Anger! The world was coming apart! "If we don't know hockey, do we really know anything?" Are the Soviets going to conquer the world? Did they actually have a superior society? The Soviets simply made the NHL stars look bad. They did everything better than the vaunted Canadian heros. They skated better. They passed better. They were faster and more agile. They scored almost at will and kicked the Canadians' butt.

Canadians don't have their focus distracted by other sports. Football was what you did until hockey season started. Baseball was a pastime for summer days. The greatest athletes in the nation all played hockey. Hockey was IT. Multiply "Mudville" a million times and one might come to the same feeling that hit the Canuck psyche. Mighty Canada had struck out!

In game 2, Canada won 4 -1 in Toronto but the game was unsatisfying. The Russians still out played Team Canada.

Game 3 saw Canada surrender a healthy lead and the Game ended in a 4 all tie. The Soviets still looked better.

Vancouver hosted game 4. The Canadians never had the lead in a 5 - 3 loss. Boos rained down on Team Canada for almost the entire game. The Russians with a 2-1-1 record heading to their home ice humiliated Canada. The Canadian players were starting to loose heart. In a post game interview, Phil Esposito, a famous centerman said he couldn't believe the treatment his guys were getting from the fans. He said they were trying the best they could. Facts had to faced. The Russians were good. The Team Canada members were playing for their country as hard as they could and didn't deserve to be booed in their own building. He stuck up for his team against their own countrymen. A real team was forming.

The series was set to resume in Moscow 2 weeks later. Before the series resumed Canada played a couple of exhibition games against the Swedish National Team to get used to the larger European ice surface. They won one and tied one. These were rough dirty games marred by terrible officiating and dirty play. The Canadians felt all alone. Everything was against them. It was team Canada Vs everything. Reputations sullied, heart questioned and skills derided. But, they were becoming a team. They were becoming bothers. Old rivalries from the NHL were disappearing.

Game 5 in Moscow saw the Canadians play their best game yet. Awaiting Team Canada were thousands of telegrams pouring in from the faithful and 3000 Canadian fans making the trip from Canada to cheer on their team. The Canadian team was heartened and gained strength from the support. The outnumbered Canuck fans out cheered the staid Russian bureaucrats that had snapped up the majority of the tickets. Canada lost the game but they played great. They were figuring out how to deal with the Russian tactics. They were getting into good physical shape. They were gaining confidence in themselves. However, the team was now down 3 games to the Russians. They would have to win the 3 remaining games on Soviet ice to win the series. A Herculean task. Could they do it?

Game 6 Canada won despite officiating so horrendous that it bordered on bias. The Russians stole the food and the BEER that the team had brought from Canada. Phones rang in the middle of the night in their hotel rooms with no one on the other end.

Game 7 Canada won again. Maybe. Just maybe. Focus. Heart. Give everything for your team. The Canadian fans constantly chanting, "Da, da, Canada! Nyet, nyet, Soviet!"

Game 8. The nation of Canada was shut down for this game. Factories slowed and school lessons postponed. Combines sat idle with crops in the field. The Russians built a 5 - 3 advantage heading into the third and final period and there was to be no overtime in these "friendly" matches. All the marbles in this one game and the excellent Russian team had a good lead. The Russians told the Canadian management that in event of a tie the Soviets would claim victory because they had scored one more goal over the course of the series. This was a standard method of determining the winner of international tournaments in case of a standings deadlock. This news made Team Canada all the more determined but the cards were heavily stacked against them. They had to score against the Russians at least three times and shut down their potent offence if they were to regain their face, reputations and their country's national honour. The Russians had a great team. No one could ever dispute that and their young goalie, Tretiak, was almost unbeatable. The refereeing. The politics. The gamesmanship. But Canada had heart. It was as close to war as one could get without someone getting killed outright. One could, daresay, imagine that if an opportunity had arisen to end a player's career or life with a hard body check, that no mercy would have been spared. The stakes were too high. The Russians loved hockey. The Canadians loved hockey. Who loved it more? Whose passion was truer? Who would succeed? Who would prove to all who was the best?

One of the hardest things to do in hockey is trying to protect a lead. Where is the balance point between losing the initiative and good solid defence? The Canadians had failed at this several times during this series. Would the Russians be as susceptible? Canada needed a quick goal to get back into the game. In a two goal game, the next goal is very important. Either you're right back into the game or you're down three. Early in the final frame, Canada got their goal. Then, two almost incredible things happened. Yvon Cournoyer tied the game with a goal but the light the goal judge flashes to signify that the puck has officially crossed the goal line didn't come on even though the referee had signaled "goal". The Team Canada management leader and prime mover for the Summit Series was shocked and angered. Team Canada needed that goal. He bolted down to ice level, heading for the goal judge through a cadre of scores of Soviet Militia (read police) who were there to stop the crazed Canadian fans from getting out of hand. The militia grabbed Alan Eagleson and put him in an arm lock and head lock and were frog marching him to where? Siberia? A Canadian player jumped over the boards and slashed one of the militiamen holding Eagleson with his stick. The Canadian players crowded around the boards, grabbed Eagleson from the startled militiamen and hauled him onto the ice. Now the Canadians were fighting the Soviet Army! The goal stood. The game was tied but the Soviets would get the glory and their precious propaganda victory if the score stayed as it was.

But, time was running out. Canada had to win, just had to! What would happen if they were only second best at the game they thought they truly loved? Minutes turned into seconds. Precious time. Then the most famous words in Canadian sport were uttered, "He scored! Henderson has scored for Canada!" with 34 seconds remaining! Delirium! Ecstasy! The specialness of the world that is felt at the moment of utmost passion! The warm glow of the aftermath. Canada loved hockey the most! Canada beat the mighty Soviet nemesis! Democracy and freedom wins! The Red Machine beaten by the patriot sons of freedom! The glory! Redemption! Justice! Sweet, sweet victory!

The 1972 Summit Series changed hockey forever. The outcome was the biggest defeat the USSR ever suffered in the sporting arena and the greatest victory in Canadian sports. It showed that the communist system would not conquer all. It unified Canada in the wake of the Quebec separatist crisis only months before. It made the world a better place. Congratulations to both teams for providing the greatest sports spectacle the world has ever experienced. This was the true "World Series" or, better yet, an actual "War of the Worlds".

Michael Joyce lives in Chicago, IL. Originally from Winnipeg, Canada, he was an 11 year old Canadian hockey fan and player at the time of the milestone series.

Views expressed by our Guest Speakers are not necessarily those of the Summit in 1972 site.