While the Soviets claimed their players were amateurs who don’t earn money, hockey people in the West rather believed that these sport soldiers were professional in any way. But at the time, they were allowed to play as amateurs, and win every year, while Canada sent teams made of, mostly, university students. In other words, there was no competitive balance from the Canadian perspective.
By 1970, Canada had had enough. The country didn’t play in any IIHF competition between that year through 1976, but the withdrawal started dialogue about what would happen if there were a series of games whereby Canada could use whatever players it wanted, including NHLers, and the Soviets could do the same.
In the early months of 1972, a plan was developed to play four games across Canada and four in Moscow, best on best, no restrictions. But in the summer, as the details were being finalized, that plan took on political complications in Canada when Bobby Hull left the Chicago Black Hawks to sign with the Winnipeg Jets of the new WHA. Backed by NHL president Clarence Campbell, the executives for Team Canada barred Hull form playing against the Soviets, a controversy that went all the way to the House of Commons in Ottawa.
To make matters worse, by the time the Canadians met at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto in August to begin training for the series, the great Bobby Orr was still not able to skate after knee surgery. He would stay with the team for the entire event, but never played a minute.
The mood across Canada was light as Game One approached. Everyone expected Canada to win all eight games, maybe seven if they had an off night. The Soviet players were virtually unknown to fans and pundits, and rumours swirled that the goalie, a 20-year-old named Tretiak, was not particularly strong.
And so when 18,818 fans crammed into the Forum in Montreal on the night of 2 September 1972, exactly 50 years ago today, the excitement was about the political significance of a Soviet team coming out from behind the Iron Curtain to play in the democratic and cosmopolitan Canada.
Canada’s Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau took part in a light-hearted pre-game ceremony, and the mood jovial continued after Phil Esposito scored the first goal just half a minute after the opening faceoff when he batted a Frank Mahovlich rebound out of the air. Paul Henderson made it 2-0 just a few minutes later on a great play with his linemates. Bobby Clarke won the draw cleanly to Ron Ellis to the right of Tretiak, and Ellis moved the puck to Henderson at the top of the circle in one quick motion. His shot beat the Soviet goalie under his glove, and Canada held a seemingly effortless 2-0 lead.
Esposito had a glorious chance to make it 3-0 from in close, but Tretiak was in perfect position to make the save. Soon after, both Jean Ratelle and Frank Mahovlich also had great scoring chances, but it was Alexander Zimin, who made it a 2-1 game.
Vladimir Petrov tied the game when he backhanded the puck in on a two-on-one rush while the Soviets were short-handed. Ironically, Petrov was one of only two right-handed shooters on the team (the other being Yuri Lyapkin).
Esposito, the dominant player of the opening period, had another great chance to put Canada ahead late in the period, but again he was foiled by Tretiak. By the end of the first, that easy 2-0 lead was now a tight 2-2 tie, and the laughs had turned to huffing and puffing on the bench as the Canadians tried to keep pace with a clearly more fit Soviet team.
The ice became foggy in the second period, one dominated by the Soviets’ best player, Valeri Kharlamov. He put his team ahead on a sensational rush, beating defenceman Dow Awrey to the outside and then having his shot deflected by Awrey through Ken Dryden’s pads. Kharlamov made it 4-2 later in the period with a bullet shot low under the glove of the Canadiens’ goalie, sending the Forum fans into a state of shock.
Frank Mahovlich led a three-on-one but decided to shoot, and again Tretiak was there to make a critical save. Esposito had two more chances to bring the score closer early in the third period but was unable to beat the Soviet goalie, who was looking more and more like a superstar with the passing of every minute on the clock. Canada got a goal all the same thanks to the Clarke-Henderson-Ellis line again when Henderson made a great pass off the boards to Ellis in the high slot. He spotted Clarke to the side of the goal and made a sensational shot-pass to Clarke, who redirected the puck in.
This brought about several minutes of Canadian domination, and it seemed only a matter of time before they would tie the game. Boris Mikhailov snuffed out the rally when he beat Dryden with a backhander between the pads as the goalie came well out of his net to challenge the shooter.
Less than a minute later, Yevgeni Zimin put the game out of reach when he fanned on a shot, bringing Dryden out of his net, and got the rebound with an open cage. Alexander Yakushev closed out the scoring with another backhand, again drawing Dryden down and out of his crease before scoring with a high shot.
“We were outplayed in every department by an excellent hockey team,” coach Harry Sinden said after the game. “We knew the Russians were good, but we had no idea they were that good.”
Defender Rod Seiling said this about one of the most shocking results in hockey history: “It was like playing the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals in our first pre-season game.” Indeed, Team Canada was rocked by the superior conditioning and training of the Soviets, who started slowly but cruised to a stunning 7-3 win to start the Summit Series.