No team sport other than hockey can exactly point to a series and say: “This changed the game forever.” Those who were old enough will never forget the 26 days in September 1972.
When the teams skated onto the Montreal Forum ice on this balmy Saturday evening on September 2, 1972, none of the 18,818 fans could envision that they were about to witness the start of an eight-game series that would change the game of hockey.
Just like in many historic events, the consequences where not to be realized until many years later. And why would the fans on this Labor Day weekend anticipate something extraordinary, more than an emphatic confirmation of the Canadian professionals’ superiority over the amateurs from the Soviet Union?
The 1972 Summit Series between the two traditional powers of the hockey world were not meant to be so much about hockey, despite that this was the first time in history that the best Canada could assemble would meet the team that had dominated the international scene for a decade. It was more “our society against theirs”, the free world against communism, because purely hockey-wise the team of the free world was superior, at least according to the pundits.
Basically every reporter and expert who covered the National Hockey League on a daily basis predicted that Team Canada would sweep the series, eight games to zero. There were some who thought that the Soviets would win one game. Those who wouldn’t agree with this view were considered eccentric, unpatriotic or soft on communism.
There was former NHLer Billy Harris, who a few months earlier had coached the Swedish national team in both the 1972 Olympics and in the IIHF World Championships in Prague. Harris knew how well conditioned they were.
There was legendary Canadian national team coach, Father David Bauer, who had taken his amateur Canadian national teams to the world tournaments or Olympics every year between 1964 and 1968. Also he knew that the Soviets could fly, how hard they practiced and what a team concept they had.
There were also a few others, but the warnings from them as well as the ones from Harris and Bauer drowned amidst ignorance and arrogance. The fans had no other sources of information than the local and national media and if they proclaimed that the NHLers were superior species, then that’s what they were.
As the Forum’s public announcer Claude Mouton introduced the Soviet players one-by-one, the names Tretiak, Kharlamov, Mikhailov and Petrov did not resonate. They were a group of unknowns that were about to be slaughtered. But the expected parade of superiors, turned into a national trauma some two hours later. Soviet Union 7, Canada 3. This was without any doubt the biggest shocker in the history of the game so far.
When the IIHF in its Centennial Year 2008 ranked the 100 Top Hockey Stories of the Century, Game 8 of the 1972 Summit Series was voted story no. 2, while Game 1 was story no. 3.
But the bombshell on September 2 was related to the expectations, not reality. If the term professional stands for the amount of time one devotes to the occupation, then the Soviets were more professionals than the NHL pros.
Even in those secretive days, everyone who had any kind of inside knowledge about the Soviet hockey system knew that practicing and playing was all they did. While the NHLers did virtually nothing between May and September, came in out of shape to their NHL training camps in autumn and worked them themselves into good condition, the Soviets basically stayed together for eleven months at their training ground, the so called “baza”.
Coach Anatoli Tarasov introduced a draining dry-land and off-season training program already in the late 50s. The term off-ice training for an NHLer meant golfing. As a bi-product, the Soviet system caused numerous victims and the Olympic and World Championship victories came at a very high price.
Already in the 60s, insiders in European hockey knew that the proud and politically correct labeling “amateurs” was as hypocritical as the players’ military grades were phony. But it definitely served the purpose in this “Series of the Century” as the Canadian officials who negotiated the terms of the 1972 hockey summit believed the Soviet assurances about their players’ part-timer status.
Considering the Soviets’ superior preparation and team concept it was no wonder that Team Canada ran out of gas despite an early 2-0-lead in this historic Game One in Montreal. The Summit Series ended seven games and 26 days later in Moscow in a way that will forever remain as the defining moment in not only Canadian hockey history but also Canadian sports history.
The score was 5-5 with time running out. That meant that the teams were tied at three wins each and one tie. When the terms of the series were negotiated several months earlier, nobody even cared about regulating the tie-breaking procedures. As nothing was written down, a Soviet official told the Canadian bench in the dying minutes that the Soviet Union would claim victory on goal difference if the last game ended with a tie as they had scored 32 goals to Canada’s 30.
With about forty seconds left the puck was in the Soviet end and both defenseman Valeri Vasiliev and Yuri Liapkin seemed to have full control of the situation and they could have easily cleared the puck. Astonishingly they mishandled it.
An exhausted but still fore-checking Phil Esposito – he refused to leave the ice for the last 3-4 minutes of the game – took a swing at the loose puck, goaltender Vladislav Tretiak made an easy save but allowed a rebound. Paul Henderson, who just seconds earlier fell behind the Soviet goal, scrambled back and suddenly found himself all alone in front of Tretiak.
Henderson jumped on the rebound, Tretiak made another save, but he fell on his back as the puck again came out to Henderson. The Canadian forward shot again and this time the low slider went through the narrow space between Tretiak’s body and the right post.
The most intriguing match-up in the history of the game, that took almost a month and 480 playing minutes to complete, was decided with 34 seconds left on the Luzhniki Arena’s clock.
If you google “Henderson’s goal” it will generate more than 1.2 million hits. More than ten commemorative books were produced about the series, with many of the publications coming several years after the series. On top of this came TV-documentaries, video and DVD-series and as late as 2006 the CBC produced a staged documentary, a two-part mini-series, re-setting the 1972 drama with actors.
The players have gone through several anniversaries and reunions. Paul Henderson has often said that there has not been a day since September 28, 1972 that he has not been reminded about the goal. His goal was not only a defining sports moment for an entire nation, it was a defining moment of a generation. Ask any Canadian who is old enough to remember and he will give you a detailed description where he or she was when Henderson scored.
From the New York Times: The 1972 Series is in Canada widely considered a profound unifying experience, with repercussions beyond sports. A survey by the Dominion Institute, a respected history preservation group, ranks the winning goal in the final game as the fifth-greatest event in Canadian history, just below the World War I assault on Vimy Ridge and ahead of the country’s contributions to the Allied victory in World War II.
Hockey un-related things aside, it is very interesting to analyze why this series, this outcome and this goal was, and still is, so important for Canadians. It must be remembered that this series held no official title, there was no trophy and the players were awarded no medals, not even the smallest commemorative token.
But what it boiled down to was the most essential incentive and basic instinct – national pride and the desire to be the best. Today, Canadians realize that hockey is a global game and that many teams can win any title on any given day. It was not the case in 1972. Reporters, who didn’t bother to cover the Olympics and the IIHF World Championships assumed, regardless of how much players from other countries practiced and how the international game evolved, that as soon a player was labeled an NHLer, he was the best.
As the series didn’t go the way it was expected, Canadians felt that the game – “our game” – was being taken away from them. Hockey, the one point of identification that the entire nation from Newfoundland to British Columbia could gather around, was played more efficiently and way more esthetically by a team from a communist power that only started to compete internationally 18 years earlier. When Henderson scored, the world order according to Canadians was re-established, if only for a moment.
Fact is, that the Summit Series of 1972 changed international hockey profoundly. Officials who ran the Canadian hockey program realized that the game in the motherland of hockey had stagnated and the finer aspects of the sport were lost during the many years of international isolation. Team Canada and the entire NHL establishment found out the hard way there was another way playing the game than “dump-it-in-chase-the-damn-thing-and-shoot.”
The Soviets introduced a style with criss-crosses, positional changes and sublime puck control. Well over the offensive blue line they didn’t look for the quick release, but rather for another pass to set up the perfect scoring chance. Storming down one side and shooting from the wings – a trade mark of many NHL-forwards – was by the Soviets seen as a waste of possession. Team Canada were also frustrated at the Soviet tactic of skating back, regrouping and staging a new attack when the lane for an adequate outlet pass wasn’t found on the first attempt.
This style was in direct contradiction to the traditional NHL-approach were the game was strictly a south-north affair with players more or less skating up and down in straight lines and where shooting at the net from all angles was essential.
One of the historic inaccuracies following the series is that only Canadians learned from the Soviets. Although not eager to admit it, also the Soviets adjusted parts of their game. Before the summit, the Soviets treated the boards almost exclusively as a confinement of the rink. They learned from Team Canada to use the boards as an “extra player”. Things like defensive positioning, organization in short-handed situations, protecting the goalie, face-offs and storming the net for rebounds were elements added to Soviet hockey following September 1972.
Just like sports observers consider the 1958 FIFA World Cup as the start of modern soccer, the Summit Series-72 was the beginning of modern, international hockey. Consequences like that can only derive from a head-on collision between two totally different hockey cultures, sport traditions and styles. As far as being an eye-opener that incited the development of the game, this was the most important series of hockey games ever played.
The series was also unparalleled in terms of generating an atmosphere and flow of emotions never before experienced in the game. When listening to interviews on the videos and DVDs every Canadian player describes this as the biggest event he ever participated in, bigger than all the Stanley Cups. Nothing describes the sentiments better than the comment made several years later by Phil Esposito, Canada’s best player and spiritual leader in the series: “It scares the hell out of me when I think about it now, but I was prepared to kill to win that series.”
There were no killings of course, but at least one premeditated attack with clear intent to injure. In game six, the second in Moscow, Team Canada’s assistant coach John Ferguson gave instructions to Bobby Clarke to take care of Valeri Kharlamov, the Soviet star who the Canadians simply couldn’t contain. Clarke, whacked the brilliant winger with a vicious slash, breaking his ankle. The Soviets were quick to learn and respond. Boris Mikhailov kicked Canadian defenseman Gary Bergman so hard he bloodied his leg – through the shin pads.
Many Team Canada players – Ken Dryden, Ron Ellis, Peter Mahovlich, Yvan Cournoyer – said in one way or another that despite all the Stanley Cups they had won, nothing was more important than winning the 1972 series.
How Team Canada turned this series around and finally won it remains one of the physiological mysteries in sports history. Despite being painfully ill-prepared, overconfident and playing against an opponent with outstanding skills and stamina, Team Canada somehow hung in there, but still found themselves in a position where they had to win the last three games in Moscow – and they did; 4-3, 3-2 and 6-5.
This was the only time in the history of Soviet hockey, that the CCCP team lost three consecutive games at home. Canada – and only Canada – could have pulled that trick. Phil Esposito told this writer: “We played against a team which was better conditioned and had more skill. We won because we refused to lose.”
All three game-winners were scored by Paul Henderson, a just above average NHLer but whose speed was a perfect fit for the international game. It’s been 40 years now since the series, but those who lived through the 26 days in September 1972, will never forget. And they’d better not, because there will never be anything like it again.
The games had also an immediate impact on how the NHL started to view European players. As the Soviet authorities would not release any of their stars to the capitalist west, NHL teams started to look for Swedes and Finns, the best of the free world.
Swedish defenseman Thommie Bergman became the first European to play a full season as a regular for the Detroit Red Wings for the 1972-1973-season. Already for the next season, the Toronto Maple Leafs signed defenseman Borje Salming and forward Inge Hammarstrom. Salming became the first European to become an NHL-star, putting a definite stop to the old-standing prejudice that Europeans weren’t able to deal with the physical strain of the professional game.
The 1972 Summit Series came at a time when Canada had been out of the IIHF World Championship for two years due to the disagreement with the IIHF over the amateur rule. It was a disastrous situation that didn’t have any comparable in any other Olympic team sport and Canada would not return to the IIHF World Championship until 1977.
The absence of Canada in the IIHF program triggered other solutions. Top Soviet club teams began to tour NHL-clubs in 1975 and the so called Super Series, which continued well into the 90s, produced some unforgettable hockey. The 1975 New Year’s Eve game between the Montreal Canadiens and CSKA Moscow (labeled as “Red Army” to further incite cold war tensions) is probably the best hockey game on a club level ever played and sometimes referred to as “the perfect hockey game.” This time, three years after the Summit Series opener in the same arena, the Montreal Forum crowd knew all the players, as CSKA was more or less equivalent to the Soviet national team. The 3-3-tie is still frequently replayed by popular request on various “classic” channels on both sides of the Atlantic.
The 70s was the decade of historic events. In 1976 the inaugural Canada Cup was staged, an “open” tournament where the top six countries in the world where invited. The hosting nation defeated Czechoslovakia 6-0 and 5-4 in the best-of-three final and positioned the Canada Cup in the international calendar as the most important tournament along with the Olympics and the World Championships. The Soviets, not wanting to risk too much of their prestige as an “amateur” world power, sent what they called an “experimental team” who managed to defeat only USA and Finland.
As the IIHF finally abandoned the archaic amateur rules, Canada returned to the IIHF World Championship in the spring of 1977, after a seven-year hiatus. It was not a glorious comeback. Father David Bauer’s amateur program was replaced by the best available NHLers who did not participate in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but the tournament showed that the years with very limited international competition affected Canada negatively.
The Soviets dominated Canada 11-1 and 8-1 over two games and Canada’s showing was a sportive and public relations disaster. Led by the hopelessly undisciplined Wilf Paiement, Canada, who failed to even get a medal, regressed to violence and came home shamed and scorned and it even became an issue in the Canadian parliament.
The 70s was maybe the most important decade in terms of re-establishing the relations between the old continent and Europe. It showed that exchange of ideas and competing is fundamental in sports, while isolation is destructive.
From World of Hockey, Celebrating a Century of the IIHF