In 1972, an eight-game hockey series took place between Canada and the Soviet Union. Intended to improve relations between the two rivals, it ended up as the closest thing to open conflict ever experienced between the two nations.
After the Second World War, the western countries and the Soviet Union turned from allies to enemies. In the 1950s, the division between communist and non-communist nations deepened until the two sides teetered on the brink of nuclear warfare. Known as the "Cold War," it was a situation that threatened to escalate worldwide.
In 1970, during this same time of global tensions, Canada withdrew from playing international hockey, unhappy when the rules changed to forbid professional players. With Canada no longer competing, the Soviets further dominated events like the Olympics and IIHF World Championships, but the "amateur" level was no longer enough and they sought a more worthy opponent - they wanted to take on Canada's best hockey players, all of whom were NHL pros.
Beginning as a discussion between low-level Soviet and Canadian diplomats in Moscow, the idea of exhibition games between the world's two dominant hockey nations looked like a way to help thaw the Cold War. After years of diplomatic and logistical arrangements, an eight-game competition that became known as the "Summit Series" was announced - the Soviets would ice their national squad against the first all-pro team to represent Canada - the very first "Team Canada" - in September 1972.
Reigning Stanley-Cup winner Harry Sinden was named head coach and John Ferguson - originally invited as a player, just before he retired - was named his assistant. All Canadian pro players were considered for Team Canada's roster and almost all of the country's best talent was represented - Bobby Hull, J.C Trembley and a few others were not allowed to participate, as they had just left the NHL for the rival WHA league, while Bobby Orr was selected but was injured...though the Soviets did allow Canada to keep an extra roster spot open for him. The 35 men selected to represent their country came from 10 different NHL clubs with as many hockey cultures and, like any all-star lineup, were more a collection of exceptional individual talents than a truly cohesive team; the three-week training camp focussed more on the combined scoring prowess of Team Canada, rather than on their defensive needs.
There was no captain designated for the team, though several wore the "A" as alternates: Phil Esposito, Frank Mahovlich, Stan Mikita and Jean Ratelle.
Almost everyone predicted a complete 8-0 sweep of "The Russians".
When the Soviets arrived in Montreal for three days of practice before Game One, the international importance of the series was evident: both hockey teams were surrounded by politicians and dignitaries of every description. The Russians said they had simply come to learn from the experience of playing against the world's best (and had officially been ordered to not lose by too much).
On a sweltering night in Montreal, many in Canada tuned in to watch Game One of the series. Viewers saw Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau perform the ceremonial face-off, which Esposito aggressively won, underlying the "enormity and importance" of the event, recalls Ken Dryden. Esposito was the only player the Soviets openly admitted to fearing before the series.
Those who predicted a Canadian sweep of the series were buoyed when Esposito scored 30 seconds into the first period. But the buoyancy wasn't to last. Everyone who watched Team Canada's humiliating 7-3 loss that night also witnessed the end of the nation's assumption of hockey superiority. The Russians proved to be just as good - and maybe better.
The country's media lambasted the Canadians' inability to match their opponent's skill set, conditioning and team cohesiveness. Legendary play-by-play announcer Foster Hewitt, who came out of retirement to call the series on English television, remarked that the Canadians were "really missing that team play."
But not all the pressure was on Team Canada - the Soviet team with orders to not lose by too much now received orders to not lose at all.
Dennis Hull recalls that the intensity of Team Canada's practices picked up before Game Two and if the first game was Russia's coming-out party, the second - in Toronto, with the Prime Minister and Tim Horton watching from the stands - was the Canadians' coming-home party.
Playing a hard-checking, physically demanding "Canadian" style, Team Canada dominated with its puck possession, superior team play and emotional level. Sinden, one of the few Canadians to have played against the Soviets previously, considered this game as one of the two best his squad played in the series. Several times during the broadcast Hewitt said the Canadians "were playing as a team."
The 4-1 victory was a reflection of Sinden's ability to break the Soviet five-man system and allow his players to beat their opponents in one-on-one play.
The Soviets had finally met the worthy opponent they had looked for and prepared themselves for.
Canada knew that neither team would be swept.
And off the ice, the media echoed the sentiments of viewing public who felt the now-tied series represented the Cold War itself.
It was a warm evening in Winnipeg and the sub-standard ice conditions played a part in the 4-4 final, as pucks bounced for both sides during an even, hard-hitting affair. While Bobby Hull watched from the stands, Hewitt remarked that both the Soviets and Canadians relied on "team effort rather than individual effort" throughout the match.
The Russians seamlessly inserted six new players into their line-up that evening, scored two shorthanded goals and looked more like they had in Montreal, which was very good (compared to the media coverage for Team Canada, which was not).
In a fine example of foreshadowing, Esposito was referred to as the "captain" of Team Canada during the opening ceremonies in Vancouver, though no captain officially existed.
Canada moved eight new players into its line-up and Hewitt noted that the team looked as disorganized as it had in Game One. Forward Wayne Cashman remembers how the team was out-conditioned by the Russians, who played an exceptionally hard-hitting, tight-checking, positional game, perhaps their best performance of the series.
After Team Canada's gruelling 5-3 loss - where some in the crowd cheered the Soviets and booed the Canadians - Esposito was selected as the Canadian player of the game and used the post-game interview to chastise all the negativity directed towards the squad. Esposito, with his heart on his sleeve, looked straight into the camera and into the soul of the nation. He told everyone watching that the players were not there for money or fame, but "because we love Canada".
For the country, it was a time of reflection. For the series, it was a defining moment. Esposito had become the real captain of Team Canada (or, as Gary Bergman called him, their "vociferous leader") and promised the nation that "we're gonna get better, I know it". With the entire country at an all-time low, he lifted the team on his back and went on the road.
Good captains go down with their ship. Great ones keep it from sinking.
Note: During the second period there was a special television feature on the Soviet Union, for those Canadians who would be joining Team Canada there later in the month.
The Soviets returned home to play another tournament before hosting the final four games of the Summit Series, all to take place in Moscow.
Team Canada took a few days off before flying to Sweden, to adapt to the different time zones and international ice sizes. Their week-long stay in Stockholm involved games against the Swedish national team - a 4-1 win and 4-4 tie, where Esposito scored shorthanded in the last minute - and introduced the Canadians to the two German referees who would officiate in Moscow, and who appeared sub-standard, at best; one was later accused of being a pro-Soviet East German. Team Canada was often penalized for retaliating to uncalled Swedish stick infractions - including one that split Cashman's tongue apart, ending his series. (The local papers only mentioned his cross-check of the Swedish captain, neglecting to mention the high stick to Cashman's mouth.)
The media focus in Sweden and Canada, which portrayed the team as goons, furthered their understanding that they'd been typecast and could not win without tempering their game. For the Canadians, isolated on the road and playing in hostile arenas, the time together fused them as a team and as team-mates. Pat Stapleton recalls the practices intensifying: every player wanted to be in the games and fought for the opportunity. They believed the odds were stacked against them in Europe, particularly in Moscow. Rod Seiling said the only friends they had were in their dressing room. Fierce NHL rivals became an inseparable unit of friends. They sang together on buses, and when Guy Lapointe's wife had a baby daughter back in Canada, everyone celebrated on the lawn of their hotel. As a team. Team Canada.
It is remarkable, considering that the Cold War was in full swing, that around 3,000 Canadians decided to travel deep into enemy territory - behind communist Europe's "Iron Curtain" - to support a hockey team; but they did, becoming the largest group of tourists allowed into the country since before the Russian Revolution of 1917. The authorities warned Team Canada fans that they would not be allowed to wave their flags in the streets or in the arena. In fact, no boisterous behaviour of any sort was allowed.
The Canadian players arrived as a far more cohesive unit than debuted in Montreal, their varied hockey backgrounds now folded into a unified approach for Moscow - where they were greeted with bag-loads of post-cards sent by a nation, perhaps moved by Esposito's words, now rallying behind its team.
Brad Park remembers "10,000 telegrams...taped to the hallway to our dressing room."
For most Canadians watching Game Five at home, this was their first glimpse into the secretive Soviet Union, and technical issues plagued the satellite images as they bounced from Moscow to Helsinki to London and across the Atlantic to Canada. They saw a rabid collection of Canadian fans who waved flags, sang and celebrated wildly in defiance of the police presence; the next morning one local newspaper ran a story that assured readers the roof had withstood the ruckus.
In attendance were the Soviet Union's supreme leaders, cementing the series' Cold War trappings and adding to the weight of expectation on the home side. The tension broke when Esposito fell while being introduced - slipping on a flower petal left from the opening ceremony - and as the crowd erupted in laughter, he gave them an exaggerated bow and quickly endeared himself. (His rapport with the Russian players was evident in Game Four, tapping Tretiak's pads after a good save and joking with Petrov after being tackled by him.)
From before the puck dropped until the last buzzer sounded, the chants of "Go Canada Go!" rained down from the stands, filling the arena. This was the second of the two best games Sinden says his team played in the series, even though it blew leads of 3-0 and 4-1 on its way to a 5-4 loss. Hewitt's colour commentator, Brian Conacher, noted Canada's "composure and poise" to the audience at home, saying the team played a better technical game than during their victory in Toronto.
As Team Canada skated off the ice after the defeat, its fans stood and loudly sang "O Canada". Most on the team felt confident in their ability to beat their opponent and Bobby Clarke remembers the players feeling lighter afterwards, because they felt like they had nothing to lose - though they now had to win the remaining three games to take the series.
Note: All four games in the Soviet Union were played at Moscow's Luzhniki Arena - it didn't have glass all the way around the rink, with just netting around each end and some low glass along the boards at the penalty boxes: this design would factor into events in Game Eight.
BIG, BAD BEAR
The Soviet Union was a place where the government routinely bullied and intimidated its citizens into submission and now it turned its attention to Team Canada. The harassment came in several forms, including having the food and drink they brought disappear and numerous late-night phone calls intended to ruin their sleep. One of the more raucous Canadian fans was even detained - and threatened with five years of prison time in Siberia - for playing a trumpet in the stands.
But Team Canada did not break because of this additional pressure. Sinden says the team felt it couldn't let their country down.
Team Canada's supporters were even louder this time out and Hewitt said they sounded more like a crowd of 20,000.
The Russian fans were noticeably vocal when their team opened the scoring, but were soon quietened and drowned out when Canada scored three quick, unanswered goals on its way to a 3-2 victory; Hewitt told the millions watching at home that the rough, hard-hitting affair was "the hardest fought game I think I've seen in years" and reminded him of when the Penticton Vees defeated the Soviets in 1955 at the IIHF World Championships. Conacher said it best: "it's just sheer war" on the ice.
"It was war...whether we wanted it or not," remarked Esposito.
The Canadians continued their command of playing on the large ice surface, but ran into trouble with penalties: 32 minutes for them, four for Russia. Controversial decisions by the referees (as Team Canada had predicted in Stockholm) allowed emotions to run high. Hewitt had just commented on the roughness and "poor officiating" putting the entire game into a "fever pitch" when Clarke got 12 minutes in penalties for giving Kharlamov a tap on the left ankle with his stick.
The Soviets - perhaps nervous, on the cusp of a possible historic victory - were not as sharp with their passing as usual. But Team Canada, to a man, was a gritty and determined squad, backstopped by Dryden, who was able to exorcize the ghosts of his earlier results. Canada's puck-possession game was superb thanks to the return of Serge Savard (according to Hewitt) and the team's relentless checking.
Note: A Hull did score for Team Canada (Bobby's brother Dennis), Paul Henderson scored the winning goal (after being knocked unconscious in the previous game) and Conacher noted the team "never had more support back home."
Team Canada's solid victory in Game Six - playing "our game" and "our style" on a night when it snowed in Moscow - whipped the nation into a further frenzy before Game Seven and huge numbers of people tuned in to watch. Hewitt told them that, regardless of the outcome, the Soviets have won a moral victory by proving their hockey players seem to be "comparable to our best."
The Russians inserted five new players (including one to replace Kharlamov) to Canada's one (the Canadians also brought Tony Esposito back between the pipes) and there were two new referees - a Swede and a Czech - who replaced the West Germans.
With the Canadian fans cheering endlessly, the game began slowly and cautiously, with little hitting; while Conacher noted that Bill Goldsworthy seemed relaxed and not quite as chippy, the same could have been said of every member of Team Canada. But as the game progressed, tensions slowly heated: as Hewitt said "it wouldn't take very much to cause a donnybrook."
Phil Esposito tussled with Mikhailov, who later kicked Gary Bergman with his skate several times during a melee behind the Canadian net, turning Team Canada livid. With just over two minutes left and the score tied 3-3, Paul Henderson beat four Soviet players and scored a dramatic goal.
The Russians poured it on at the end, but the Canadians threw themselves in front of every shot to preserve the win.
The series was now tied, with just one game to go.
Before the start of Game One, Hewitt said that the series between Canada and the Soviet Union promised to be sensational; before the start of Game Eight, he added that "if you were writing the script, it couldn't have produced a more dramatic final."
As Team Canada skated out to roaring cheers, it had no way of knowing the magnitude of the effect it had on a nation. Businesses closed, schools stopped teaching and, though exact numbers are impossible to calculate, some estimate that 18 million of Canada's 22 million residents were in front of a television.
One of the West German referees from earlier in the series replaced the Swedish ref and, as Hewitt remarked, the game "started out with a storm" - the Soviets started diving, Canada ran into penalties, the Russians scored, J.P. Parise was tossed out of the game for threatening a ref, the Canadian bench threw things on the ice and their fans chanted "Let's Go Home!" all before the five-minute mark of the first period!
Hewitt noted that the atmosphere was tense in the arena, with a large military and police presence. The game was fairly even until the Soviets jumped ahead 5-3 after two periods. Stapleton - who played on a foot broken in the previous game - remembers that there were no big speeches in the dressing room during the second intermission, just a lot of gut-checking.
Team Canada came out for the third period, scored quickly (Esposito again), then continued to press - with Rod Gilbert bloodying Mishakov's nose in a scrap - until Yvan Cournoyer tied the score. But the goal judge didn't turn on the light, which enraged Canadian team official Alan Eagleson. When the fuming Eagleson went to check the goal light, he was grabbed by Soviet police. Team Canada players swarmed to the side of the ice to rescue him, a stick-wielding Peter Mahovlich climbing over the low boards to wade into the scrum to free him (dulling his skate blades in the process).
Hundreds of uniformed police and army poured into the arena and began ringing the playing surface, while Team Canada's fans cheered loudly as the final minute of the last game arrived. It was in those final 60 seconds that, after taking a wild stab at the puck and falling down, Henderson buried an Esposito rebound and scored "the goal heard 'round the world" for Canada.
The Canadian fans exploded in the stands, madly waving their flags and "Mission Possible" signs - and their joy was echoed and amplified by the elation of the countless millions back home. The roaring Canadian fans loudly counted down the final 10 of the 28,800 seconds played in the series, and it was all over.
Hewitt said the team had fought like a tiger and Anatoly Tarasov - the "father of Russian hockey" - reflected that "the Canadians battled with the ferocity and intensity of a cornered animal." (The Soviets had often commented on the openly emotional nature of Team Canada, from Phil Esposito to Harry Sinden, which was in deep contrast to the self-controlled nature of their own society.)
Note: With two minutes left, the Soviets announced that they would declare victory in the tied series based on total goals scored. In fact, the game almost did not take place, as arguments over who would referee threatened to end the series (the compromise being to keep the Czech and add only one West German).
Team Canada had little time to relax and reflect, as they still had a game to play in Prague against the Czechoslovakian national team (the reigning world champions at the time). Czech-born Stan Mikita received the loudest ovation most of his team-mates ever heard when he was announced. Serge Savard scored with only four seconds left to snatch a 3-3 tie; at one point, on the Canadians' travels home, Phil Esposito hummed "Thanks for the Memory" and the whole team sang along.
They arrived home as the biggest rock-stars the country had ever known, greeted in Montreal by the Prime Minister and mayor, along with 10,000 fans at the airport. In Toronto, Ontario's premier and mayor - and 80,000 supporters - welcomed them at City Hall.
Then it was back to their 10 NHL clubs and the start of a new pro season.