Forty years ago, the hockey world fundamentally was changed by the start of an eight-game series between national teams from Canada, loaded with NHL players in their prime, and the Soviet Union -- considered the two best hockey-playing nations in the world at the time -- that played out across the month of September. The series was a must-follow for hockey fans across the globe and after its dramatic conclusion --- a 4-3-1 series win for the Canadians -- there was no question that the NHL never would be the same again. This month, NHL.com looks at the historic Summit Series with a month-long collection of content. Today, NHL.com provides a look back at Game 4 of the series from some of those who helped make the history happen. Stay tuned for additional content throughout September.
It took one week in September 1972 for the hockey world to learn just how good the Soviet Union had become. Luckily for Canada, there was a two-week intermission before the Summit Series would resume Sept. 22 in Moscow.
The Soviets went 2-1-1 in the first four games -- including a dominant 5-3 victory in Game 4 that saw Canada booed off the ice in Vancouver and Phil Esposito lash out at the fans in response. While the Soviets flew to Montreal for some shopping before heading home, Team Canada went back to Toronto before leaving Sept. 12 for Stockholm and a pair of exhibition games against the Swedish national team. These games were designed to help the Canadian players get used to the larger international ice surface that they would see in Moscow -- but they also had a bonding effect on a group of All-Stars who had received a rude awakening after being told they would rout an inferior opponent.
"In Sweden, we became more of a team," Rod Gilbert, coming off an All-Star season with the New York Rangers, told NHL.com. "Don't forget that we played against each other all these years -- guys like Esposito and [Wayne] Cashman [from Boston]; [Yvan] Cournoyer and [Serge] Savard [from Montreal]. It was hard. Now we were all on the same team. It was desperation -- we had to get our act together and play as a unit, rather than as individuals. They were teaching us a hockey lesson like we had never seen."
Canada coach Harry Sinden had some tinkering to do after seeing his team struggle in Canada against a team that played a totally different style than the straight-line version of NHL hockey.
"We had never seen a transition game like that," forward Paul Henderson told NHL.com. "Their transition game was unreal. We'd be in their zone and have a good scoring chance, and the next thing we knew -- they were firing at our net. We weren't prepared for that kind of transition game at all."
Sinden also had to cope with the egos involved with keeping a team of all-stars happy when not everyone was going to suit up. But even those players had a purpose.
"There were 35 of us any only 17 could play," Gilbert said. "They would take the other 17, the guys who weren't playing, they simulated the Russians. We practiced against that and we got more familiar as we went along."
They also got into better physical condition -- something Gilbert said was a major factor in Canada's struggles at home.
"We were never in the shape they were in," he said of the Soviets. "Their physical conditioning was unnerving compared with ours. Eventually we started getting there -- we went to Sweden and we started to get our legs into game shape."
Canada took the ice in Stockholm on Sept. 16 as a bunch of angry players -- and took out their frustrations on the home side in a 4-1 victory that saw Canada outshoot the Swedes 34-24 despite having to kill eight power plays while receiving only four. Even the Canadian ambassador was critical of Canada's play -- though Sinden blamed much of the rough stuff on the Swedes' stickwork and interference.
Cashman, one of the biggest of the Big Bad Bruins in Boston, needed 50 stitches in his tongue after being high-sticked by Ulf Sterner, who had become the first Swede to play in the NHL seven years earlier but went back home partly because the North American game was so physical (this was in an era when international rules on hitting were far different than those in the NHL).
Canada took a 2-1 lead into the third period two nights later but had to score in the final minute to earn a 4-4 tie. Esposito, who had emerged as the team leader after his outburst in Vancouver, scored a shorthanded goal with 47 seconds remaining to tie the game. Team Canada was shorthanded because Vic Hadfield had received a major penalty for high-sticking Swedish captain Lars-Erik Sjoberg.
But the two games in Sweden had been fruitful -- both on the ice and off.
"Once we got on the bigger ice in Sweden -- by that time we had skated for 10-12 days, maybe two weeks, and we got our legs," Henderson said
Canada also headed for Moscow as much more of a unit that it had been two weeks earlier, despite the departure of three players -- Hadfield, Gilbert Perreault and Rick Martin -- before the series resumed in Moscow.
"They were moving the puck much better than we were, until we got some knowledge of what they were doing," Gilbert said of the Soviets. "In Sweden, we really united as a team."
And despite their 2-1-1 lead as they headed home, the Soviets weren't prepared to claim victory.
"No, I'm not confident about victory in Moscow, and nobody on this team is," defenseman Alexander Ragulin said at the time. "We'll say nothing until we've played all eight games."
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