MOSCOW – Four decades after one of the greatest highlights of hockey history, generations of players and fans gathered this weekend to pay tribute to the heroes of the Canada-USSR Summit Series.
From a brunch with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, via celebrity master-classes on Red Square, to an exhibition game between teams of Russian and World Stars’ veterans, it was a festival of hockey to kick off a series of events planned to mark the 40th anniversary of those ground-breaking Cold War battles on the ice.
And, as befits an occasion celebrating the past, Saturday’s game, which saw Russia win 7-5 over the World Stars, prompted both memories and thoughts of the future of the game. Surviving players from both sides were presented to the crowd before the game, and the big screens at the Megasport Arena showed the unlikely sight of once-fierce rivals Boris Mikhailov and Phil Esposito trading friendly banter with Russian commentator Viktor Gusev before taking their place among the coaching staff for their respective teams.
Three Russian veterans – Vladislav Tretyak, Vladimir Lutchenko and Alexander Yakushev – went one better and took to the ice themselves, although Tretyak ditched the goalies’ pads in favour of a short stint as a defenceman.
The 1972 series did not only make a big impact on those who played – their legacy inspired a future generations to continue the two countries’ great hockey traditions. For men like Vyacheslav Fetisov, who watched the games as a teenager dreaming of pulling on that famous red jersey himself, the memories are still bright 40 years on.
“It was a long time ago, but it’s still a positive memory,” he said after Saturday’s exhibition match. “It was a real sporting event. There were big stars from both sides and they showed hockey that nobody had ever seen before. As time goes by I understand just how historic the series was in terms of continuing the development of hockey. Back in 1972, of course, the political side was very important. During the Cold War it was the first time professionals had played against the so-called ‘amateurs’. “
Fetisov also recalled a difference culture, far removed from the contemporary 24-hour news cycle, which helped bring the whole country to a virtual standstill to watch the games – especially the first match-ups played in Canada at the start of the Soviet working day.
“Because of the time difference, even though a few people knew the scores, they didn’t announce them,” he recalled. “People in the USSR could keep secrets, and at 7pm they showed each game ‘as live’ and nobody watching at home knew the result!”
In Canada, however, things were very different, according to Glenn Anderson, who took to the ice against Fetisov and his childhood hero Alexander Yakushev – and marked the occasion with a goal. “In Canada in 1972, they were even putting TV screens into school classrooms so that everyone could follow the matches. And even now, when Canada plays Russia, the whole country grinds to a halt to watch the game.”
But 1972’s legacy went further than inspiring those who remembered it first hand. Many of the 10,000 or so fans who came to Saturday’s tribute game were too young to remember the original games but turned out to catch a glimpse of some of the greats whose deeds on the ice had been passed on by their parents.
From 20- and 30-somethings resplendent in the modern-day colours of their KHL heroes, to primary school children who knew of the battles of Mikhailov and Esposito purely through the memories of parents and grandparents, the occasion brought all ages to the Megasport Arena.
And it wasn’t just fans who turned up to pay tribute to the legends. Pavel Bure, who was just one year old when the Summit Series was played, took to the ice and scored a hat trick in Russia’s 7-5 win. Bure, a famed figure on both sides of the Atlantic, has reportedly only taken to the ice twice in a decade of retirement, and explained that he couldn’t miss this one.
“Of course I didn’t see the games in ’72 with my own eyes, but I wanted to come here and support the players from the Summit Series – they are real heroes,” Bure said. “It is their day, and I think everyone enjoyed the game. [The Summit Series] is remembered as a landmark in world hockey so it means a lot.”
The ’72 series seems destined to be a one-off: the likes of Fetisov and Bure believe that it could never be repeated, and Vladimir Lutchenko, one of the players from 40 years ago, agrees with them. A different era makes it almost impossible to recreate that shock of the unknown which characterized the Summit Series. “It’s very unlikely now. Back then, everyone played in their own teams, in their own countries,” he said. “Now we have so many [Europeans] playing in the NHL. And it would be physically difficult. The clubs have busy schedules of their own.”
However, if the days of entire nations gathering around their TV screens to watch their heroes take on opponents known only through hearsay and legend are long past, the events of ’72 and the planned anniversary celebrations can still point the way to an even bigger and brighter future for international hockey, according to Vladimir Yurzinov, one of the coaches of the Russian veterans.
“Getting together again, all this nostalgia, it’s all good,” Yurzinov said at the post-game press conference. “But we can’t waste this opportunity. It will be a real victory if these gatherings attract new, young lads to the game, if we start building new arenas for kids to learn the game. I was recently in Penza and saw how happy people are with their new arena, but in Novokuznetsk we still have the same place where I played as a child. We can’t just have a nice afternoon then go our separate ways.
“[Fellow coaching legend] Anatoli Tarasov rightly said: ‘We have to fight for our hockey.’ Memories are fine, but we need to remember that our hockey centres are living in a new and evolved world. In this respect, Canada is an example to us – how to work with young people, how to organize hockey centres. Memories are fine, but we need to implement all that is best in world hockey.”