Reaching the Summit: Recapping the Greatest Hockey Series Pt. 2
Source: Denis Brodeur
“……Number 7, Phil Esposito!” A polite round of applause was instantly followed by a reaction of both amusement and astonishment. As the public address announcer introduced the lineups for both the Canadians and the Soviets, Phil Esposito skated out to take his brief five seconds in the limelight, only to trip on a flower petal.
The pre-game ceremony featured a portion where Russian figure skaters from ages six to fifteen did a lap of the Luzhniki Ice Palace and then presented each player with their own bouquet. A portion of a bouquet must have fallen a few feet in front of Esposito, to which he didn’t see when he was introduced to the crowd. Despite the initial concern of everyone, Esposito was unhurt, and took a graceful bow with a wry grin upon his face. The enormous tension was broken, and it was time for the second half of the series to begin.
Game 5 was of monumental importance to both teams. Two weeks to the day of the final game in Canada, the series stood at 2 games to 1 for the Soviets, with each team also tying the third game in Winnipeg.
All four games in the Soviet Union were to be held in the Luzhniki arena in Moscow. Slightly larger than the average NHL rink, it would be a true test for Team Canada to see if they were in better shape than when the series started in Montreal three weeks prior. 3000 Canadian fans were permitted to attend the game amongst the abundance of KGB officers and solemn Soviet supporters. Despite Team Canada feeling rather isolated from their own country in regards to the boos they had received during the loss in Vancouver, the raucous and rowdy cheers the 3000 enthusiasts bellowed around the Ice Palace made them feel the nation’s energy.
Watching the footage is something else: The satellite transmission was quite shoddy, and every once in a while, the visual feed and/or colour saturation of the feed would cut out, though Foster Hewitt’s legendary broadcast remained intact.
With Leonid Brezhnev, the Communist Party General Secretary in attendance, Canada took a 3-0 lead going into the third period. After a Yuri Blinov goal ended Tony Esposito’s attempted shutout, Paul Henderson went flying head first into the boards early during the third period (he, thankfully, was one of only a couple Canadians who sported a helmet), but returned within minutes to score the goal to put Canada ahead 4-1. His insistence to remain in the game not only demonstrates the rugged determination of the Canadians to play as passionately as they could, but also the woeful neglect of the doctors when observing 1970s concussion protocols. Protect that noggin of yours, Paul!
Then, the Soviets rose from their proverbial slumber. In a mere five minutes, they scored four unanswered goals to go ahead 5-4 and win the match. The most devastating of defeats in Canadian international ice hockey. Just absolutely gutting. In a wonderful showing of national pride, the 3000 Canadian fans sang O Canada as the players skated off. It paid dividends down the road.
Down 3-1 (with that additional tie) in the series, the final three matches were all must-wins for Team Canada. What better way to fuel the fire than to have their steaks and beer stolen or misplaced at the airport. The old wives tale that claimed (proper) food was scarce in communist Russia was taken a little too seriously by the Canadians, and their imports were eventually sold to other guests at their very own hotel.
Players were also under the impression that they were being spied upon and their hotel rooms were bugged by the KGB. Legend has it that Gary Bergman unscrewed a strange outlet underneath his bed assuming it was a wire, only to hear an enormous crash beneath him. It was the chandelier that hung above the hotel lobby.
Game 6 on September 24th is primarily known for ‘The Slash’. Valeri Kharlamov was arguably the most skilled player in the series, and his attractive playmaking had the Canadians doing everything in their power to slow him down, be it with hooks, elbows, or slashes. Though the true nature of the story is disputed, rumour has it that assistant coach John Ferguson (one of the NHL’s finest enforcers with Montreal during the 1960s) ordered Bobby Clarke to do something to stop Kharlamov, as he was “killing us”.
Mired as one of the uglier moments of the series, Clarke delivered a good, hard two-hander on Kharlamov’s ankle as he attempted to centre the puck to the slot during the second period. The slash broke Kharlamov’s ankle, Clarke got a minor and a ten-minute misconduct, and the former was sidelined for game 7, and used sparingly in game 8.
Aside from those antics, the concussed Henderson ended up scoring the winning goal as Canada was victorious for the first time since game 2 with a narrow 3-2 decision. Franz Baader and Josef Kompalla, who had refereed one of the Canadian exhibition games against Sweden, were in charge of the game and were as horrendous as Bill White’s hairline. Canada was penalized 31 minutes to the Soviets’ 4.
The two Germans were also scheduled to ref the eighth and final game of the series four days later, though the Canadians would put in a protest and reach a compromise with the USSR delegates. The Canadians played more of a possession game rather than their bread and butter dump-and-chase, and reaped the benefits of Soviet turnovers.
In addition to the ugliness on the ice, life for some of the Canadian players in Russia was also rather hostile. Phil Esposito became ill one night, simply not accustomed to the unfamiliar delicacies of the Soviet Union. Bergman had his run-in with security suspicions. Frank Mahovlich almost couldn’t even make it overseas in regards to some of the paranoia he was experiencing throughout the series.
Some of the players took interest in organized tours of the city, most notably Ken Dryden, who carried a tape recorder with him around town to document his discoveries in a vastly different society. Other players, such as Vic Hadfield, Jocelyn Guevremont, and Rick Martin, were irritated with the limited ice time they had received thus far and didn’t last long into their time in Moscow. They would return home to begin training camp with their respective NHL teams. The players that weren’t showing infinite heart weren’t utilized, and it made the determination of those who were consistently in the lineups that much stronger.
Game Seven was all out warfare. In a thrilling fixture, Team Canada managed to win 4-3 and even the series at 3-3-1. Phil Esposito scored two goals, only for Aleksander Yakushev to show his brilliance with two goals of his own. Under IIHF rules, if a fight were to break out, any player involved would receive an immediate game misconduct. Henceforth, the tension and inability to let loose with a fight was comparable to a powder keg that could go off at any minute.
With three and a half minutes to go, a little donnybrook between Bergman and Boris Mikhailov saw the respected Soviet captain kick Bergman twice, drawing blood through his shin guards. Henderson once again netted the winning goal, and a near issue with the goal light failing to trigger (foreshadowing future ominous events) saw Canada in a position to complete an amazing comeback.
Several negotiations over refereeing disputes rendered executives on both sides to tear their hair out. Baader and Kompalla, who were not supposed to referee the final match, were told by the Soviets that the job was theirs. When Alan Eagleson (at that time the director of Hockey Canada, as well as the players’ union president) heard this news, he promised that Canada wouldn’t play if the decision went ahead. Once again, a new compromise was reached, as Kompalla would keep his place alongside the Czech official of Game Seven, Rudolf Bata.
That aforementioned powder keg was at the brink of detonation during the pre-game ceremony, as the enormous totem pole the Canadians brought as a gift was at first refused by the Soviets. Policies on etiquette in regards to International Hockey were constantly in limbo throughout the series.
In Game 1, the Canadians weren’t aware that they were encouraged to shake hands after each match, and their prompt return to their dressing room after that 7-3 spectacle rendered the Soviets to think they were simply poor losers. Meanwhile, the Canadians had been getting acclimatized to the opening game presentations, especially after the cultural differences intrigued them when they were presented with such items as flower bouquets and bread.
According to Harry Sinden, if the Soviets refused to accept the giant totem pole, it would have just been left out at centre ice and the players would have to “skate around it the whole game”.
Source: Frank Lennon/Library and Archives Canada
And so, on September the 28th, 1972, an estimated sixteen million Canadians watched Game 8, slightly less than three-quarters of the entire country’s population at the time. It was the most watched sporting event on Canadian television up until the Gold Medal game at the 2010 Winter Olympics that saw Canada knock off the United States in overtime.
Given the time change, the game would have begun at 1pm Eastern time, 10am Pacific. Many schools had the ‘half-day’ off, or at least hosted a showing of the game in the gymnasium on one of those small television screens with larger-than-life antennas if they could afford them. Various businesses were closed in downtown areas across the country, and hundreds clamoured to store windows, pubs, and train stations. It was the most important game in ice hockey history. Two different systems, two different states, two vastly different lifestyles, through one common sporting passion. As Yakushev said in his Hockey Hall of Fame induction speech in 2018, “There couldn’t be a loser. The real winner was hockey, in all of its majesty.”
To say the game was a wondrous thriller would be the most gargantuan of understatements. Saying that the refereeing was poor would be another understatement. Just three minutes into the game, Canada faced a five on three disadvantage, both at the result of questionable calls from Kompalla.
After Yakushev capitalized and scored his sixth goal of the series, J.P. Parise was given yet another penalty and a misconduct. He menacingly bolted in Kompalla’s direction and brought his stick up as if to swing it and strike the German referee, but restrained himself at the last minute. Thank goodness. Kompalla rightfully wasn’t amused, and Parise was given a game misconduct and a chance to cool down in the dressing room.
Kompalla and Team Canada both seemed to smarten up after this outburst, and the first period ended with two goals apiece. The Soviets regained the lead just over twenty seconds into the second frame after Ken Dryden was (once again) bamboozled by foreign customs. Soviet rinks used a brand of chicken wiring as opposed to Plexiglas behind the net, which could cause shots to fire back at unpredictable speeds and angles.
Knowing their own rinks benefitted Vladimir Shadrin, who was parked right in the slot to direct a rebound that had bounced off the chicken wire. The Soviets had the Canadians on their heels yet again as they had for the bulk of the series, and were able to take a 5-3 lead into the second intermission.
Still, the Canadians pushed back. Phil Esposito, in what might have been a career defining game, buried his second goal a few minutes into the third to cut the deficit to only one. He would then assist on a memorable goal by Yvan Cournoyer to even the game with seven minutes in regulation.
The goal light (a pretty funny looking structure that robustly sticks out like an eye sore) failed to signify the goal, and Canada felt as if they were being cheated. Eagleson was outraged and jumped onto the ice to beeline it towards the public announcer to ensure that the goal counted. He was then accosted by Soviet military figures. The Canadian players skated across the ice to confront the police and soldiers, with Peter Mahovlich almost having to swing his stick to get Eagleson free.
The goal counted, the game and series were both tied, and only a few minutes remained. Could you imagine how few Canadian players would care about saving Eagleson now, given his crooked ways?
The Soviets were well aware that if the game ended in a tie, they would be able to claim overall victory in the series based off of the goal differential. They had scored two more goals than the Canadians, and for the series to end 3-3-2 on goal differential would be terribly disappointing. With under a minute to go, Henderson shouted for Peter Mahovlich to get off the ice, for he had the strongest inkling he’d be able to score the series winning goal. Mahovlich questioned Sinden why he ordered him off the ice, to which Sinden was furious that Henderson made such a selfish command.
However, in ten seconds, his fury needn’t matter. I’ll let Foster Hewitt take this one:
“Cournoyer has it on that wing, HERE’S A SHOT! Henderson made a wild stab for it and fell. Here’s another shot, right in front, THEY SCORE! HENDERSON HAS SCORED FOR CANADA!”
Thirty-four seconds later, and there it was. Team Canada came back to win the final three games to emerge victorious in the series, 4-3-1. The 3000 fans who had travelled with the team to Moscow were rewarded with some of the most memorable moments in ice hockey history.
Aside from rabble-rouser Pierre Plouffe, who spent a few nights in jail for ‘disorderly’ behaviour during game 6 (he was passionately blowing his bugle against the orders of the KGB), most reports were that the Canadian fans enjoyed themselves in Moscow, though they were relieved to finally return home.
The players reaped the rewards of their triumph. Of course they had their beliefs that the support from back home was much better than how it had been after Game 4 in Vancouver, but the numerous telegrams received paled in comparison to the exponential number of citizens who tuned in for the final game.
They would play one final exhibition game versus Czechoslovakia in Prague, ending in a (once again dramatic) 3-3 tie, with a Canadian equalizer coming in the final seconds.
The following day, the team flew back to Montreal and were met by over ten thousand supporters at the airport. A parade wielded eighty thousand passionate fans at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square, approximately 4% of the total reported attendance at the Toronto Raptors’ championship parade in 2019. Nonetheless, those who showed up screamed themselves hoarse for the players that ensured that Canada be regarded as the best ice hockey country on the planet.
Alas, what are the effects of the Summit Series? Such a broad question deserves a historical deep-dive so grand that several hundred pages of jargon could never come close to all of its impact.
Though Canada slimly prevailed, the Soviets showed that they were just as competitive, better disciplined, and much grittier than anyone in North America gave them credit for. There were certainly some amazing players in Europe, as demonstrated in Canada’s games against Sweden and Czechoslovakia as well, and players from those two countries would slowly begin to immerse themselves into the NHL throughout the 1970s and 80s.
With the collapse of the Soviet Empire in the early 1990s, players were defecting and coming over to further blend the demographics of the league. As of last year, approximately 43% of the NHL was composed of Canadian skaters, compared to the over 93% back in the early 1970s. European players account for nearly 30% of the league’s enlistment, with the other quarter coming from the rapidly developing United States.
Had it not been for the Summit Series, it can be argued that we would have never seen players such as Alexander Ovechkin, Mats Sundin, Peter Stastny, or Dominik Hasek in the NHL.
Two years later, the WHA had their own eight game series with the Soviet National Team. Most Canadians choose to either forget those thrashings, or simply are not aware that this series existed. The Soviets emerged victorious from the bloody conquest, winning four games, tying three, and losing only one to a roster made up of Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe, Gerry Cheevers, and the returning Paul Henderson.
Other exhibition contests were organized throughout the 1970s as various Soviet league teams would come to play NHL teams during the middle of the season. Legendary matches include the 1975 New Years Eve tilt between CSKA Moscow Red Army and the Montreal Canadiens which played to a 3-3 tie (several pundits regard this as one of the greatest hockey games ever played), and the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Philadelphia Flyers bullying the Red Army into leaving the ice midway through the first period in an eventual 4-1 humbling.
Other minor exhibition games as such occurred, in addition to the five hosting of the Canada Cup in 1976, 1981, 1984, 1987, and 1991, before the true influx of Europeans amalgamated themselves into the NHL.
Ultimately, the Summit Series deserves the title as the most crucial sporting event in Canadian history. Caught up in the Cold War, it was a fight to showcase not only who reigned superior on the ice, but which system should run the world. With Canada narrowly prevailing, the series was not only a thrilling clash, but the opening of the gates to make our beautiful game even more invigorating for many years to come.