The Summit series was, for Canada, the biggest comeback of all time
by Ravi Baichwal
Fifty years ago, a sporting event captured the imagination of people across Canada and behind the foreboding Iron Curtain.
After years of posturing over who, exactly, was the premier hockey-playing nation on the planet — and by extension, the superior society — we finally had a chance to put our claims to the test. In 1972, after months of negotiations, Canada and the Soviet Union agreed to play an eight-game series. It would take place in September, just before the regular National Hockey League season.
The first Saturday in September 1972 finally arrived and the puck dropped on Game One. As a hockey-mad seven-year-old, Hockey Night in Canada was already hard-wired into my brain, a way to access this mysterious game on ice and its traditions. This sport was not nearly as much of an obsession to my parents and sisters, so struggling over what to watch on the biggest night of the week had become a family ritual.
That night, I dreaded visiting the home of my parents’ friends, where there were no kids my age and perhaps, no television watching. Nevertheless, this Saturday night was different. My dad and his friend announced we would indeed be watching hockey, “because it is something special tonight.” Soon a dozen of us were transfixed as Team Canada stepped out onto the ice of the Montreal Forum
That my immigrant family was actually interested in watching a hockey game and invested in this competition was exciting. They explained that this was an all-star team of Canadians facing off against a team from the Soviet Union known ostensibly as the world champions, which only deepened my fascination with the series (even though my favourite player, Bobby Orr, couldn’t play because of knee problems).
So we watched. The game started quickly with Canada scoring in the opening minute, a goal by Phil Esposito, Bobby Orr’s best friend and teammate on the Boston Bruins. A few moments later Paul Henderson of my hometown Toronto Maple Leafs scored again to make it 2-0 and I thought, “well, this galaxy of stars will be putting on a display we’ll all enjoy.”
As we know, the fortunes of Team Canada soured soon after that lead was established, and eventually my heroes were completely outplayed and out-coached. Canada fell to the Soviets 7-3. It is a game that changed hockey forever. Being allowed to stay up late to watch it in its entirety didn’t seem like such a treat, after all. Little did we know the emotional ups and downs that we experienced that night would last all month — and become the national story of a lifetime.
A few days later Team Canada came to Toronto, played a different, more rugged type of game, and won 4-1. Despite the win, there was a national feeling that we were facing a defining challenge. In hockey and beyond. And that is exactly what happened.
From the disappointment of the tie game in Winnipeg, to Vancouver for the Game 4 loss, fans were now openly booing Team Canada and it felt as if the pride Canadians expressed through our national game was somehow being spoiled. We were losing. And we didn’t know why that bugged us so much.
Eventually Team Canada rallied, finding in themselves the motivation to bond as a team, and push themselves as athletes beyond boundaries they didn’t know they had. And we as a nation went on that wild ride with them, learning more about ourselves and how the bonds that tied us to this team were a reflection of our connections to one another. This 1972 Summit made my immigrant family feel our Canadian identity that much more intensely.
Here was a new national origin story being written, one that all citizens could be a part of, whether your ancestors came to Canada in centuries past, or, like my parents, had only recently chosen to make the country home. The emotion of the series tied Canadians together in ways only a shared and stressful group experience could. This was a story for all us now. To be able to eventually have an answer to that age-old Canadian question: where were you when Paul Henderson scored that winning goal?
When a TV mounted on a tall metal stand was wheeled into Mrs. Weiss’ Grade 2 Seneca Hill Public School class on a Tuesday afternoon at the end of that September to watch a hockey game, I knew this would be a moment that would bring people together, that would never be forgotten. That feeling has never left me.
With the documentary series, Summit 72, we take viewers on a time-bending trip to understand why the games had to be played, and how their unfolding united a people that were searching for new ways to define our future.
As a proud Canadian journalist working and living in the United States, reflecting on Canada and what it means to be Canadian is important. Bringing home the story of Summit 72 has been a labour of love and one of the greatest projects I could ever have imagined being part of. It is an honour to weave the meaning of Summit 72 into a modern narrative that sheds more light on the great country that is Canada.
With Summit 72, we offer a remembrance, and a roadmap, to a time and a place of wonder. An encounter with fate that has defined our country for decades. And a chance to marvel once more at the greatest comeback of all time.
Ravi Baichwal is the co-writer and co-director of the Summit 72 documentary series.