Most Canadians in their late fifties and beyond remember where they were when it happened. Some 16 million viewers — more than 70 percent of the population — were glued to TV sets at home, at school, at work, and outside shop windows. In Stratford, Ontario, William Hutt had just finished the transformative storm scene in act 3 of King Lear when he turned to the audience and intoned, “Ladies and gentlemen, Canada has just beaten the Russians 6–5.” Moments before, in Moscow’s Luzhniki Palace of Sports, some 3,000 raucous Canadians cheered Paul Henderson as he scored with only thirty-four seconds left to win the eighth game and claim victory in the Summit Series, between Canadian pros and the best of the Soviet Union.
In central Russia, it was late evening, Thursday, September 28, 1972, and I was there in the press seats as a twenty-nine-year-old reporter covering the contest for Time, straining to see the action at the far end of the rink. Below to my right, Ken Dryden, in goal for Team Canada, raced the length of the ice to embrace Henderson. Behind the mesh screen near Dryden’s net, a twenty-eight-year-old diplomat, Gary Smith, threw up his arms, rejoicing that his trial by fire during eight months of tense, high-wire statecraft was over.
Steeped in Cold War rhetoric, the series unfolded against a backdrop of politicized sporting events. In the spring of 1971, Ping-Pong diplomacy had helped thaw relations between the United States and Communist China. Then, during the summer of 1972, the American Bobby Fischer trashed Boris Spassky, the pride of the USSR, at the World Chess Championship in Reykjavik. A few weeks later, the deadly attack on Israeli athletes by the Palestinian Black September group cast dark shadows on the Olympic Games in Munich, where eleven socialist nations (10 percent of the participants) won almost half the medals, with twenty-three anabolic golds going to East Germany alone.
At home, Pierre Trudeau called a federal election on the eve of the Summit Series and insisted on dropping the ceremonial first puck at the Montreal Forum and on doing TV interviews between periods. The prime minister had laid the groundwork for the competition when he pulled Canada out of international hockey in 1970, because the International Ice Hockey Federation had banned our pros. The centre Stan Mikita, who fled Czechoslovakia when he was eight, embodied the attitude among the men of Team Canada when he said the series was “almost like the whole free world versus them.” As Harry Sinden, their able coach, put it at the time, “This isn’t just a series of hockey games. It’s a clash of hockey systems and a contest of lifestyles.” Phil Esposito, who emerged as a hero of the series, said, “I would have killed those sons of bitches to win.”
Before the series began, I interviewed the media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who told me prophetically, “Sports also happen to be a very aggressive and destructive form of expression that is also very congenial to political life. But it’s cooled-off warfare. It’s warfare under wraps.” When it came to international hockey, Canada dominated that war from the very beginning. At the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, the Winnipeg Falcons won with scores of 15–0, 2–0, and 12–1. At the first Winter Olympics, Chamonix 1924, the Toronto Granites beat Switzerland 33–0 and Czechoslovakia 30–0 on their way to gold. For decades, club teams from smaller communities — such as the Penticton Vees, the Whitby Dunlops, and the Trail Smoke Eaters — upheld the country’s honour.
Enter the Russians. With their roots in bandy and soccer, played on wide fields with an emphasis on team play and passing, they began to dominate the Olympics and the world championships, winning eleven titles between 1954 and 1971. Hockey was our game, as Dryden notes in his new book, The Series. But we were no longer the perennial champions. If only we could play our professionals, went the lament. If only we could change the rules, we would show the Russians.
By pulling out of international hockey, Canada made way for the intricate negotiations that led to our professionals skating against the Soviet Union’s amateurs (most of whom were career army officers, whose orders were to train eleven months of the year and to win). The confrontation would start with four games, played every other night in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vancouver. Four more would follow in Moscow. En route to the Soviet capital, Canada would play two exhibition games in Sweden and try to adjust to the larger European ice surface.
What we didn’t know was that Anatoly Tarasov, an influential Russian coach, had glommed onto the pioneering work of Lloyd Percival, the Toronto fitness specialist and author of The Hockey Handbook, and adapted his rigid off-ice training regime. Soviet players had long worked out on dry land, played soccer, bounced on trampolines, and lifted weights. More typical of the Canadian approach was a quote, perhaps apocryphal, attributed to a former Toronto Maple Leaf. When asked about summer training in the ’50s, he replied, “Well, we used to roll down the windows in our car.” Esposito, for his part, initially scoffed at the Soviet approach: “That’s their problem if they want to get up at 6 a.m. and run around the hotel.” The captain also revealed that he spent a languid afternoon before the first game with his girlfriend.
When Canada scored two quick goals in Montreal, the eight-game sweep seemed assured. But those pesky Russians, in their battered skates and funny helmets, battled back. Shockingly, they won the opening contest 7–3. After a loss in Toronto and a tie in Winnipeg, they also won the Vancouver game. The local fans booed and jeered the Canadians, and the dispirited delegation headed overseas with the Soviets only two wins away from demolishing our image, our heritage, and the pride of the NHL.
But this is an improbable tale.
During the sixth game, at Luzhniki, I was stunned as Canada’s young centre Bobby Clarke chased Valeri Kharlamov down the ice and delivered a two-handed slash of his stick on the forward’s left ankle, which had the predictable outcome of hobbling the Soviets’ best player. We won that game 3–2 and took the seventh 4–3. With the series tied, all hell broke loose in the final match. The left-winger Jean-Paul Parisé received a ten-minute misconduct for hotly protesting a penalty call. He jumped out of the box, raced toward the referee and, with raised stick, threatened decapitation. There was more. The series impresario Alan Eagleson rushed at an official to protest a call and, as they would in any arena in the world, the militsiya grabbed him in a hammerlock. With that, the Canadian bench emptied, and several players liberated Eagleson, lifting their sticks as spears and ushering him back across the ice as he gave the Russians, including the general secretary of the Communist Party, the middle finger. Our opponents had a word for that: nekulturny.
The Canucks finally calmed themselves and played the kind of hockey befitting a squad that included every member of the previous year’s all-star team except Bobby Orr, who was injured, and Bobby Hull, who had jumped to the rival World Hockey League. What Henderson called his “garbage goal”— the one we all remember — came in a scramble at the Soviet net after a defensive lapse by the Russians. The scoreboard now read Canada 6, USSR 5. Dryden quickly returned to his post for the remaining moments of play.
It was a pyrrhic victory. The Russians had actually outscored us in goals (32–31) and shown the world that you didn’t have to be Canadian to excel at hockey. Ultimately, the players from both sides buried their stick blades and enjoyed several exchanges to mark major anniversaries of the series. In 2017, Vladimir Putin, a self-described fan of the sport, hosted former Team Canada members at his villa on the Black Sea — only three years after he annexed Crimea and banned Chrystia Freeland, then Canada’s foreign minister, from entering his country. Now Putin’s brutal war on Ukraine casts a pall over the fiftieth anniversary. It is hardly a time to celebrate amity with Russia. Still, Gary Smith takes a valiant stab with Ice War Diplomat, which he hastily reworked following the February 2022 invasion: “President Putin has to be dealt with from a position of strength with no illusions.” But, he adds, common ground will be required. Though diplomacy may falter, it “remains an essential element of foreign policy. Hockey has been, and can again be, part of that process with Russia.”
In other realms, the sporting bridge has sagged under the weight of anti-Putin sentiment. Wimbledon, for example, barred Russian and Belarusian tennis players at this year’s tournament. (Conveniently, the women’s champion, Elena Rybakina, who was born in Moscow, also holds Kazakh citizenship.) Soccer’s governing body, FIFA, has also banned all Russian national and club teams from competitions. And British sanctions forced the oligarch Roman Abramovich to sell his Chelsea Football Club, a jewel of the Premier League.
Singularly, the National Hockey League, which last season embraced some fifty Russian skaters — several of whom competed in the Stanley Cup playoffs — has gone out of its way to avoid offending Putin. Throughout the summer, some teams were concerned that their Russian players would not return to North America following their vacations at home. The individual athletes, meanwhile, have been careful not to go offside with Putin. The day after the invasion of Ukraine, the Washington Capitals’ star centre, Alex Ovechkin, said feebly, “Please, no more war. It doesn’t matter who’s in a war — Russia, Ukraine, different countries. I think we live in a world, like, we have to live in peace and a great world.” As for Putin? “He is my president.”
Fifty years ago, sports were more about opening doors than closing them. After the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan, Richard Nixon made his groundbreaking trip to China in early 1972. Three months later, he visited the Soviet Union, where he met with Leonid Brezhnev (the general secretary whom Eagleson would flip off in game 8). Trudeau, meanwhile, had promoted the idea of a friendly hockey series when the Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin visited Canada in October 1971. Brezhnev backed his proposals for the hockey matches.
Back then, Moscow was a drab and dreary place. For the typical Muscovite household, accommodations meant sharing a bathroom and kitchen with another family. I got a first-hand look on the eve of the last game, when Time ’s local fixer and driver took me and my guests, Ken and Lynda Dryden, on a low-key tour of the city. We went to Novodevichy Cemetery, of all places, to view the modest resting place of Nikita Khrushchev, the rare Soviet leader not buried at the Kremlin. Riding down Kutuzovsky Prospekt, we saw vegetable stalls ringed with patient citizens, while nearby party apparatchiks and expats roamed the “dollar stores” for imported fruits and vegetables. “A crop failure this season has meant, among other things, rationing of potatoes,” I reported at the time. “A special session of the Supreme Soviet, 2,000-strong, called to discuss the shortcomings of the first year of the five-year plan for more consumer goods, has also meant that the Archie Bunkers of Moscow have been virtually cut out of tickets for the four games to be played at the 12,359-seat Dvorets Sporta.” (Although Dryden joked later that our tour had settled his pre-game jitters, I claim no role in the subsequent victory.)
Such was the setting when Gary Smith and his wife, Laurielle, arrived to take up their duties in February 1971. And both were on duty. As Smith recounts, the imposing Canadian ambassador, Robert Arthur Douglas Ford, and his Brazilian wife, Theresa, used initial meetings with new couples “to make respective judgments” on their “appearance, manners, deportment, sociability, intelligence and Russian language capability.” Afterwards, the two would “compare notes” and determine if the newcomers were “deemed to be ‘presentable.’ ” Couples also needed departmental permission to marry, and a spouse’s ability to represent Ottawa, once on post, was included in the staff member’s annual rating.
That was nothing compared with the oversight of expats by the Soviets. Flats and offices were so routinely bugged that diplomats would blare cocktail music from speakers to protect sensitive conversations. Our delegation even retained a Canadian mechanic to look for suspicious wires. When Laurielle expressed concern about the probable lack of bedroom privacy, Gary shrugged it off “by saying the listeners might learn something new.” To discuss important matters of policy, embassy officials would retreat to a cramped, copper-lined box suspended from the ceiling. And as for blackmail, the attempts were everywhere. If a male diplomat did not succumb to the attentions of a female — or “swallow”— a male “raven” would appear to make a pass.
The visible overreach of the KGB produced more than a little paranoia among the visiting players — sometimes with good reason. The beer and steaks they imported from Canada disappeared. One member of the team became so outraged at the constant ringing of his bedside phone in the middle of the night that he ripped it out of the wall — only to have a technician show up to restore the connection. Sadly, the broadcaster Scott Morrison debunks one of the great anecdotes from back then in his new book, 1972: that Frank Mahovlich found a listening device under a carpet in room 603 and cut the bug loose, only to learn that a chandelier crashed to the floor of room 503. Frank’s younger brother, Peter, told Morrison the tale is “a made-up story that has been told so much it’s evolved into something that ‘actually’ happened. . . . Frank was paranoid about it, though.”
It’s not like being there, but I’ve enjoyed revisiting the saga in several new commemorative works on the series: about the delicate negotiations that produced it; the shock of the Russian victory in the first game; the booing of the Canadians in Vancouver and Phil Esposito’s Churchillian exhortation to loyalty; the castigation of Team Canada in Sweden, where the exhibition matches turned into bloody brawls — and united a team against the world; the rousing support of the Canadian fans in Moscow; and, of course, the moment when, as the broadcaster Foster Hewitt put it in his historic call, “Henderson has scored for Canada.”
Smith’s narrative, honed by his training as an observer and analyst, flows as smoothly as the fanciest skater. From the game reports to the politics, he takes us behind the scenes and reveals several previously unreported moments: how his reading of an article in an official state organ alerted him to the Soviet desire for a match with Canadian pros; the drama of Phil Esposito being secretly sped to a hospital after he coughed up blood following game 5; the fight over who would referee the final game, complete with a pitcher of ice water hitting the wall and a threat to boycott; the special efforts made to spare one rowdy Canadian, arrested for breaking up a bar and assaulting a cop, from a trip to the gulag. And, in the end, the bonds of friendship formed among formerly bitter enemies. (Smith’s intimacy with the Soviets as Canada’s second secretary and official liaison also proved invaluable to reporters: he helped me score an interview with the Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak and was a reliable source of information amid the swirl of rumours and conspiracy theories.)
Dryden’s The Series is devoid of the well-worn tick-tock of the games — or even a judgment about “the slash” on Kharlamov. With a mix of rarely seen photos and a mellow tone, the book effectively evokes the feelings — some ambivalent — about what the series meant to hockey and to Dryden, and what it was like to be twenty-five years old and in a maelstrom. What if they had lost game 8? the former goalie wonders. “I might have been history’s goat,” he writes. “Some people can handle humiliation. . . . I’m not good at that.”
Morrison’s 1972, in many ways a replay of a previous book, consists mainly of past and new interviews, which the author allows to drive the story. The most revealing are with the Russian players, and the most poignant is with Kharlamov, who died tragically in a 1981 car crash, at the age of thirty-three. He said of Clarke and the slash: “I looked into his angry eyes, saw his stick, which he wielded like a sword, and didn’t understand what he was doing. It had nothing to do with hockey.”
And the cartoonist Terry Mosher, known as Aislin in the Montreal Gazette, provides a standard account with Montreal to Moscow, which draws on published newspaper accounts and his own observations. The artwork, of course, is exceptional: sketches and drawings, by Mosher and others, that capture the bathos, the jingoism, and the colour. Mosher also confesses that covering the series caused him to rethink his left-leaning ways —“playing ‘pretend revolution’ ”— and opened his eyes “to the impossibility of creating a decent society within a Communist regime.”
As millions tuned in for that first game, Canada was convinced the series would be a romp. And though “Team NHL,” as Phil Esposito once called it, did ultimately win, the Russians proved they could play at the highest level. “Neither of us got what we wanted,” Dryden writes fifty years later; “both of us got what we needed.” In fact, that iconic series may be the only one ever “where the loser looks back on it almost as fondly as the winner.”
McClelland & Stewart, 2022
Gary J. Smith
Douglas & McIntyre, 2022
Simon & Schuster, 2022
Aislin Inc. Publications, 2022