Skip to main content

Summit Series changed hockey forever

USSR-Canada matchup in 1972 helped transform sport into international game

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / Columnist

MONTREAL -- Pat Stapleton vividly remembers sitting wordlessly in his bus seat outside the Montreal Forum, the quiet on board reflecting the stunned silence of Canada as a whole.

It was late on the night of Sept. 2, 1972, and the eight-game Summit Series between all-star teams from the NHL and the Soviet Union was underway with a Game 1 result that no one had predicted.

Video: Esposito on the pride of playing for your country

USSR 7, Canada 3.

"We got on the bus after the game, and I was sitting at the window when Ken [Dryden] sat down beside me," Stapleton said Wednesday, speaking of the shell-shocked goaltender. "He turned to me and said, 'What happened?' and I remember saying, 'I think we lost our composure.'"

At just about the time that Canada had lost its mind.

Stapleton was back at the Forum for a ceremony to celebrate the Summit Series, a hockey event unlike none before or after it.

With Stapleton and fellow Canada defenseman Serge Savard taking part, the Government of Canada's Historic Sites and Monuments Board unveiled a plaque that will be displayed in the Forum, site of that remarkable and nightmarish (to Canadians) Game 1.

"The game we want to forget," Savard joked. "The game we don't want to talk about."

Stapleton, Savard and a handful of other Canada alumni are embarking on a four-stop multimedia auditorium tour of Montreal, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Toronto, beginning here Friday and wrapping up Sept. 10 in Toronto. Through images, film clips, highlights, lowlights, interviews and question-and-answer sessions, those attending will relive a large part of a series that for 27 days in September 1972 stood Canada, and the hockey world, on its ear.

Through the years, there have been World Championship, Olympic Games, Canada Cup and World Cup tournaments and various tours and one-off games between Soviet/Russian and NHL teams. But no series has had the importance of the Summit Series, and no other has pitted political ideologies against each other or reshaped the very way hockey is played.

Canada won the series with four victories, three losses and a tie. Paul Henderson scored the winning goals in Games 6, 7 and 8 in Moscow, becoming a national icon created with the most unthinkable of hat tricks.

But this series was about much more than one man's heroics. It was about two teams going at each other with hammer and sickle and tong, with Canada winning on Henderson's dramatic goal with 34 seconds left in Game 8.

"We talk about the Summit Series a lot more now than we did in the first 10 years after it was played. I don't know exactly why, but it's history," said Savard, who won eight Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens on his way being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1986.

Canada recovered from its dismantling in Game 1 with a 4-1 victory in Game 2 at Toronto two nights later. The teams tied 4-4 in Game 3 at Winnipeg, and the Soviets won 5-3 in Game 4 in Vancouver before their 5-4 win in Game 5 after the series moved to Moscow.

That set the stage for Canada's backs-to-the-wall rally and three straight victories - 3-2, 4-3 and 6-5 - to win the series.

Forty-four years less two days after Game 1 sent stunned Canadians to bed for sleep that did not come for many, the plaque unveiling at the Forum on Wednesday put the series into a context that has been the subject of books, movies, scholarly theses and soon, through a corporation founded by Stapleton and former teammates, into English and French schools for academic study.

Watch: Canadiens honor Summit Series players in 2012

This will be full circle, televisions having been rolled into Canadian classrooms in 1972, the entire country shutting down with hockey supremacy hanging in the balance.

"It became a political series, and that wasn't our fault. We didn't want that," Savard said of the players. "The Russians were leading the series when we went over there [for Games 5-8] and those guys wanted to show the world that their way of doing things was the right way, that their way of training was the best, that they had the best athletes in the world.

"All of a sudden, we woke up and said, 'Hey, we invented this game, not you guys.' Yet (Soviet leader Leonid) Brezhnev was sitting behind the net in one corner. It was political and we were caught in the middle of it.

"But after all the Stanley Cup teams I've been on, I don't think you can elevate yourself emotionally like we did in 1972. It's impossible."

For Savard, who played five of eight games and was the only Canada player not to taste defeat, winning the final three games of the series was the highlight of his career.

"Winning three straight? Nobody would have bet on that," he said. "The best moment for me was the last goal that Paul Henderson scored. If we tie that game, we lose the series. Paul might have been the hero, but he didn't play any better than Phil Esposito, and Yvan Cournoyer had a great series."

Esposito and Cournoyer were brilliant throughout, and their industrious work set up Henderson's historic goal.

The series defined the hockey lives of many members of the winning side and of their opponents, who were highly praised by Stapleton for having lifted Team Canada to its stirring comeback.

"It's a Hollywood script, to think there were 10 different NHL team cultures coming together for 27 days," Stapleton said. "There were high-strung guys, and management (led by Harry Sinden and John Ferguson) put no doubt or no quit in them.

"I think the one thing that brought our guys together was the interpersonal skill that allowed us to think as individuals and encourage one another, support one another, maybe even criticize one another. The Russians' system never changed."

What did change, Savard believes, was the face of hockey itself. It was a series for the ages that restyled the game's landscape forever.

"It's something that will and could never happen again," he said, "Go back to 1972 and hockey was mainly Canada and the USSR. There were no players from Europe in the NHL, very few Americans, so hockey was really those two countries.

"I think this series really changed the game itself. Not the first year after, but I remember Scotty Bowman, our coach in Montreal, would be the first who started to change the technique, the way we practiced. That series really shocked the hockey world. Today, the game is international. I think that series was the turning point of all of these changes."

In more than four decades, Savard has watched remarkably little of this monumental series. He was happy to remember it Wednesday, and happy too that it will be remembered in the once-famous Montreal arena, now a retail center and movie multiplex, where it all began.

"I ran into Wayne Gretzky in Edmonton last winter and he told me, 'Serge, every time I have free time, I watch that series,'" Savard said with a grin. "Me? I know the result. And I'm happy with it."

More on the Summit Series tour:

View More