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The Miracle in Moscow

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks
Stan Mikita (right) takes a faceoff during the 1972 Summit Series (Photo by Hockey Hall of Fame/Images on Ice).

It has been 40 years since the epic “Summit Series,” and still there are serial reunions by the victors, ranging from golf tournaments to gala dinners to charitable functions. Of course, had Team Canada failed to defeat the Soviet Union, there would be a grim residue of ifs, maybes and what-might-have-beens.

“Ooh, I hate to think what might have happened had we lost,” said Bill White. “That was hockey at a completely different level. It was huge in Canada. For the last game, the country was basically closed. Schools were let out, offices shut down, streets empty. If we had lost, I’d have had to come back home, hide under a rock somewhere in northern Ontario, and change my name, just to be safe. And now, I’d probably still be living under that rock.”

White was one of several Blackhawks to participate in a storied eight-game tournament that began as an exhibition between two cultures and soon evolved into a tense competition rife with political overtones, frayed emotions and accusatory remarks. Yet, when Team Canada prevailed 6-5 on Paul Henderson’s famous goal in Moscow to emerge triumphant with four wins, three losses and one tie, the Summit Series opened eyes and doors that influenced and enriched the sport.

“We learned they could really play, and so did they,” recalled Dennis Hull, another Blackhawk. “And you can see that now, with all the Russians who have come over to play here. Even though the Russians lost, when they look back at it, they realized it was a fabulous show. So, they’re also marking the 40th anniversary of the Summit Series. A few of us who were there in 1972 recently went to Moscow for lunch with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. A very impressive man. I mentioned to him that he must be pretty excited about meeting me. He said, through an interpreter, ‘I could hardly sleep last night.’”

In any language, laughter did not exactly abound throughout the month of September, although mutual admiration increased with every shift. Team Canada comprised a gaudy array of National Hockey League stars and future Hall of Famers. Although a few icons were excluded — such as Bobby Hull, who had left the Blackhawks in May 1972 for Winnipeg of the rival World Hockey Association — the pros from North America were deemed overwhelming favorites to dispose of the Soviets, who had earned various global honors, notably in the Winter Olympics, but remained something of a mystery.

“We were supposed to win easily,” said Dennis Hull. “The experts had us beating them in a walkover, and a lot of our scouts told us they weren’t very good. But our scouts worked for the Toronto Maple Leafs. That’s all you need to know. The guys on our team knew the Soviets were talented. We just didn’t realize to what extent.”

Shock pertaining to the task at hand came early and often. In Game 1 at the Montreal Forum on September 2, Phil Esposito of the Boston Bruins scored for Team Canada 30 seconds into the first period, and Henderson of the Toronto Maple Leafs made it 2-0 in the seventh minute. Stan Mikita, the Blackhawk legend, was sitting in the stands with Boston’s incomparable Bobby Orr, who was injured.

“Bobby nudged me after our second goal,” Mikita recollected. “He said to me, ‘Let’s go get a beer…this thing is over.’ So we went and got a beer. When we got back to our seats, we looked up at the scoreboard and couldn’t believe it.”

The Soviets tallied four straight goals and went on to complete a 7-3 romp. Woe, Canada. An entire nation, weaned on hockey, was in disbelief. Tony Esposito, Chicago’s future Hall of Famer, replaced Ken Dryden of the Montreal Canadiens in goal for Game 2, and order seemed to be restored. The NHL’s best recorded a 4-1 conquest in Toronto on September 4. Little could fans in the Great White North fathom that their heroes would not win again on home ice. The teams played a 4-4 tie in Winnipeg on September 6, with Tony Esposito dueling Vladislav Tretiak between the pipes, but the Soviets whipped Dryden and Team Canada 5-3 in Vancouver on September 8.

“We got booed out of the building,” said Dennis Hull. “That’s where Phil went on national TV and aired it out. He let our critics have it. We weren’t really aware of it, because we were in the locker room, but we heard all about it. Phil was the heart of our team. In Boston, he was often accused of being great because he played with Bobby Orr. Phil didn’t have Bobby against the Soviets, and he carried us. He was fantastic. But we were still facing a monumental problem. We had won one out of four games in Canada, and now we’re going to Moscow. The Americans talk about the 'Miracle on Ice' at the 1980 Winter Olympics against the Soviets. Well, in 1972, that’s what we needed. A miracle.”

Before arriving in the Soviet Union, Team Canada paused in Stockholm for two games against Sweden. It was there, by multiple accounts, that the North Americans came together. Harry Sinden, who coached the Bruins to a Stanley Cup championship in 1970 and was the head man behind Team Canada, decided to shorten his bench. Originally, the idea was to use all players on the expanded 35-man roster. But that changed for obvious reasons, and a few notables departed for home rather than idle. At the midpoint of the Summit Series, however, the NHL stars were feeling energized instead of weary, and not entirely because they sensed Canadian fans had quit on them.

“When we started the series, we were not in shape,” said White. “We had only trained for a couple weeks after a summer off from our NHL teams. The Soviets trained all year. Canada had made that mistake before, sending amateur teams and so forth to the Soviet Union, where their players were always ahead of ours on conditioning. But in Sweden, you could see our guys were getting our legs back. We were skating better, the shots were harder, the passes crisper.”

By this time, Sinden had settled on his premier tandem on defense — White and his customary partner with the Blackhawks, Pat Stapleton. After White came to Chicago in a 1970 trade, he quickly became a perfect complement to Stapleton, who was excellent at moving the puck. They also became co-conspirators in the department of pranks, a legacy that continued throughout the Summit Series. In Moscow, for instance, White and Stapleton “discovered” a Chinese restaurant and arranged buses for teammates and Canadian tourists to enjoy a wonderful meal. When the time came to depart, neither White nor Stapleton showed.

“A Chinese restaurant in the Soviet Union in 1972?” Stapleton says now. “Of course, there wasn’t any, but the story was too good to let go. As I look back, I feel badly about that.”

Sure he does. On the ice, White and Stapleton were quite serious and efficient. They did not suit up for Game 1 in Montreal, but Tony Esposito lobbied for them as a voice of experience.

“That’s one thing I heard over and over from the people over there: They were amazed by how we kept trying, no matter what the score was. They were surprised about a lot of things. But those fans were right: We didn’t give up.” - Dennis Hull

“I saw what they could do in front of me in Chicago,” said Tony O. “They were terrific together, and when they finally made it into the lineup in Toronto for Game 2, they were great. As a goalie, the Soviets presented a different challenge than what you saw in the NHL. They were very methodical. They never shot from all over. They weren’t going to blow it by you from the point. They worked for quality shots instead of quantity, so you had to stay back in your net and be patient, just like they were. Once in a while, they might make a deflection, but mostly it was cat and mouse. A possession game. Gradually, what happened was that we got in better shape and adjusted to their style, while they played their same game.”

Dennis Hull seconds the notion.

“The Soviets had skill, but they didn’t improvise,” he said. “Their system was very disciplined, almost robotic. If one of them came in and had what appeared to be an open shot, he would still pass it to a certain spot because that’s what they were supposed to do. After a while, we figured it out. One of their guys would pass the puck to where he was supposed to pass it, and Stapleton would be there instead to pick it off.”

Still, after trailing 3-0 in Game 5 on September 22, the Soviets exploded for five goals in the third period to beat Team Canada 5-4 in their opener and hand Tony O his only loss of the tournament. With Dennis Hull scoring, Team Canada rebounded in Game 6 to win 3-2. Two nights later, Team Canada recorded another gritty victory, 4-3, with Henderson breaking a tie late in the third period and Tony Esposito in net.

“Pressure,” said Tony O. “There was tremendous pressure during the entire two weeks, and now it was down to one last game with everything tied up.”

On September 28, 1972, Moscow’s Luzhniki Ice Palace was packed with spectators. So was a train station in Montreal for the telecast. Maybe 5,000 would-be commuters stood in place. Maybe 10,000. It would have been a good day to rob a bank in Canada, except that the thieves wanted to watch hockey too. Cold War anxieties had been palpable throughout the Summit Series, and the game was not about to engender a sense of goodwill, not when the Soviets announced that Josef Kompalla, a West German, would be a referee for the climactic contest. Team Canada organizers were furious, claiming that the Soviets had refused to honor a mutual agreement for one referee from Sweden and another from Czechoslovakia. Alan Eagleson, who ran the NHL Players Association and was a prime mover behind the Summit Series, threatened to keep Team Canada from participating. He was told in no uncertain terms that Kompalla would work the game; in a compromise, the visitors could chose the other referee — Rudy Batja, a Czech.

“We had heard that if Kompalla did well, he might advance to future Olympic games,” said White. “We knew something was going on. It was almost like the fix was in.”

Game 8 contained several incidents. After a misconduct penalty was assessed to J.P. Parise of the Minnesota North Stars, he darted across the rink and raised his stick menacingly at Kompalla. That resulted in a match penalty. Sinden threw a chair onto the ice. Later, on an apparent tally by Team Canada, the goal judge failed to ignite the light. Eagleson stormed from the stands in protest and had to be restrained by security. Pete Mahovlich, waving his stick at police, left the bench along with several teammates in an effort to protect Eagleson. Meanwhile, the Soviets, who had beaten Dryden five times through 40 minutes, held a 5-3 lead, and Sinden suspected they would settle for a tie and claim a series victory via total goals.

“That’s one thing I heard over and over from the people over there,” Hull said. “They were amazed by how we kept trying, no matter what the score was. They were surprised about a lot of things. How could this big round man like Phil be so effective? All the Soviet players had these great bodies, with maybe 2 percent body fat. Phil’s was higher than that. But those fans were right about one thing: We didn’t give up.”

Mikita, who hadn’t played since Game 2 in Winnipeg, received permission to depart for his native Czechoslovakia before Game 8. Team Canada was to play an exhibition the next night in Prague, where Stan remained a national hero. He watched Game 8 with wife Jill in a hotel, on a black and white TV.

“Black and white and unbelievable,” recounts Mikita.

Phil Esposito and Cournoyer scored in the third period to reach a 5-5 deadlock. Then, on a flurry generated by Phil Esposito, Henderson gathered his own rebound and slipped the puck by Tretiak with 34 seconds remaining in regulation. 

“HENDERSON HAS SCORED FOR CANADA!!” exclaimed the legendary broadcaster, Foster Hewitt, to every corner of each province. In the arena, Soviet spectators stood in stunned silence, a stark contrast to the visiting delegation. Denis Brodeur, father of New Jersey Devils goalie Martin, snapped a photograph of Henderson jumping into Cournoyer’s arms. That historic picture is part of Canadian lore. 

“It was bedlam,” White recalled. “But it wasn’t over. Pat and I were on defense, and we were exhausted. We looked over at our bench, and nobody was moving. We were there to the finish.”

At game’s end, thousands of Canadians took to the streets in celebration on a Thursday afternoon half a world away. In Moscow, Team Canada adjourned to the locker room, exultant and relieved. They had amassed 147 penalty minutes in the series, compared to 84 for the Soviets. Power plays were 38 to 23 for the Soviets. Critics, and there were many, charged Team Canada with roughhouse tactics. Team Canada strongly suggested that the disparity in power plays had less to do with the men in uniform than the men with whistles. But it was over, except for an early-morning flight to Prague.

“We were supposed to have a party with the Soviets afterward, but only three of them showed up,” said Hull. “We were told the rest had the flu. Then, we got on our plane after no sleep for Prague. Those who could stand played. That night in Prague, Stan gets a 10-minute ovation. He’s crying, I’m crying. Quite an experience. Cournoyer told me after we won in Moscow that winning the series was ten times greater than winning a Stanley Cup. And he would know. After we got killed by writers for the way we started out, we were voted ‘Team of the Century’ in Canada. Did we think the Soviets would be sent to Siberia for losing? We thought, if we had lost, we might be sent to Siberia. But we did it, and now, 40 years later, whenever I make a speech, and I do about 50 a year, people in Canada want to talk about that series. And when they see Pat Stapleton, they ask him about the clinching puck. He picked it up at the end of the game and still has it.”

Stapleton, with a hint of mischief in his voice, denies all.

“Would I kid you?” he said. “Bill White has it.”

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