Reaching the Summit: Recapping the Greatest Hockey Series Pt.1

Source: HHOF Images via

We know how it goes; the despair, to the boos, to the speech, to the flower petals, to the refs, to the goal judges, to the slash, to the heralded heroes, to the shot, to the rebound, to the other shot, to the goal, to the elation. A 47th anniversary may not seem like a standout number worth celebrating, but why not? Just three years shy from the half-centennial, the Summit Series still arguably remains the most crucial event in Canadian sports history.

The eight-game contest was the first time that Canada was able to put up their best players against the undisputed world champions from the Soviet Union. The International Ice Hockey Federation had been legislated for over sixty years, though professional players were banned from competing in international competitions. Of course, the Olympics would eventually allow NHL players and players from other professional domestic leagues to compete from Nagano in 1998 to Sochi in 2014, but this would not have been possible if it weren’t for the Summit Series.

By the time the Second World War ended, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Sweden began implementing Canadian styles of play that they were taught from Canadian soldiers stationed abroad into their own brand of hockey. This really took shape in the USSR. The players that shone the brightest in the 1950s were by no means simply ‘amateurs’. These Soviet players were ‘soldiers’, but were full-time hockey players, paid by the government. They first appeared at the IIHF World Championships in 1954, and asserted their dominance by winning eleven titles in the next seventeen years. Canada would typically send their top senior amateur team (the winner of the Allan Cup), and were last victorious in 1961, represented by the Trail Smoke Eaters. They became fed up with the inability to send their best players, and withdrew from international competition in 1970. Therefore, the Summit Series was not only the first international series to feature the best players from the NHL, but a return to international hockey in general for the Canadians.

Of course, it wasn’t necessarily just about the hockey, but also a way of life. 1972 was right in the midst of the Cold War; capitalism vs. communism. Whatever brand of hockey emerged victorious, it could also be said that the economy, society, and politics reigned superior in the victor’s state as well.

By 1971, the Soviets themselves grew tired of consistently dominating the international hockey scene, and desired some stronger competition. Canadian diplomats at the embassy in Moscow heard these proclamations, and ambassador Robert Ford passed the matter on to Ottawa to begin talks of a series for world hockey domination. Negotiations were finalized right at the time of the 1972 IIHF World Championships, an event that would see the Soviets actually lose for the first time in nine years as Czechoslovakia emerged victorious instead. Feeling rather confident that the Canadian way of life would prevail, not only on the ice but in the long-term future, negotiations bowed to the Soviet requests to hold the series in September. NHL training camps usually wouldn’t begin until midway through the month during this era, so in order for Canada to gather a team, they would need to begin weeks ahead of when they typically were accustomed.

Harry Sinden was named coach, returning to hockey for the first time since walking away from the game as a Stanley Cup champion in 1970, and selected a team of thirty-five stars who were more than happy to play for their country and report to the mid-August training camp regiment. They also agreed to the IIHF’s two referee system, in lieu of the one referee/two linesmen style that the NHL had at the time. Boy, did that ever come back to bite them.

Then, there was also the issue with players from the World Hockey Association. The WHA was the first true league that sought to rival the NHL in terms of professionalism. The first season was set to begin that autumn, and the NHL wanted to ensure that only their best players would be able to compete in the series, and not those who jumped leagues for higher contracts. Bobby Hull, who had finished seventh in league scoring with ninety-three points in 1971-72, was ineligible for having signed a blockbuster deal with the Winnipeg Jets. Derek Sanderson, Gerry Cheevers, and J.C. Tremblay were also sure-fire players who would have made Team Canada, but were overlooked for their departure from the NHL. Bobby Orr, only twenty-four years old at the time, was injured throughout the entire summer, and would not feature in any of the games, despite practicing and travelling with the team.

After three weeks of training in Toronto, the team travelled to Montreal for the first game of the series on September 2nd. Little did they know that the Soviets had been training under Montreal time for two weeks leading up to their trip overseas. Coach Vsevolod Bobrov also had his team take boxing lessons in preparation for what was projected to be a physical series. Both teams were allowed to briefly scout one another in order to have some form of a game plan.

However, what the Canadian scouts didn’t know that many of the Soviet players were hung-over during the game in which they were observed. Twenty-year-old Vladislav Tretiak must have had one hell of a bachelor party, as he was totally inept in the net, surrendering eight goals the day before his wedding.

The rigorous note-taking done by the Soviet scouts during Team Canada’s practice brought ridicule and demeaning comments from the players on the ice. Nonetheless, a vast majority of predictions were that Canada would have their way with the series, perhaps only losing one out of the eight games. The Soviets themselves stayed modest when asked about how they thought they would fare, stating that they were only in this series to learn. The infamous comment made by Dick Beddoes of the Globe and Mail was that if the Soviets were to win even one game, he would “eat his column shredded at high noon in a bowl of borscht on the steps of the Russian Embassy”. I hope that borscht was tasty, Dick. You absolute idiot.

And there we have it; Game 1 at the magnificent Montreal Forum. The swelteringly hot Montreal Forum. The late-summer heat, coupled with the enormous tension that eighteen-thousand spectators carried with them, rendered the temperature at the Forum to reach forty-six degrees Celsius by the end of the second period. To make matters worse, the concession stands had run out of beer by the time the Soviets had taken a two goal lead. Though Team Canada got off to a flying start with a Phil Esposito goal thirty seconds in, as well as ‘surprise’ inclusion Paul Henderson scoring six minutes into the contest, the Soviets were just finding their legs. Lackluster defensive play caught Canada in a bind, and the Soviets’ clever cross-ice passing was too much for poor Ken Dryden between the pipes. Team Canada simply lost their lustre and poise. Despite a Bobby Clarke goal to cut the lead to 4-3 midway through the third period, the Soviets simply out-classed the Canadians and opened them up wide with cross-ice passing and wonderful fakes. Final score, the Soviets, 7, Canada, 3.

What horror. All is lost! As the series shifted a few hundred kilometres west to Toronto, there was an imminent sense of urgency. If Team Canada were to go down two games to none on their side of the Atlantic, there was no way they could put up a fight behind the Iron Curtain.

Two days removed from that thumping at the Forum, the same exciting energy buzzed about the crowd at the equally iconic Maple Leaf Gardens. The Canadian players felt the energy, and Sinden made several lineup changes that both pleased and enraged the players and supporters. Tony Esposito took Dryden’s place in the net, and played superbly. The GAG line of Vic Hadfield, Jean Ratelle and Rod Gilbert were scratched in favour of the scrappy Wayne Cashman, J.P. Parise, and Blackhawk legend Stan Mikita. Despite the overzealousness of the grinders in Game 1, Sinden wanted similar aggressive play in lieu of trying to match finesse in order to wear down the Soviet counterattack. Canada took a 1-0 lead into the third period where both teams then traded a goal apiece. While on a penalty-kill, Schumacher, Ontario’s own Peter Mahovlich picked the puck up in between centre-ice and his own blue-line, came into the Soviet zone, faked a slap shot from 40 feet out, wheeled round Yevgeny Paladiev, and deked Tretiak by going to the backhand and slipping the puck past the sprawling goalkeeper. It easily could still be the most beautiful goal scored in Canadian international hockey. His older brother Frank then scored two minutes later to seal the game 4-1 and even the series.

Source: Peter Bregg / The Canadian Press

Ah, relief for the nation! Supposedly, USSR Hockey Federation leader, Andrei Starovoitov, was so infuriated by the officiating which favoured the Canadian ‘brutality’, that he threw a temper tantrum in the referee’s dressing room and demanded they not ref in Game 4 as scheduled. This was only the beginning of troubles with officials…..

Winnipeg earned the right to host the third match, and once again, excitement buzzed around the Winnipeg Arena. The Jets were set to make their WHA franchise debut in just over a month. Sinden chose to keep a vast majority of his Game 2 roster in the lineup. On two occasions, Canada held a two goal lead, only to see the match end in a 4-4 tie. The Soviets played more of their finesse style that was exemplified in game 1, and beautiful goals by Vladimir Petrov and Valeri Kharlamov quieted the Canadian crowd. Assistant coach John Ferguson was irate that Canada surrendered two shorthanded goals, and their overconfidence showed when they were ahead 4-2 in the second period. Tony Esposito made an absolutely enormous save on an Alexander Maltsev effort with only fifteen seconds left to ensure the Canadians stayed level.

As the players took the ice in Vancouver on September 8th for Game 4 warmups, Team Canada was shocked to hear a chorus of boos swell from the western supporters. The Soviets were then greeted with rigorous applause. With the series sitting dead even with both teams sporting 1-1-1 records, this final game would be crucial for Team Canada before they travelled east to Moscow for the final four games. However, the Soviets emerged victorious with a 5-3 decision.

Team Canada was booed off the ice. Two Soviet power-play goals in the first period dismantled any momentum Canada sought to earn. Dryden regained his place in goal after Esposito had started the prior two matches, only to continue to look shaky. Canada had nearly four times as many shots at the Soviets in the third period, but Tretiak humbled the attack by thwarting everything thrown his way. In fact, the 5-3 final looked rather generous, as a late goal from Dennis Hull made the two goal differential that much more modest.

In a now famous on-ice interview after the contest, Phil Esposito begged for Canadians to stand behind their team as they travelled for the second half of the series, expressing disappointment for all the boos and bad press they had been receiving. In a truly noble demonstration of national pride, he promised that all the players were doing their best and that the only reason they agreed to partake in the series was for the love of the country. The serious tone and pleas of arguably Canada’s best player took root in the minds of all those who were following this series. Most of the players felt as though their performance in Vancouver was their worst of the collective eight games.

Source: CBC

Both teams now had exactly two weeks off before the series resumed in Moscow at the Luzhniki Ice Palace. Team Canada flew to Stockholm for two exhibition games against the Swedish national team to keep in shape and tinker with various lineup changes; not many supporters showed up at the airport to see them off. Now they were going to a foreign land, with vastly different politics, security, and social norms. If they were shunned from their home spectators down the stretch of the first half of matches, how disgusting would the reactions be if they came home as losers? There was only one way to find out……

NOTE: The trip to Sweden was bittersweet. The two matches were played on back to back days (September 16th and 17th). Though a 4-1 victory in the first game might appear decisive, Sinden considered this to be one of the worst games he coached in regards to Team Canada in 1972. The two German referees, Franz Baader and Josef Kompalla, were totally inept, and could barely skate alongside the players in their attempts to keep up with the play. The Canadians were penalized 27-8 and 24-4 in minutes in comparison to their Swedish opponents. Baader and Kompalla were scheduled to ref the sixth game of the series in Moscow, and Canada was rather wary about this. Team Sweden were known for their subtle stick-work to gain position and intimidate their opponents. Though the Canadians were not intimidated in the least, their retaliations to the spearing, high sticking, and slashes Sweden were dishing out is what contributed to them being penalized so heavily.

The Swedish news portrayed the Canadian players as barbarians in comic strips, and diplomats at the Canadian embassy were quite embarrassed by their country’s attitudes and vicious style of play. That being said, Wayne Cashman would lose part of his tongue in a freak injury as a result from a high stick by Ulf Sterner, for which Sterner escaped without a penalty. The teams would even engage in a fracas in the tunnel to the dressing room in the middle of the second game, forcing police dogs to intervene. Phil Esposito scored a late equalizer to preserve the tie with under a minute to go.

Now, on to Moscow.

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