Summit Series changed hockey
It's hard to believe than the momentus 1972 Summit Series between Canadian National Hockey League players and the Soviet Union national team took place over 30 years ago.
The remarkable eight-game series, which lasted from Sept. 2 to Sept. 28, began with the Soviets winning two and tying one of the four games played in Canada. Then, after the Soviets won Game 5 in Moscow to take a commanding 3-1-1 lead, the NHL players, led by Paul Henderson's game-winning goals, swept the last three games in Moscow to win the Series.
Henderson's goal with 34 seconds remaining in Game 8 secured the 6-5 NHL victory. A tie would have given the Soviets a series victory.
The NHL players proved they were the world's best, albeit by a narrow margin. But the whole world could see that the Soviets played with plenty of speed and intelligence. Their style would soon influence the North American game, creating the hybrid hockey in vogue throughout the world today.
"The Summit Series verified how good the Europeans and the Russians were," said Canadian star Bobby Clarke, now the general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers. "It was almost like a Hollywood script for us to come back and win like we did, with the whole nation watching. It was really, really good for Canada. It carried Canada for a long time as the powerhouse in hockey. Canada always wanted that label and took pride in it."
Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak proved he was the equal of Canadians Ken Dryden and Tony Esposito. Valeri Kharlamov, injured in Game 6, was the best player in the series before Henderson's late heroics.
The impetus for the series sprang from anger on both sides. Canada had withdrawn from the 1972 Winter Olympics (along with Sweden) protesting that the Soviet players who had taken the hockey gold medal in 1956, 1964 and 1968 were not amateurs. They claimed that the Soviet players, with their Army commissions, free housing, etc., were paid by their government to play hockey. Olympic officials, protective of the Soviets and angered by the Canadian allegations, had forced the Canadian Olympic team to show identification papers during the warm-up before their opening game at the 1968 Olympics.
The Soviets were angered by the allegations and the superior attitude of the NHL players who believed there was a huge talent gap between themselves and the Olympic amateurs.
It was that hubris that led to the Canadians' stumbling start. The Soviets, who maintained year-round training facilities, began training on ice on July 3, 1972, 43 days before the Canadians. While the Soviet drilled hard, the first few days of the Canadians' preparations were like a party, in the players' own words.
Bobby Orr wrote in the Toronto Sun,"Team Canada has just too much firepower for the Russians. The first four games in Canada could be close because the Russians are always in top condition, have excellent discipline and will have played together for some time.
"But by the end of September, the Canadian team will be in top shape and the people in Moscow will see a tremendous display of power. I honestly can't see the Russians winning one game in the series.
"Team Canada just doesn’t have a weakness. Look at the lineup – the strongest hockey team ever assembled to play as a unit in more than just one game."
The Canadian team suffered a major blow when knee problems sidelined Orr for the series. It also refused to admit non-NHL players, barring World Hockey Association star Bobby Hull and others.
The Russians played three exhibition games against East German club teams, winning easily. The Canadians entered the series off practices.
It looked like the Canadian prophecies would come true when they went up 2-0 in the first 6˝ minutes of Game 1. Phil Esposito beat Tretiak on the first shot of the game at 30 seconds and Henderson beat Tretiak with a hard shot on the far side.
But the Soviets were unflustered and stormed back for a 7-3 victory in Montreal. Kharlamov, Boris Mikhailov and Evgeny Zimin each scored twice against Dryden.
Clarke, the last man chosen for the Canadian team and a surprise pick over Norm Ullman, scored the other Canadian goal. The three Canadian scorers -- Henderson, Esposito and Clarke -- would prove to be their best players in the series.