MONTREAL – On September 2, 1972, history was written at the Montreal Forum.
The stage was set for the greatest showdown to ever take place between two of the world’s hockey powerhouses; the U.S.S.R. and Canada. The eight-game series would finally determine who would walk away with bragging rights as the planet’s supreme hockey nation. Six members of the Montreal Canadiens – Yvan Cournoyer, Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe, Ken Dryden and Frank and Pete Mahovlich – temporarily shed the CH and donned the maple leaf to take on the Soviets.
“In 1972, it was really the first time that a lot of those players found themselves wearing the same uniform. Up until that point, we had all been taught to hate each other,” explained Serge Savard, one of the many Canadian superstars on the roster. “For example, I had a pretty strong dislike for Phil Esposito before we had a chance to really meet and socialize a little. Same with Bobby Clarke. I never liked him as a player whenever we faced each other, but when I finally got to know him, he became a good friend.”
The first game of the historic series kicked off at the Montreal Forum on a sweltering September night that saw the mercury hovering around 23-degrees Celsius. Despite the warm weather surrounding the downtown arena, things were about to cool off quickly for the hosting squad and their 18,818 fans inside.
After roaring out of the gate to quickly score the first two goals of the game, Canada watched its chances of walking away with the win go up in smoke, as the U.S.S.R. stormed back with an offensive showcase of their own. When the dust cleared, the Canadians found themselves down in the series, dropping the first game 7-3 to the Soviet machine.
After a quiet start to the tournament, the second match, held in Toronto, saw the team’s Canadiens contingent catch fire. Yvan Cournoyer and both the Mahovlich brothers found the back of the net in the game’s final frame, propelling Canada to a 4-1 victory and pulling them even in the series.
The next two games to come would also take place on Canadian soil, with one in Winnipeg and the other in Vancouver. While the teams ended their Winnipeg matchup deadlocked at four goals apiece, the U.S.S.R. gave themselves the edge heading back to Moscow, winning the western-Canada swing by a score of 5-3.
Before playing out the final four games of the tournament, Team Canada and the Soviets made a quick stop-over in Sweden for a pair of exhibition games that saw the Canadians take the first 4-1 and tie the second 4-4.
Heading into enemy territory with a record of 1-2-1 Team Canada knew that a comeback against the Soviets on their own home turf wasn’t going to be easy – and things were about to get worse before they got better. Leading 4-1 after two periods of the fifth game, Harry Sinden’s troops couldn’t hang on for the win, ultimately dropping the match 5-4 to the disappointment of the 3,000 Canadian fans who had made the lengthy voyage to cheer them on.
The Canadians’ backs were firmly against the wall. A lot would have to happen if they hoped to cross the Atlantic and return home as heroes. The tides finally began to turn on September 24, in front of 15,000 hockey fans gathered at the Luzhniki Ice Palace. In a game that saw Canada spend 31 minutes in the penalty box, compared to the U.S.S.R.’s four, the Canadians kept hope alive, managing to edge out a 3-2 win. Ken Dryden stopped 20 of 22 shots he faced that night.
With a win on enemy ground under its belt, but still no room for error, Team Canada set its sights on the series’ seventh game. After notching the winning goal in Game 6, Paul Henderson stepped up again in Game 7, lighting the lamp with only two minutes left in the game, undressing two Soviet defensemen before firing a perfect shot – while falling – past Vladislav Tretiak.
The deciding match would take place in Moscow two days later, with Ken Dryden and Vladislav Tretiak facing off in one of the most iconic hockey games in the history of the sport. Down 5-3 after two periods of action, Canada surged back in the third, with goals by Phil Esposito and Yvan Cournoyer pulling the visiting team even. Finally, with 34 seconds left in the match Henderson – who else! – managed to slip one past Tretiak. Scoring the winning goal for a third consecutive game, Henderson’s marker not only won the night and the series for the Canadians, but helped put Canada at the top of the world’s hockey hierarchy.
Vincent Cauchy is a writer for canadiens.com. Translated by Justin Fragapane
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