I was a month shy of 22, living and tending bar in Sudbury, Ont. when Team Canada and the Soviet National team met in 1972. The news of this series had swirled in the wind for months, and I’d been on pins and needles waiting for it to begin. When it did, I managed to see every game, usually by myself, and except for the devastating losses involved, of course it didn’t disappoint. It was scary, nerve-wracking, surprising and frustrating, but it didn’t disappoint. Drama like this doesn’t come along very often.
I remember travel ads in newspapers for plane fare to Moscow, tickets for all four games, plus hotels and sightseeing, for $1000, but I was barely paying my rent in Sudbury, so such a trip was of course out of the question. How I wish I would have found a way to come up with the money. The 3000 Canadian fans who actually did go, saw and became part of magical hockey history, all for a lousy thousand bucks, which was probably about $900 more than I had at the time.
I wasn’t any different than several million other Canadians before we had our eyes opened. I had watched our amateurs lose on a regular basis to the Big Red Machine, but I always told myself, like everybody else, that it was because those Russians employed their best while we didn’t. It was simple. It was one thing to obliterate our amateurs, but meeting our NHL stars would be another matter altogether. I rubbed my hands with glee and prepared for a Cold War slaughter.
The Russians, as you know, came, saw, and conquered. Valeri Kharlamov was poetry in motion. Vladislav Tretiak was like a cat. The tall, lanky Alexander Yakushev was far too dangerous, probably the most dangerous of them all. The whole damn bunch of them were magnificent. They played as a definitive team, nothing haphazard, everything in order, always moving, always circling, and it was extremely beautiful to watch. Disheartening but beautiful.
What a team, these Soviets, and the Canadians quickly found out they were the fight of their hockey lives. The training camp smiles and good cheer vanished for our boys after game one, replaced by guts and fear and heart. But they dug deep, gradually found themselves in better shape, and finally in Moscow they pulled it out in the end when things didn’t look at all promising.
I was alone in my apartment in Sudbury for game eight, watching on a small black and white television, and my sigh of relief might have been felt all the way to the Inco mines on the other side of town when Paul Henderson broke the tie with 34 seconds left. It was a giddy moment, but I also knew the Canadians were fortunate, and that the Russians were absolutely world class and NHL calibre to say the least.
Something new was in the air. These strange cyrillic-writing, vodka-drinking creatures were to be admired and respected. We had just found out that people played hockey in another country as well as they did here. They had learned their craft in only a handful of rinks across their frozen country, and how could that be?
Immediately after the series, Alan Eagleson and Hockey Canada officials boldly announced that these mysterious players would soon be competing for the Stanley Cup, even as soon as the following year. It wasn’t to be, but I suppose the Eagle and others meant well.
Hockey changed after 1972. Gradually the NHL’s doors were thrown wide open, and stars now fill the ice from distant ports. I feel extremely fortunate to have seen things from the beginning, to have witnessed the historic Summit Series as an adult, and I became a lifetime student of what had transpired during that September of forty years ago.
I met a few of the Soviet players while I was in St. Petersburg years later and they were quite pleasant, although Boris Mikhailov seemed to have cared less when he learned I was Canadian. But he was a rotten bastard on the ice too, one who enjoyed kicking with his skate blade, so it wasn’t a complete surprise. I will say this about this excellent forward and yapper. Mikhailov was his team’s true leader. He was the Phil Esposito of the Russian squad.
I’ve put some things together on this 40-year anniversary, and I hope you’ll enjoy what I’ll be posting throughout the next several weeks. It was great to witness this once-in-a-lifetime event. See, there are some good things about being old.