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The moment

Canada clings to 1972 Summit Series even 30 years later

Posted: Friday September 27, 2002 1:49 PM

By David Vecsey, CNNSI.com

The Series
An exhibition which turned legendary
1972 Summit Series Game Recaps
Defining event in Canadian history
Russian hockey changed drastically
Oppression bred creativity on ice
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Flashback: Still blushing
Flashback: Off to Hockeyland
Flashback: Narrow victory
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Q&As: Henderson | Tretiak
Team Stats: Canada | Soviet Union
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It was not the day of an assassination or an act of war. There was no miraculous revelation to elevate the human condition. It was, however, one of those moments so exceedingly poignant or so excruciatingly painful that it forever changes the fabric of society.

In the way that certain events isolate themselves from daily ebb and flow of life, Sept. 28, 1972, is a frozen vortex in Canadian culture. There is a before and there is an after, with distinct differences between them. There is even a during, as if it wades into Einstein's River of Time and elongates itself into a neverending present. Ask anyone where they were at that moment and they are there again.

"We were all sitting on the gym floor at my grade school," recalls Colorado head coach Bob Hartley. "There were maybe 10 TVs lined up. I pushed people in front of me in order to get a seat in front of a TV. I didn't want to be caught in between two TV sets. I remember that goal from Paul Henderson. I even have a painting in my house of that goal.

"They shut down every class. We had kindergarten to grade 8, so imagine the entire school in one gym. I figured out -- I had gym before the game -- so I saw the people come in with the TVs, so when the teachers said, 'OK, we're going to go in that spot, that's the spot for our classroom,' I knew right away that I had to push my way in in order go get a front-row seat. And I was sitting on a hardwood floor for three hours to watch that game."

It was just a game, true, but it resounded with social significance.

The '72 Summit Series lives in relative anonymity compared the Miracle on Ice eight years later. Some might say it's because the United States beat the mighty Soviets with college kids, while the '72 Summit Series featured the NHL's best players. But others would answer that the big difference was this: The United States pulled out its miracle with no expectations. Had they lost, nobody would have been the worse for it. But the Canadians in '72? Their national pride was on the line.

"As big as the 1980 U.S. Olympic triumph was in the U.S. -- and it was a defining moment in sports history -- the 1972 win was even bigger in Canada," Vancouver Canucks general manager Brian Burke said recently. "You have to understand the relative space that hockey occupies in the fabric of the culture. Hockey isn't a sport in Canada. It's a cult."

All of Canada stopped that day to watch Game 8 of the Summit Series, which stood tied 3-3-1 only after the Canadiens beat the Russians in Games 6 and 7. What started out as a friendly exhibition series turned into a microcosm of the Cold War, a battle of good vs. evil in the minds of many Canadians.

For the first time, Canada was sending its NHL stars to play against the mighty Soviets, who had been dominating amateur teams for years. If nobody could be sure of the global-political structure, at least Canadians could still kick your butt in hockey. Right?

"I remember being very patriotic," said Edmonton general manager Kevin Lowe. "At the time the Cold War was on and the Russians seemed like aliens to us. This was almost as much about war as it was about our national sport. I really remember that as like being so passionate about how important it was to win."

When the Soviets took Game 1 in a 7-3 whipping at the sacred Montreal Forum, it was like well, imagine the Dream Team showing up in Barcelona in 1992 and losing its first game.

After four games in Canada, the Russians led 2-1-1. After winning Game 5 in Moscow, it was 3-1-1 and Canada was reeling.

"I remember feeling very heartbroken at the time," Lowe said.

But the Canadians pulled it together, with Henderson scoring the game-winning goals in Games 6 and 7 to even the series. Half a world away, Canada shut down for Game 8. Factories stopped producing, schools wheeled TVs into classrooms and Parliament stopped arguing.

If people weren't watching Foster Hewitt make the call on TV, they were listening to Bob Cole on the radio. It is believed that roughly three of every four Candians were either listening or watching.

The Soviets took a 5-3 lead into the third period, but the Canadians got goals from Phil Esposito and Yvan Cournoyer to tie it. And in the frantic final minute, Henderson gathered a loose puck in front of the net and shoved it past the legendary Vladislav Tretiak for the series-winner.

For Canadians, it was Bobby Thomson, Bill Buckner, Kirk Gibson, Montana-to-Clark, Flutie beats Miami, Jimmy V looking for someone to hug, The Catch, The Drive, The Shot and The Gipper. All at once. It was the stuff that lets us believe in Jimmy Chitwood and Roy Hobbs, Roy Kinsella and Rocky Balboa.

"I think we needed it," said Henderson. "This is the one thing up here in Canada that we are all about. We are all about hockey. If there's something that will rile people up, it's their hockey. You get a Habs fan and a Leafs fan and they'll almost come to blows over it. So it's something deeply ingrained in us.

"I've heard it 100 times over: It brought us together probably better than any other thing did, maybe even war."

It brought them together, but it also moved them -- and the game of hockey -- forward.

Russian influence on the NHL began with that series. The NHL players saw the Russians superior conditioning, saw the emphasis on skill over brute strength and saw the discipline and dedication of men who were truly playing as if their lives depended on it. All of that would become incorporated into the NHL over time, and several years later the influx of Russian and European players would forever alter the face of the NHL.

"I was young, I was probably about 17 at the time," Minnesota GM Doug Risebrough said. "I was a bit confused because as Canadians we thought that we were going to beat these guys pretty handily. But then you realized that these guys could play pretty well. I think when everybody got to that realization as a fan and as a player, that we could still beat them but that we'd have to play together and play hard, then ultimately a very close series evolved in the favor of the Canadians.

"But when I reflect back on it, I think the most positive thing that came out of that was it really crystallized a pride in terms of playing for Canada. But also I think it crystallized a resiliency in Canadian hockey that we thought we were pretty good -- we were going to be a lot better than these guys, but we weren't -- what do they do better than what we do better? And I think it really challenged people to make Canadian hockey better."


 
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