‘More to it than just hockey’: Revisiting the Summit Series, 48 years later

Last week, I got to hear the hockey heroes of the ’72 series reminisce about their showdown with the Soviets — and what made it so legendary
By Steve Paikin - Published on Jan 13, 2021
Team Canada's Paul Henderson (left) shoots on Team USSR's Vladislav Tretiak during the 1972 Summit tournament in Toronto on September 4, 1972. (Peter Bregg/CP)

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Ken Dryden is not only a Stanley Cup champion, Hall of Famer, and former federal cabinet minister. He’s also responsible for the best answer I’ve ever heard to the question, when was the golden age of hockey?

“Whatever you were watching when you were 12 years old,” he once told me.

That is brilliant and oh-so-true, because when I was 12 years old, the most dramatic and important hockey tournament in the history of the world took place. And some of its key contributors gathered last week on a Zoom call to reminisce.

You younger readers need to understand that the Summit Series that took place in September 1972 was unlike anything that had transpired before or has happened since. While Canada had always fancied itself the best hockey-playing country in the world, the fact is that, at the time, we had been getting clobbered at international tournaments on a regular basis.

The Soviet Union drafted its best hockey players into the army, then kept them together all year, moulding them into a fearsome unit. Our amateur players just couldn’t compete. So the idea was, let’s get our best in the National Hockey League to play the Soviets’ best in an eight-game exhibition series, and then we’ll prove once and for all who’s king.

Even though two of Canada’s best players couldn’t participate (Bobby Orr was injured; Bobby Hull had departed for the rival World Hockey Association and was therefore ruled ineligible), the conventional wisdom was that Canada would easily prevail.

When our lads took a 2-0 lead just six minutes into the first game in Montreal, all the pre-series prognostications of Canada winning eight straight games seemed plausible.

Then the Soviets woke up and won that game 7-3. The country was in shock.

“I never believed it was going to be easy,” said Elmira-born Rod Seiling, who was then with the New York Rangers. Having played in the 1964 Olympics, he was one of the few Canadian players with international experience against the Soviets. “I knew how good they were.”

Seiling had warned Team Canada coach Harry Sinden to dress six defencemen for the game, but the coach opted for only five.

“I played every other shift for that whole game in Montreal,” Seiling recalled. “By the third period, I was on my knees. I’d say to Kenny [Dryden], ‘Here they come again!’ It goes back to us not being ready to play.”

Suddenly, all of Canada’s pre-tournament mistakes became apparent. Our guys were accustomed to using the exhibition season games to get into shape. The Soviets already were in shape. Our guys were all from different NHL teams, had never practised together, and, moreover, didn’t like one other.

“I spent a lot of years chasing the Road Runner around,” offered Paul Henderson on the Zoom call, referring to the Montreal Canadiens’ speedy Yvan Cournoyer. “And, all of us a sudden, he’s my friend? He and the Canadiens were the enemy! So our training camp was a feeling-out process.”

The Soviets had been together for years practising their systems and respected their Canadian opponents.

“We didn’t respect them,” added Cournoyer. “You have to be afraid to lose, and we didn’t respect them.”

While our first ever “Team Canada” featured 12 future Hall of Famers, only one three-man forward line remained together for all eight games. And no one would have imagined that when the series began.

Philadelphia Flyer Bobby Clarke and Maple Leaf teammates Ron Ellis and Paul Henderson were well down the list of the original 35 players invited to join Team Canada. Before the series, the players had been told that everyone would get to play and that they’d enjoy a free trip to Europe for their wives and themselves. As a result, the Henderson-Clarke-Ellis tandem doubted they’d get much ice time in a sport that can dress only 20 players per game.

But both Henderson and Clark scored in Game 1, and Ellis assisted on both goals.

“We really wanted to play in Game 2 in Toronto,” Henderson said. “So we went out for beers after the first practice and said, ‘Let’s get serious and show them we can play here.’ We worked our rear ends off and evidently showed the coaches we were as good as what they had out there.”

Canada came back and won Game 2 in Toronto. I was a very lucky 12-year-old fan in the stands, along with my brother and parents. Timmins native Peter Mahovlich stole the show, scoring perhaps still the most artistic goal I’ve ever seen in person in my life.

But then the tournament turned into a horror show. Canada blew a two-goal lead in the third period in Winnipeg and had to settle for a 4-4 tie. And when we lost 5-3 in Vancouver, our heroes were, shockingly, booed off the ice. A sweaty and exhausted Phil Esposito (Boston Bruins, via Sault Ste. Marie) gave a post-game interview in which he assured everyone that the players were trying their best and were pretty unhappy taking brickbats from their fellow Canadians.

Be that as it may, the country was having a collective coronary.

“We were taking time out of our lives to represent our country,” said Seiling. “Then to have the country turn on us … I’m not sure our own families liked us. We’d let them down. They’d been sold a bill of goods that this’d be a romp in the park.”

But that’s when something happened that, in hindsight, might have saved the tournament for Team Canada. I’ve read and listened to a lot of analysis about this tourney for decades, but on this Zoom call, I heard something new about how our team came together.

First and foremost, the coaching staff decided to go with a set roster. That meant permanently benching some future Hall of Famers: they did not take it well, having been promised they’d play. The team was rife with dissension.

“Off the ice, it wasn’t good,” confirmed Henderson. “A lot of guys were pissed off. Hey, if I didn’t play, I would be, too.”

But firming up the roster and leaving the pressure-cooker of Canada turned out to be just what Team Canada needed. Before playing the last four games in Moscow, the Canadians played two warm-up games in Stockholm against a Swedish national team. At the time, many Canada fans thought that was simply delaying the inevitable disappointment of further losses. But it gave the team some valuable time to come together and some experience on the much wider ice surfaces used in European hockey.

“If we hadn’t gone to Sweden, we may not have won the series,” suggested Henderson. “Not only did we get the opportunity to get in shape, but we came together as a team. In Sweden, that was the game changer.”

“I won many Stanley Cups on the road,” added Cournoyer. “You feel closer. There’s no people to distract you.”

Canada won the first game 4-1 and salvaged a tie with a last-minute goal by Esposito in the second. They played against a couple of Swedes named Borje Salming and Inge Hammarström, who would soon be suiting up in blue and white for the Maple Leafs. And it gave the team some momentum heading to Moscow.

At the team’s first practice in Moscow, assistant coach John Ferguson skated up to Henderson and said, “Henny, we need you to come up big. You’re quick, and you can shoot the puck. We’re counting on you to come up big.”

Man, did he ever.

“It’s amazing what a little confidence can do for you,” Henderson said last week. “I just felt so good. I don’t care who you are — every now and then, you need encouragement.”

One of the most impressive turnarounds in sports history was about to take place, but you’d never have known it based on what happened next. In Game 5, our side gave up three goals in the last 10 minutes to lose 5-4, but for some reason, left the ice feeling even more confident that they could compete with the Russians.

“They had a beautiful national anthem which they played after every game they won,” Henderson said. “But when we lost, it was too bloody long!”

Part of what uplifted Team Canada after the game? The few thousand Canadians who had flown to Moscow to support the team. They gave the players a standing ovation as they skated off the ice. They showed up at the team’s hotel and continued to cheer them on. And they made a lot more noise than the 10,000 pro-Soviet fans.

Then, in an unbelievable twist of fate, Canada won the next three straight games, and, in all three, Henderson scored the winning goal — including the one in Game 8 with 34 seconds to play that would put really him in the history books.

“Our national anthem was never sung with more fervour than after those last three games,” Henderson said.  “I got goosebumps on my arm.” The native of Kincardine scored five goals in the four games after Ferguson’s pep talk, “So I guess it all turned out pretty good. I almost broke Yvan’s back after I scored — I jumped into him so hard.”

“They thought we’d never win three in a row,” said Cournoyer. “And we just couldn’t lose. If we did, we’d have to stay in Russia, and I wouldn’t be here today talking about 1972. We just had to win, and we did it. And that’s why we’re still talking about it nearly 50 years later.”

It’s since emerged that, if today’s hockey protocols had been in place in 1972, Henderson wouldn’t even have been dressed for the last three games in Moscow. In Game 5, he crashed into the boards sustaining a concussion. Today, a team doctor would have insisted he be scratched from the lineup. But back then, Henderson begged Sinden not to remove him.

“Harry,” he said, “don’t do this to me. I’ll take care of myself, but I wanna play so bad.”

“Paul,” Sinden replied, “we sure as hell need you, and if you want to play, I’m not going to stop you.”

Henderson now jokes: “That’s why I’m an idiot today. I never should have been on the ice.”

Henderson actually wasn’t on the ice in the last minute of Game 8 and did something he’d never done before. He yelled from the bench at Peter Mahovlich to get off the ice so he could go on.

“I can’t even explain it to this day,” he said. “All of a sudden I thought, I’ve just gotta get on the ice. Peter thought it was the coach yelling at him.”

Mahovlich came off, Henderson went on, and the rest is history.

Canada won the last game 6-5. In the third period, with Canada trailing 5-3 and things looking hopeless, Dryden was lights out in the Canadian net, while Vladislav Tretiak, the Soviet goaltender whom Canadian fans were reluctantly falling for, allowed three.  Esposito scored two goals and two assists in that game. He had 13 points in eight games, led the tournament in points, and was the undisputed spiritual leader of that team.

“Phil played the best period of hockey ever played by a Canadian player in that third period,” Henderson said.

Cournoyer had tied the game 5-5 with seven minutes to play, setting up Henderson’s heroics. Henderson, who was considered a good but never a great NHL player, scored seven goals in eight games. He is not in the Hockey Hall of Fame, but many think he should be, solely on the strength of his performance in 1972. He’ll turn 78 years old in a couple of weeks and has been successfully fighting chronic lymphocytic leukemia for more than a decade, after doctors gave him five years to live.

When Henderson was inducted into the International Hockey Hall of Fame, in Oslo, in 2013, he was introduced by Tretiak. After the ceremony, the Soviets’ legendary goaltender looked suspiciously at Henderson and said, “I know why you scored that last goal. I’ve looked at the replays over and over again.”

Henderson wondered what was coming.

“It was very bad goaltending!” Tretiak said, then gave his nemesis a big bear hug.

“And I’ve been riding that sucker since 1972!” Henderson laughed.

When the players came home and joined their NHL teams, they noticed something had changed. The Team Canada players would tap one other’s shin pads during warm-ups before their NHL games, even if they were on opposite teams. Some of their NHL teammates wondered how that kind of fraternization was allowed.

“You don’t understand,” Seiling would tell his Ranger teammates. “He’s my opposition tonight, but he’s my friend. I went to war with him. The players from that ’72 team are my lifelong friends.”

“We went to war as a team, and we’re still one 50 years later,” added Henderson.

Yes, future Team Canadas would see similarly big goals. Mario Lemieux at the 1987 Canada Cup; Sidney Crosby at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010. But neither can rise to the importance of Henderson’s in ’72.

“You don’t just watch a game with your eyes; you watch with your feelings, too,” said documentary writer/researcher Paul Patskou, who hosts these special weekly hockey Zoom calls. “If you were around at the time, you knew it was different. It was the Cold War. There was more to it than just hockey.”

Not only that: I was 12. 

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