For many Canadians, particularly baby boomers and Generation X, the eight-game hockey series between Team Canada and the national team of the Soviet Union in September 1972 provided the greatest moment in Canada’s sporting history. Most expected that Canada would handily defeat the Soviet Union, but this confidence quickly disappeared when Canada lost the first game. The series was tied heading into the final game in Moscow, which ended in dramatic fashion, with Paul Henderson scoring in the final seconds to give Canada the victory. The series became as much a Cold War political battle of democracy versus communism and freedom versus oppression as it was about hockey. The series had a lasting impact on hockey in Canada and abroad.
The first major international hockey tournament took place in April 1920 in conjunction with that summer’s Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium. It was won by the Winnipeg Falcons. Over the next 30+ years, top Canadian club teams (often the defending Senior A Allan Cup champions) dominated international hockey. Canada won 15 of 20 Olympic and/or World Championships tournaments through 1953 and never finished lower than second.
In 1954, the Soviet Union entered the World Championships for the first time. Canada’s representative team that year, Toronto’s Senior B East York Lyndhursts, was relatively weak. The Lyndhursts won six straight games against Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, West Germany, Finland and Czechoslovakia but lost their last game 7–2 to the Russians, who took the gold medal. Canada settled for silver. The USSR went on to win Olympic gold for the first time in 1956. After the Penticton Vees (1955), Whitby Dunlops (1958), Belleville McFarlands (1959) and Trail Smoke Eaters (1961) added more Canadian World Championships titles, the Russians began a streak of nine straight World and Olympic hockey golds in 1962.
International hockey in this era was open only to amateur players. Thus, Canadian stars in the National Hockey League (NHL) were not eligible to participate in either the world championships or the Olympic Games. However, Russian national players, who were mainly drawn from the Soviet Army, played hockey full time and were amateur in name only. After the 1962 World Championships, Father David Bauer received permission from the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association to create a national team program, which would be made up mainly of college players and a few former pros who had their amateur status reinstated.
At the end of 1968, the Canadian government created Hockey Canada to oversee the national team and to work toward allowing professional participation. In 1969, Hockey Canada won concessions from the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) to allow minor league players at the 1970 World Championships, which was scheduled to take place in Montreal and Winnipeg (where the National Team program was located). However, when the International Olympic Committee insisted that any hockey player who played against a professional would be declared ineligible for the 1972 Olympic Winter Games, the IIHF backed down. Hockey Canada withdrew its participation from future events until such time as professionals were permitted to play.
Meanwhile, Canadian fans were certain that if the best NHL players were allowed to compete, they would easily end Soviet domination. The Soviets were also eager to test themselves against the game’s best. Negotiations for such a tournament began quietly in 1969 and concluded in April of 1972. With NHL Players’ Association boss Alan Eagleson promising the support of top stars, the way was cleared for an eight-game exhibition match in September. It became known as the Summit Series.
Coach and general manager Harry Sinden announced the 35-man roster for Canada’s team — which would be known as Team Canada for the first time — on 12 July 1972. NHL owners hadn’t been keen on letting their players participate, but they eventually agreed. However, they stipulating that only players who had currently signed NHL contracts would be permitted (a decision made primarily for insurance purposes). The creation of the rival World Hockey Association (WHA) meant several changes were made to the roster by the time Team Canada reported to training camp at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto on 13 August. (See Team Canada 1972.) Most notably, superstar Bobby Hull was excluded from the team after signing with the Winnipeg Jets of the WHA. Another Canadian star, Bobby Orr, was sidelined with a chronic knee problem. There was no actual competition for jobs since everyone who agreed to report was guaranteed a spot on the team. At the time, NHL players didn’t work out much during the summer — the majority worked at second jobs during the off-season — and would skate themselves into condition at training camp.
Many Canadian fans, and most Canadian media, expected a one-sided romp with eight straight victories. Even Father Bauer of the national team thought so. “I expect total victory from the National Hockey League All-Stars in their series against the Soviet Union,” he said. “What they’ll have to do, however, is to dedicate themselves to this eight-game series from start to finish. By that I mean from training camp right on until after the last game. If they do that, I cannot see how they could fail.”
Canadian scouts Bob Davidson and John McLellan spent just four days in Russia in August. They reported on a ragtag team of outclassed amateurs and believed that 20-year-old goalie Vladislav Tretiak — whom they saw play just once — was the weak link. (Tretiak had partied too hard the night before and had his wedding the following day.) “All through training camp,” said future Hall of Famer Serge Savard, “I don’t think we really put enough emphasis on defence. All the time, it was goals… goals… how many goals are we going to beat them by!” Goaltending legend Jacques Plante apparently felt so sorry for Tretiak that he went to the Soviet dressing room with an interpreter before the first game to brief the Soviet goalie on the shooting tendencies of the Canadian players.
Four Games in Canada
Game 1 was played on a hot, humid 2 September in the Montreal Forum. Emotions were such that Phil Esposito enthusiastically won a ceremonial face-off before the start. Just 30 seconds after the actual face-off, Esposito put Canada ahead 1–0. Paul Henderson scored a second goal at 6:32. The rout seemed to be on, but the Soviets soon shook off any early jitters, and their superior strength and conditioning took over. Playing a possession game of short, quick passes, and shooting only when a true scoring opportunity presented itself, they tied the game 2–2 by the first intermission. At 2:30 of the second period, Valeri Kharlamov blew past defenseman Don Awrey and beat Ken Dryden to give the visitors their first lead. Kharlamov scored again midway through the period, and though Bobby Clarke scored to cut the lead to 4–3 midway through the third, the Canadians faded down the stretch. The final score was 7–3. The people of Canada were stunned.
Harry Sinden and his assistant, John Ferguson, revamped the Team Canada lineup for Game 2 in Toronto, which was played two nights later. Seven of 17 players were switched to provide a tougher, more defensive lineup. The result was a 4–1 Canadian victory. The highlight of the night was a spectacular shorthanded goal by Pete Mahovlich at 6:47 of the third period to put Canada up 3–1 just 54 seconds after Alexander Yakushev had scored for the USSR. Phil Esposito, who was quickly emerging as a team leader, said on television after: “This is bigger than winning the Stanley Cup.... This is as excited as I’ve ever been in my life.”
But the excitement was short-lived. Team Canada let a 4–2 second-period lead slip away in Game 3 in Winnipeg on 6 September and had to settle for a 4–4 tie. Fans across the country were disappointed and angry. Things got even worse in Vancouver on 8 September. Sinden made eight changes to the lineup for Game 4, but the results this time were poor teamwork and a lack of discipline. Canada looked dirty and disorganized against the machine-like Soviets, and Vancouver fans booed them throughout a 5–3 loss. Phil Esposito expressed his disappointment with Canadian fans in an emotional TV interview after the game. He vowed the team would get better.
Preparations in Europe
After a few days off to spend with their families, Team Canada flew to Stockholm, Sweden, on 12 September. The Canadians had three days of practice and two exhibition games against the Swedish national team to get used to the wider European ice surface. However, the media in both Canada and Sweden blamed Team Canada for rough play in a 4–1 victory and 4–4 tie. Still, the experience helped to blend a group of NHL all-stars into a true team, even if they were beginning to see themselves as being alone in a battle against everyone else.
Team Canada faced more problems in Moscow prior to the first game there on 22 September. Veteran winger Vic Hadfield and youngsters Jocelyn Guevremont and Richard Martin — who had all seen little to no action in the series — left the team and returned to Canada. In addition, the hotel accommodations in Russia were not what the Canadians were used to. Players’ phones would ring in the middle of the night, and much of the food they’d brought — particularly steaks and beer — disappeared. Still, the enthusiastic support from some 3,000 Canadian fans who travelled to the Soviet Union, as well as tens of thousands of telegrams from home, helped considerably as the series became as much a political battle of democracy versus communism and freedom versus oppression as it was about hockey.
Four Games in Moscow
The European half of the series started badly for the Canadians. In Game 5, the line of Bobby Clarke, Paul Henderson and Ron Ellis gave Canada an early lead. (This line had been put together in training camp and stayed together throughout the series.) Clarke had a goal and two assists and Henderson — despite being knocked unconscious during the game — scored twice. Team Canada took a 4–1 lead early in the third period, but four quick Soviet goals resulted in a 5–4 defeat. Canada now trailed 3–1–1 and would need three straight victories to claim the series, but a long, loud cheer from Canadian fans after the game lifted the team’s spirits.
Team Canada led 3–1 early in the second period of Game 6 and held on for a 3–2 victory. A goal by Henderson proved to be the game winner. In Game 7, Phil Esposito scored twice, while a spectacular goal by Henderson with just 2:06 remaining gave Canada a 5–4 victory that evened the series heading into Game Eight.
Little remarked on at the time in Canada, but a point of controversy years later, was a deliberate slash to the ankle of Valeri Kharlamov by Bobby Clarke in Game 6. The resulting injury kept the Soviet star out of Game 7 and limited his effectiveness in Game 8. More obvious to Canadians was the poor and biased officiating of the European referees, which tended to favour the Soviets. Soviet insistence that Josef Kompalla of East Germany work the final game resulted in a number of questionable penalties and three Soviet power-play goals that made Game 8 even more memorable.
Two penalty calls against Team Canada within the first three minutes of Game 8 led to a power-play goal by Alexander Yakushev at 3:34. After another questionable call less than a minute later, Jean-Paul Parise threatened Kompalla with his stick and was thrown out of the game. The first period ended in a 2–2 tie. Though only one penalty was called against each team in the second period, the Soviets went ahead 5–3.
Led by Phil Esposito, Team Canada refused to concede defeat. Esposito scored at 2:27 of the third period. He later fought off two defenders, only to have his shot stopped by Vladislav Tretiak before Yvan Cournoyer knocked in the rebound at 12:56. When the red light didn’t go on to signify the tying goal, Alan Eagleson was incensed. As he rushed to ice level to protest, he was grabbed by Russian soldiers who dragged him toward the exit. Pete Mahovlich led several Canadian players to Eagleson’s rescue. Swinging their sticks, they wrestled him away from the soldiers and led him across the ice to the Team Canada bench.
A few minutes later, as the game and series appeared to be headed for a tie, the Russians announced they would claim victory because they had scored one more goal on aggregate. With time running out, Paul Henderson leapt over the boards and sped down the ice. Yvan Cournoyer tried to feed him the puck. In the words of legendary play-by-play man Foster Hewitt, “Henderson made a wild stab for it and fell.” He slid into the end boards but scrambled back in front as Esposito fired the puck at Tretiak. “Here’s another shot! Right in front…. They score! Henderson has scored for Canada!” Just 34 seconds remained. Canada held on for a 6–5 victory.
“I found myself in front of the net,” said Henderson afterward. “Tretiak made one stop, but the puck came right back to me. There was room under him, so I poked the puck through. When I saw it go in, I just went bonkers.” So did the entire country.
On 28 September 1972, Canadians across the country watched the final game in Moscow live or tuned in on the radio. TVs were brought into schools and offices as the country virtually came to a standstill. When Paul Henderson scored in the final seconds, giving Canada the victory, the country erupted in celebrations.
The series would have a lasting impact on Canadian hockey. Though the national belief in the superiority of Canadian hockey was damaged, a new ethos was created, one in which Canadian hockey players were considered tougher and more determined than those of other nations. However, the series had also clearly demonstrated the superior preparation and conditioning of the Soviet players. In consequence, European systems and training methods became more widely accepted in North America. More and more European players entered the NHL, drawn at first from the Swedish and Czechoslovakian teams (and later from the Soviet Union itself). In turn, Canadian players increasingly travelled overseas to play hockey, where Canadian styles and attitudes were slowly incorporated into the international game.
In Popular Culture
The Summit Series has been referenced in countless pieces of Canadian pop culture, from an episode of the CTV sitcom Corner Gas to the song “Fireworks” by The Tragically Hip. The series has also been the subject of numerous books, movies and documentaries. A CBC documentary that marked the 20th anniversary of the series aired in September 1992. It was followed in 1996 by the TV documentary Summit on Ice. In 2006, the CBC broadcast the two-part miniseries Canada Russia ’72, which won two Gemini Awards. The documentary Cold War on Ice: Summit Series ’72 was broadcast by NBC in 2012.
Canada Post issued a commemorative stamp in honour of the Summit Series in 2017 as part of its Canada 150 series. Another stamp was scheduled to be released in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the series in September 2022. In July 2021, Peter Raymont’s White Pine Pictures announced that it was producing a feature documentary about the Series called Ice-Breaker. It was set to be released near the 50th anniversary, which will also see the release of 72, a Canadian-Russian documentary series executive-produced by hockey historian Dan Diamond.