1972 SUMMIT SERIES

Backgrounder

The 1972 Summit Series between national hockey teams from Canada and the USSR was the first time that Canadian professional hockey players faced the Soviet Union’s national team. Many believe this special series changed hockey forever. While Canadians took great pride in having the best hockey players in the world, the USSR had, since the Second World War, been developing an elite hockey program, producing a national team that quickly dominated the sport at international competitions. International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) rules excluded professional hockey players, forcing Canada to send teams composed of amateurs, while the Soviet teams nominally met the amateur criteria. Canada initially dominated in the 1920s when ice hockey was first introduced however by the late 1950s Canadian teams were regularly losing to European, particularly Soviet, teams. In 1968, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau set up a task force to look into Canada’s international standing in sport, leading to the founding of Hockey Canada. Following negotiations with Soviet officials and state visits between Trudeau and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin, an eight-game series was announced for September 1972, the first four games to be played in Canada and the remainder in the Soviet Union.

 

Although Coach Harry Sinden warned against it, Canadians were confident of easy victory. Many players arrived at training camp out of shape and had difficulty keeping up with the extremely well-conditioned Soviet players. Then came the devastating 7-3 defeat in the first game at the Montréal Forum. Team Canada regrouped after this shocking loss and won the second game (4-1) in Toronto, but tied the third game in Winnipeg (4-4) and lost in Vancouver (5-3). Media and fans were frustrated, shocked and angry. Some fans even booed the Canadian players, prompting Phil Esposito to make an impassioned speech to Canadians on national television. The team left for Europe where they played two exhibition games in Sweden to get used to European officiating and the larger ice surface. The team moved on to Moscow where the four remaining games were played. However, the initial plan of having players from every NHL team play at least one game had to be scrapped in favour of playing those best suited to the highly skilled and conditioned Soviet team.

 

Team Canada lost the next game, 5-4, but rallied to win the Games 6 and 7 by scores of 3-2 and 4-3 with Paul Henderson scoring the winning goals in both games. Going into the final game, the series was tied. By IIHF rules the Soviets, with their superior goal differential, could claim victory in the series if the game ended in a tie. Canada had to win! Going into the third period leading by a score of 5 to 3, the Soviets seemed assured of victory, but the Canadians showed the heart, determination and individual effort that the Soviets would come to admire. Phil Esposito and Yvan Cournoyer scored to tie the game, and with only 34 seconds left Henderson scored his famous goal, which some still consider the greatest moment in Canadian sports history.

 

The series generated passionate nationalism in both Canada and the Soviet Union as some Canadian fans travelled to Moscow to cheer Team Canada on, and others sent telegrams which the players used to cover their dressing room walls. The series united Canadians more than any other sporting event, as fans rallied behind Team Canada in the hopes of salvaging their now tarnished image as the country that ruled the hockey rinks. An estimated 15 out of 20 million Canadians tuned in, and many schools and businesses set up television sets so that everyone could watch the final game, brought by satellite technology. Canadians cheered ecstatically when Paul Henderson’s goal clinched the win for Canada and Foster Hewitt announced “Henderson has scored for Canada!”

 

Taking place in the context of the Cold War, the series was unusually intense. Mirrored in two very different styles of hockey was a culture clash between two nations with very different political systems. The Soviet Union played a disciplined, team game, with fast skating, crisp passing, and an emphasis on strategy, while the Canadians emphasized shooting and body-checking. Many Canadians believed that Team Canada won because of the “heart” and passion of players such as Paul Henderson and Phil Esposito, which reflected the democratic, capitalist system and its emphasis on individual freedoms. Never before or since has a series elicited such intensity. The 1972 Summit Series retains its iconic status as a defining moment that brought all Canadians together to cheer for Team Canada.

 

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