It was September of 1972. I was only eight years old — wouldn’t turn nine until late October — and in grade four at Snowcrest Public School. (That’s fourth grade, for those of you who speak American.) I started playing hockey that year too, although I wasn’t very good yet.
There’s actually quite a lot I still remember about that school year.
But nothing was bigger than the Canada-Russia series!
You can pretty much draw a straight line — well, maybe not all that straight, really — from that series in 1972 (it wasn’t called the Summit Series until some time later) to today, and what I do for a living 50 years later, and have been doing for more than 30 years. So, how could I not write about it?
That being said, I really don’t have anything new to contribute to the collective memory. Even my one bit of original insight is discussed (a little bit) in Ken Dryden’s new book, The Series: What I Remember, What It Felt Like, What It Feels Like Now.
I came to know Ken when he was president of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (He has helped me, from time to time over the years, with answers to questions for some of my own projects.) We at Dan Diamond & Associates did a lot of work with the Leafs when they were moving from Maple Leafs Gardens to the Air Canada Centre (now the Scotiabank Arena) and Ken and Dan became good friends. He came to a few of our office Christmas parties and curling bonspiels.
At one of those events, I’d mentioned to Ken that I’d recently watched the entire ’72 series, which had come out on DVD around that time, and how exciting it still was! This was probably in 2002. At that point, Ken had never seen the games since having played in them 30 years before. I asked him how come he and the others who had played with the Canadian national team (the Nats) before going pro hadn’t been able to impart to their Team Canada teammates just how good the Russians really were. He basically told me, “I thought the NHL players were that much better.”
Dryden had seen the Soviet team in action for the first time when he joined the Nats for the 1969 World Championships in Sweden in March. He would face them for the first time on December 20, 1969. Dryden writes that the game was in Victoria, but it was actually in Vancouver. The Nats beat the Soviets the next night in Victoria 5-1 with Wayne Stephenson in goal, but in Vancouver on the 20th, they’d beaten Dryden and the Canadians 9-3.
“Rod Seiling,” says Dryden of his Team Canada teammate in his new book, “had played against the Russians with the national team, Red Berenson [another new teammate] with the Belleville McFarlands, and a few others against touring Russian teams as juniors. And when I said the Russians were good, I knew they were — I’d lost, 9-3, in Victoria! Some of the others might have known too. [Brian Glennie, who was with Team Canada, had played at the 1968 Olympics.] But the Russians had only been good against the national team and junior teams, few of whose players ever played a minute in the NHL. This was Team Canada. These were NHL stars, the best in the world. So, I knew, but really, I only kind of knew.”
As for me, at the age of eight … I knew nothing!
I didn’t even know there was such a thing as international hockey. Had no idea of the string of Soviet successes. I’m not 100 percent certain I actually remember the announcement that was made in April of 1972 that the series would happen, or the unveiling of the roster in June. But I certainly do remember the fuss about Bobby Hull being ineligible for the team because he’d left the NHL to sign with the World Hockey Association. And I remember all the talk of how Canada would beat the Russians in all eight games.
I believed it
Why wouldn’t I?
Like I said, I knew nothing about international hockey. I’d watched the Apollo moon landings, but I really knew nothing of the Space Race either. The Russians might as well have been men from the moon as far as I knew. We played hockey in Canada. No one else did! There were plenty of American teams in the NHL … but all the players were Canadians.
Of course we’d win all eight games!
Game one was played on September 2, (a Saturday night) in Montreal. We watched in Toronto at my Zweig grandparents’ apartment. My grandfather had died at the end of August. This was still a night of sitting shiva, the weeklong mourning period in Judaism. I was at the apartment with my mother and father and my two brothers. I remember my father’s Uncle Abe being there too. I think Uncle Saul as well. (They were my grandmother’s brothers.) I’d been to my grandfather’s funeral just five days before … but the memories are completely separate.
What I remember from that night is the excitement of Canada’s two quick opening goals; Phil Esposito after just 30 seconds, and Paul Henderson’s goal six minutes later. I don’t remember when it dawned on us that the Soviets were starting to take over. I do remember it was 4-2 for them after two periods, and that the heat in Montreal was making our guys look slow, sweaty, and tired. (Did I realize how much it was the Russians making us look slow, sweaty, and tired? I don’t remember.) I do remember Bobby Clarke scoring in the third period to cut the lead to 4-3, and that it was all downhill after that until the 7-3 final.
Was I stunned?
I can’t really say that I was.
When you’re eight years old, I think you take the world as it comes.
I don’t remember anything hockey from the Sunday off day, but Monday was Labour Day so Tuesday was a school day. For that reason, I was only allowed to watch the first period of game two from Toronto on Monday night. I may have listened to more on the radio after going to bed, but I’m sure I didn’t know the final score (Canada won, 4-1) until I woke up on Tuesday morning. I don’t remember talking about it at school … although we must have! I do remember talking to my friend, Alan Rusonik, later in the week about the Soviet national anthem. We all liked that!
On September 6, I likely watched only the first period of game three from Winnipeg as well. That one ended in a 4-4 tie. What I actually do remember about that game came the next day, when a young woman who was going to Seneca College arrived at our house. She would be living in a bedroom in our basement that school year, and helping to look after my brothers and me. The first thing I remember Cheryl saying to us was, “Don’t you think they should be playing overtime in a series like this?”
I knew I was going to like her!
But, of course, that tie game would later help in the dramatic finish.
Game four, in Vancouver, was played 50 years ago tonight, on September 8, which was a Friday in 1972. We watched that one at our cousin’s, the Freedman’s, house. As it wasn’t a school night, I guess we were allowed to stay up and watch it all, but I can’t say I remember too much of this one either.
I do remember the booing.
Especially when Frank Mahovlich fell on top of Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak … and took way too long to get up off him.
I must have seen Phil Esposito’s speech after the game, where he basically took Canadian fans and media to task for the boos and bad press. I’ve seen the clip many times in recent years, so it’s hard to be sure what I know and what I remember. It’s possible that I mainly remember it from pictures in the book Twenty-Seven Days in September, which came out in 1973, and which I’m sure I studied more closely than any school book I ever read.
After the Vancouver game, the series took a two-week break before it resumed in Moscow. The Canadian players had a few days off, and then travelled to Sweden for a pair of exhibition games with the Swedish national team. There was no coverage of those games here in Canada, but I do remember the bad press and the Swedes accusing the Canadians of being thugs.
Game five, the first game in Moscow, was played on September 22. Another Friday. I watched the opening ceremonies, with the exchange of gifts and flowers, while I was home for lunch. Definitely saw Espo slip and fall, then bow to the crowd. And then it was back to school.
At some point that afternoon, probably after recess, I remember just walking out of my classroom. Mr. McMinn’s class was up the hall. His kids were what we called “the slow learners.” They had a TV in their room. I suppose they used it to watch Sesame Street, or other educational programs on TVO. This afternoon, they were watching the hockey game!
I sat in the hallway, outside the door, and listened.
I can still sort of see myself, sitting there.
I don’t really remember what I heard, but I know that Canada blew a 4-1 lead in that game and lost 5-4. Still, the noisy gang of 3,000 Canadian fans in the stands cheered the team off the ice. Team Canada trailed the series 3-1-1 … but the tide was about to turn.
I don’t remember if, back in Canada, we knew what was going on in Moscow at the time. Over the years, we’ve heard about the phones ringing all night. The food (and beer) disappearing. (I feel like I knew about that at the time.) I also don’t remember any discussion of Bobby Clarke’s slash to the ankle of Valeri Kharlamov in game six. In fact, for some reason, I don’t remember much of game six at all. It was played on a Sunday afternoon, Toronto time. I remember hearing some of it in the car while running errands with my father.
I have no idea why I wasn’t at home watching.
Radio would play a big part in my following game seven on Tuesday afternoon. Once again, I watched the early part of the game on TV at lunchtime, but this time I brought a transistor radio to school with me. I remember listening to it while walking in the school yard. Might still have been lunch time, but definitely at recess later.
It was 2-2 after two periods … and Canada needed to win this game to have a chance to win the series in game eight. Back at my desk in our classroom, I turned the radio down, but I didn’t turn it off. Our teacher, Ms. Tadman (the first Ms. I ever knew) didn’t seem like a hockey fan (I remember her as a terrible skater), but she said something to me along the lines of, “if you’ve got a radio, turn it up so we can all hear.” Which I did … and we listened to Canada score a 4-3 victory. The series was tied 3-3-1.
Two days later, for the eighth and final game, Ms. Tadman brought a TV into our classroom!
Again, I don’t really know what I remember because I saw it that afternoon or what I remember because I know it happened. There were all the bad penalty calls early in the game. There was J.P. Parise nearly swinging his stick at the referee. Later, there was the goal judge failing to turn on the light to signal a Canadian goal, and the players skating across the ice to rescue Alan Eagleson from the Soviet police after he’d protested.
As for the score, it was 2-2 after one period, but it was 5-3 Russia after two.
One of the things I remember for certain was that, when it was time for recess, the school made us go out and play. Normally, recess was my favourite part of the day, but that day, I wanted to stay inside and watch the game! I guess because we’d have the TV in our classroom, I hadn’t brought my radio this time so it was 15 minutes of pacing outside and waiting to get back in!
I don’t know for sure, but I think I saw the early third-period goal by Phil Esposito that cut the lead to 5-4, and I’m certain I saw the later goal from Yvan Cournoyer that tied it 5-5. But another thing I remember for sure is that when our school day ended at 3:10, the game wasn’t over yet.
Ms. Tadman didn’t make us leave this time … but I know that plenty of kids left anyway!
Were they crazy!?!
Of course, I stayed. And I saw Paul Henderson’s goal with 34 seconds left.
I watched Canada hold on for the 6-5 victory.
I remember throwing things into the air.
I can’t honestly say if that was after the goal, or after the game ended.
Maybe it was both times.
But it doesn’t matter.
Clearly, after 50 years, I can’t remember it all … but I’ll still never forget it!