Skip to main content

Incredible story of 1972 Summit Series grows with each passing year

NHL.com @NHL

Paul Henderson couldn't get off the bench.

He'd just scored the last-minute goal that would clinch hockey's Summit Series for Canada and, exhausted, he took a seat as that unforgettable game wound down on Sept. 28, 1972, in Moscow.

"It was just a wonderful release," Henderson says of the joy of directing in a rebound for what has been described as The Goal of the Century. "It was incredibly emotional."

Yet, coach Harry Sinden wanted more. He wanted Henderson back on the ice till the final buzzer to finish off the Soviets.

"I said, 'Harry, I'm finished,"' Henderson recalls 35 years later. "I was spent.

"The tank was empty. I said, 'No chance, put somebody else out there."'

Time marches on, but it never dulls the interest in that historic eight-game series.

Henderson will mark the anniversary giving motivational speeches at a leadership conference at an inn north of Toronto.

Canadians who watched the live Summit Series broadcasts will never forget the drama that unfolded.

Three of the participants are gone: forward Bill Goldsworthy died in 1996, defenceman Gary Bergman passed away in 2000 and assistant coach John Ferguson died this year.

"His personality and his way of going about the job he had was an absolute necessity for the team," Sinden replies when asked to describe Ferguson's importance. "When I look at it in retrospect, I don't know what I would have done without him.

"He defused problems. With 35 players, all stars in their own right in the NHL, we had to deal with a lot of egos. Each time a situation cropped up, he was the one to arbitrate it or save it or whatever. That was the role he played that was vital to keep that thing together."

At a recent golf reunion just north of Toronto, 25 of the players, plus Sinden, renewed acquaintances.

"I saw kids who weren't born at the time, probably not even thought about at the time and I'm not even sure there parents were born yet, running around after the players getting autographs," said Sinden, who is 75 now. "It's incredible.

"It seems the memories of that event are indelible. It was more than sporting event. It was a historical event for the country."

The high Team Canada left Moscow on was something few of those involved would re-experience in their hockey careers.

"The final game, the final minute, the hour or so after the game when you realize you won it - it was such an experience," Sinden recalls. "Realizing how many people were so interested in it, the jubilation we all felt on the ice and in the locker-room . . ."

It all comes flooding back.

Back in those days, players didn't take home training manuals from strength coaches and spend summer days working out as is often the case today.

"People don't realize that the summertime was precious time to pro hockey players then," Sinden explained from Boston. "They took time off time to relax and be with their families.

"We basically took most of the summer away from them. They were bound to be edgy."

It took a two-month commitment - an August camp and 28 days in September - to be part of the team.

Bill White was one of the defencemen summoned.

"I remember pulling into a parking lot at Maple Leaf Gardens and Frank Mahovlich getting out of his car and us walking in together the first day of training camp," said White, who is 68 now. "It was hard getting used to playing with each other because we were all pretty much enemies during the season.

"We had to drop those old animosities. I'd just come down from the cottage. Other than water-skiing and swimming, that was the extent of my exercise that summer."

The Canadians were hyped as overwhelming favourites.

"I was just a kid," recalls Bobby Clarke. "It was great to be chosen to play on a team like that. It was like heaven for me."

The Canadians, far from being in top playing condition, got blown away by the Soviets in the series opener.

"We were going to beat the shit out of the Russians and everything was going to be fun," Clarke, a youthful 58, said from Philadelphia. "It played out a little differently.

"Some of the veterans were bitching and moaning and until we got our asses kicked in Montreal some didn't take it seriously, which was probably why it was such a struggle at the start."

It all worked out in the end, and Phil Esposito was one who stepped up.

"Phil was the leader of our team and the best player for that entire tournament," says Sinden.

While Henderson's scoring feats are applauded every Sept. 28, it was a team effort, Clarke reminds.

"Ronnie Ellis basically shut Valery Kharlamov down for much of that series," said Clarke. "He allowed Paul Henderson to be an offensive threat.

"Serge Savard was enormous in that series, quietly enormous. J.P. Parise, guys like that, didn't get much recognition but were tremendous team players and contributors, not necessarily on the scoresheet."

Some of the players' fondest memories of the whole thing are of the flight home from Prague.

White recalls that he and Pat Stapleton got their hands on a team doctor's scalpel and cut his jacket stitches while he was snoozing. Upon landing in Montreal, the doc approached a waiting prime minister.

"He put his hand out to shake Pierre Trudeau's hand and the arms and the back of the jacket were coming off," recalls White.

The jokesters had a ball on that flight home. There was a lot to celebrate.

"We drank a lot of beer," recalls Clarke.

It has always been a mystery what happened to the puck shot by Henderson to score The Goal. It was Stapleton who snatched it off the ice.

"Whitey (Stapleton) has it," White says from Woodbridge, Ont. "He'll tell you hasn't got it, but he has it."

"I don't know who's got it now," the 68-year-old Stapleton says from his Strathroy, Ont., home.

He'd rather talk about how strange Communist society seemed to the visiting Canucks back in '72, and how the opposition's five-man units represented such a radically different force with which to contend.

He thinks he knows why Canada won the decisive game.

"In the third period, they didn't compete very well - not as hard as they had," said Stapleton. "They went into the third period with a 5-3 lead and their whole thought process seemed to be, 'Let's get through 20 minutes and we're done with them.'

"From what I can remember, they didn't attack. We scored our fourth goal and then they were really back on their heels.

"The best defence is still a good offence. That hasn't changed in my opinion of being around the game for 60 years."

Most of them had nothing special planned for the anniversary.

"I would expect I'll talk to ('72 team manager) Al Eagleson and that'll probably be it," said Clarke.

View More