By Vicki Hall for CBC Sports
Fifty years ago, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau dropped the ceremonial puck to open the 1972 Summit Series – an eight-game hockey tournament between Canada and the USSR that simultaneously humbled and transfixed two nations in the midst of the Cold War.
Here is the story told in the words of those who lived it:
Ken Dryden, Team Canada goalie: I had been in the Forum for a number of big games, including playoff games and Stanley Cup Final games, but I had never heard the crowd sound the way they did that night.
Phil Esposito, Team Canada centre: It was like 93 degrees Fahrenheit and there was no air conditioning in the Forum.
Members of Team Canada get a workout in the halls of Maple Leaf Gardens before heading out onto the ice, Toronto, Monday, Aug. 14, 1972. (Andy Clark/The Canadian Press)
Rick Noonan, Canadian trainer assigned to Team USSR: Before the first game in Montreal, I’m down on the street with the bus outside the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, and we’re waiting for the Russians. The interpreter for the Russians, I think he was KGB, was named Victor. Victor was never far out of sight. And I said, “Victor, where’s the team?” And he said, “don’t worry.” Turns out, they’re all upstairs in the hotel drinking black coffee, eating pastries and drinking Coke. They got to the game maybe with 15 minutes to get dressed.
I don’t even know how the Russians got dressed. The Canadian dressing room, of course, was like a mausoleum. Everything was in its exact position. It was like a palace. The Russian dressing room, it looked like when they were flying over the Montreal Forum, they took the roof off and dropped the equipment into the dressing room. You couldn’t see the floor. Stuff was all over the place.
Esposito: We thought it was going to be a cakewalk to tell you the truth. We figured we were going to screw around on the ice and have some fun. In the first period, I scored 30 seconds in and then Paul Henderson scored to make it 2-0.
Paul Henderson, Team Canada left wing: Phil Esposito scored right off the bat, and then I scored at the six-minute mark. And we come back to the bench. I looked at my linemates and said, “Boys, this is going to be a very long series.”
We knew in the first minute that we had totally underestimated them. It was a sickening feeling. Can you imagine that? We’re leading 2-0 at the six-minute mark. I score a goal, and we just knew we were in trouble.
Ron Ellis, Team Canada right wing: You really don’t know how good a player is until you line up against them in the faceoff and they drop the puck. That’s when you know.
Noonan: Canada went up quickly 2-0. The fans started to laugh. They weren’t polite. They thought that the NHL would beat the Russians by 10 goals. The first game, all that was coming true.
Steve Dowling, referee: The Russians never got flustered. They moved like a unit… like a flock of birds that shifted at the same time. The Canadians were flat footed. The Russian system was so cohesive, as it moved up and down the ice. They never got rattled no matter what the Canadians would do.
Henderson: They were just so good. I mean, their physical conditioning, the way they moved the puck, the way they worked as a unit and, oh man, it was scary.
Brian Williams, radio reporter: I think a lot of people thought Canada would win this in a walk. But when they saw the speed of Valeri Kharlamov and big Alexander Yakushev and great goaltending, they realized this was a good, good Soviet team.
Esposito: The two scouts that scouted the Soviets over there for us were two scouts for the Toronto Maple Leafs. No wonder they ended up in last place all the time. I’m not sure what the hell they were even watching. They might have been drinking vodka before the game or something, because none of what they reported back and we were told came to fruition.
Noonan: The NHL scouts said the Russians’ goaltending was awful. Vladislav Tretiak was only 20. Well, he proved them wrong — and quickly.
Igor Kuperman, Russian hockey writer, then age 14: There was a game where the Central Army Club played against the Soviet national team, and the Central Army Club players played for their own club. That game was the exhibition game for the series and Tretiak allowed eight goals. But the thing is, as he explained later, the next day was his wedding. So his mind was a little distracted.
Gary Smith, then-Canadian diplomat in Moscow: Tretiak had a stag party the day before. So he wasn’t in any shape to be in net, and he let in eight goals. And the Team Canada coaches thought he was a sieve, and that was the scouting report they filed back to Canada. And that helped lead the Canadian side to think, “Well, the Soviets aren’t really going to be that good.”
Ellis: Kharlamov was an unbelievable hockey player. I used to have to play against Bobby Hull every night we played Chicago and I would put Kharlamov on par with Hull. He wasn’t maybe as strong as Bobby but certainly had the skills and was very quick, very quick. So he scored two beautiful goals against us in Game 1.
Noonan: I looked at the Russian bench and there was no panic — no problem. And of course, it was 2-1, then 2-all, then 3-2 for the Soviets. And the rest was history.
Henderson: Our coaches, they only dressed five defencemen. And our defencemen were dead after the second period. They were blowing around them like crazy.
Smith: At the intermission between second and third period, I was going along beside the boards and coming from the other side was [promoter] Alan Eagleson. And I said to Alan, “what’s going on here? What’s happening? They’re beating us.”
Al was under enormous pressure at the time. He was very thin-skinned and called me a “f—ing communist”…If things weren’t going right, you were a communist.
Dryden: At the end, it was quiet — a quiet that comes from being stunned.
Esposito: Our guys are exhausted, because we weren’t ready to play. We weren’t. I was walking to the press area with [coach] Harry [Sinden]. I said, “Harry, you better pick 20 guys, and leave it and make a team, or we’re not going to win crap.” And he didn’t do it, unfortunately, until we got to Russia. Then when he did it, the team became a team. You cannot play a team sport unless you’re a team.
Smith: I went into the dressing room, and the Soviet officials described what had happened as “Skaska”, which means “fairytale” in Russian. They weren’t expecting to win.
Noonan: I remember going to Dorval Airport…It was so eerie. Everybody was just in total shock. The silence was deafening.
The series itself was conceived as a way for Canada and the USSR to find some common ground. It was also a way for the Canada’s best players to represent their country, after a spat with the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF).
Dryden: Canada got into a dispute with the [IIHF] over the world championships that were to be held in Canada in 1970 and withdrew from the world championships and from all of international hockey … it was with the negotiation of this series, that Canada came back into international hockey, and just really as kind of this one-off special series.
Smith: I became involved with this Summit Series because I was a Canadian diplomat posted in Moscow. There was no hockey going on between Canada and the Soviet Union. Ever since 1970, when we pulled out of international play (to protest the exclusion of professionals), the only Canadians playing Russians at the time was the team from the Canadian embassy, named the Moscow Maple Leafs. Part of my duties at the embassy were cultural exchanges, and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau wanted to try and find some common ground with the Soviet Union to prevent nuclear or conventional war. And we decided that hockey presented great common ground.
Williams: Today, there is a feeling with many Canadians that hockey superiority is an affirmation of our national identity. Let me tell you something, it was many times more so the case back prior to 1972. The problem was while the NHL was recognized as the greatest hockey league in the world, Canada was not dominating at the world championships or at the Olympics, and the Soviet Union was coming on. Whenever Canada didn’t win on the international stage, people would say “yes, but if the best Canadian players, the professionals, could take part, it would be a very, very different story.”
Smith: The series was structured as a friendship series exhibition, and it was going to pit the best Soviet players against the best Canadians. It was agreed that it would have to be under international rules. Also that it would be an eight-game series…so that each team would play four games at home and four games abroad.
Dowling: The series was painted as some type of crevasse in the Cold War. And the Cold War, for all those who were in the stadium during those games, was very evident. There was always the threat of another world war in the eyes of most North Americans.
This wasn’t just a game. It was tantamount to “let’s have a mini war.”
Kuperman: The Soviet players were very careful talking about the outcome because they were afraid to lose. Because listen, if you lose to Canada, all the previous world championships or the Olympics — they basically mean not much, especially if you lose by a large margin.
Dowling: I remember reading the Toronto and Montreal papers beforehand. There were these big articles, one authored by Bobby Orr and another by Punch Imlach saying this is going to be a nice exercise, and there’s no way the Canadians will lose.
“I honestly can’t see the Russians winning one game in the series.” — injured defenceman Bobby Orr in the Toronto Sun.
“Team Canada should win every game they play and by five or six goals in the games in Canada. I realize this is a very strong prediction, but after all, the Russians have never played against a team of such excellent quality.” — Punch Imlach, then general manager of the Buffalo Sabres, in the Toronto Sun.
Esposito: I left my daughter’s birthday the 14th of August to go to training camp in Toronto. And what did we do? We drank for a couple of weeks. We didn’t train. I used to say the closest we came to the ice was the ice cubes in my drink.
Henderson: They put us together at the first practice — Bobby Clarke, who was just a young guy at the time, between myself and Ronnie Ellis. And so as you looked at the players, we knew we were probably the fifth line at best, but probably seventh if you looked at the calibre of players. And so I said, “why don’t we just work our rear ends off?” I really wanted to play that game in Toronto. And I didn’t know Bobby Clarke, but you didn’t have to try to motivate him.
My father had died in 1968 and I was going to get my mom tickets to the Toronto game. She was a big hockey fan. I was like, “Oh, I’d love to be able to play in front of my mom at home.”
Ellis: We had to have enough players in camp to have Red & White Games. When I first got contacted about the series, I was informed that there would be 35 guys at camp and everyone would get in at least one game, because they thought we would win all the games. Of course, that didn’t happen. And a number of our guys didn’t get an opportunity to play. But they’re still considered a big part of the team.Coach Harry Sinden, left, and defenceman Bobby Orr, right, share a laugh during a press conference on Aug. 23, 1972. Orr had undergone knee surgery a month prior and did not play in any games for Canada during the Summit Series. (The Canadian Press)
Kuperman: Canada could have had two or maybe even three teams that were equal. So they didn’t have [injured] Bobby Orr, and they didn’t have Bobby Hull, Derek Sanderson, Gerry Cheevers and Jean-Claude Tremblay because they moved to the WHA. But the Russians didn’t have Anatoly Firsov. Six months prior to this, Firsov was the best player at the Olympics. A legendary player, an unbelievable player. But because he supported the previous coach, he was not on the team.
Smith: I was told by Tretiak and others that [Jacques] Plante had come into the dressing room in Montreal and had a chalkboard. He tried to explain about the angles of the Canadian shooters and give Tretiak some tips. [Tretiak] was only 20 at the time and was going to be facing these big Canadians with their booming shots from the slot and the point and coming down the wing like Frank Mahovlich. So, Plante, feeling that the Soviets were going to lose big time, didn’t feel this was anti-Canadian or anything like that. It was just a gesture of friendship. And the Soviets said it was a true gesture of sportsmanship.
Dowling: As you approached Maple Leaf Gardens, there was somebody on every corner handing out propaganda as to how bad the Russians were and how they treated their people. It was a highly tense time.
Dryden: It was a game that we had mostly 48 hours to get ready for after the game in Montreal. And you use all of those hours.
Dowling: The preliminary lineup for the Canadian team for Game 2, we looked at it and there were names like Wayne Cashman, J.P. Parise, Bill Goldsworthy and Stan Mikita. That was an early warning that it was going to be a very, very different game.
In Game 1, because the Canadians played the more skilled players, it was really kind of a nicety type of a thing. Then all of a sudden, the Russians are met with the reality of North American hockey being quite a bit more physical.
Ellis: The coach came at practice and said to me, “Ron, we’ve got to shut this guy [Kharlamov] down. Do you think you could skate with him?” I said, “If that’s what you want me to do, that’s what I’ll do.”
I hurt my neck in the first game, so I wasn’t really able to shoot the puck very well, but I was able to skate. My linemates Paul Henderson and Bobby Clarke – when I wasn’t able to take care of Kharlamov – they backed me up. And he didn’t score another goal the rest of the series five-on-five.
Dowling: Near the end of the second period, I called a minor penalty for slashing. And all of a sudden, Kharlamov shows up. He comes to me, whatever he’s saying, and I just try to ignore him. And he gets in my face and bumps me. Just a little bump. So that was it. A misconduct. Kharlamov, the No. 1 player in Russia and maybe the No. 1 player in the world, sitting down for a misconduct.
Henderson: The best goal I ever saw scored on Maple Leaf Gardens ice was the goal Peter Mahovlich scored late in the third period to let us win that game. There was a defenceman back. Peter faked the slap shot and the defenceman pulled up to block the shot. Peter went around and then beat Tretiak.
Smith: The way he did it short-handed, faked out the defenceman and left Tretiak in a heap — the roof almost came off Maple Leaf Gardens. It was one of the most beautiful goals you’ve ever seen.
Henderson: It would have been just terrible to lose those first two games. We knew this game was monumental, and we needed a little confidence too. When we won that game, we went, “Okay, they are great, but we know we can at least compete.”
Esposito: I think my brother Tony had eight or nine shots against him, but three or four of them were breakaways. He was absolutely terrific in that game.
Henderson: Tony Esposito played an incredible game in our net. He came up so big.
Noonan: The win in Toronto vindicated everything and Canada was back to being No. 1. Until we got to Winnipeg and Vancouver and started all over again with the shock therapy.
Smith: Winnipeg was the smallest arena in the smallest city we were going to. What I remember is that it occurred at the same time as the Munich massacre of Israeli coaches and athletes [at the Olympic Games]. And there was a huge pall that was cast over sports everywhere.
Team Canada was travelling on two individual aircraft. It didn’t want all their players on one plane. And I was with the Soviets. We were on another aircraft.
Noonan: In Winnipeg, the Soviet players went to go see the movie The Godfather. And they went shopping for blue jeans. I don’t know how much money they were given as spending money. Everything was controlled by management.
Smith: People said, “Well, why did we go to Winnipeg? Well, it’s the centre of the country, and it was also the home base at the time of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association. Remember that the agreement that was finally signed in Prague in April of 1972 wasn’t signed by [NHLPA executive director Alan] Eagleson, or the NHL, or Hockey Canada, it was signed by the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association and the Soviet Ice Hockey Federation.
Ellis: We went into Winnipeg, and, to me, that’s the key game.
Dowling: I watched from the stands. And sitting next to us, or at least in the area, was Bobby Hull.
Ellis: We were up 4-2 towards the end of the second period, and the Russians sent out a kid line that we hadn’t really seen before. And bingo-bango, they tied the game up very quickly. And there was no scoring in the third.
Noonan: The Russians came from behind to tie it. Their approach was a little more businesslike than in Toronto, although it’s hard to find any one time when they were different from, say, a previous situation. Their emotions were always so controlled. It’s almost like, you know, they’re not supposed to really show any type of emotion.
Ellis: I’ve always wondered if we won that game — and we should have — if we would have gone into Vancouver with momentum. But they ended up tying the game, and I think it gave the Russians all the momentum they needed knowing if they won in Vancouver, they probably had us on the ropes.
Smith: That’s when I had a little session with Team Canada, about what they should expect when they went to Moscow in terms of security, and what it would be like in their rooms and what they might expect from the KGB. They listened. They had some rough idea of what communism was about. With the exception of Ken Dryden, I think none of them had really been to the Soviet Union.
Harry Sinden, Alan Eagleson and (assistant coach) John Ferguson had come over for some meetings in July, but none of the others had any idea what life in the Soviet Union was like. So they’re trying to play hockey, I’m talking about what’s going to happen [in] a couple of weeks.
Smith: By the time we got to Vancouver, it was one win, one loss and one tie. So the series was all even.
Ellis: We went into Vancouver and both teams knew it was a big game.
Smith: In Montreal, no one knew anybody on the Soviet team. The names of Kharlamov, Yakushev, and Tretiak meant nothing to Canadians. By the time we got to Vancouver, everyone knew their names. Everywhere we went, there were people coming forward to get autographs — whether it was on aircrafts, passengers on aircrafts, flight attendants, pilots, co-pilots, ground crews, bus drivers, hotel, baggage people, hotel attendants, front desk people. Everybody was buzzing about the Soviet team.
Ellis: We played hard in Vancouver, but we did not execute well.
Smith: I remember Bill Goldsworthy being sent off twice in the early going. On each occasion, the Soviets scored — the same format, with a shot from the point on a tip-in over Dryden.
Esposito: We got in real penalty trouble in Vancouver. And we were to blame, too, because we tried to intimidate them a little bit too much. It didn’t work, because we got penalties, and they were fabulous on the power play.
Smith: The crowd started to become unhappy and started to boo. It started off way up high in the arena. But as things went on, the boos got louder and started to come from all parts of the rink. And when Frank Mahovlich sat on top of Tretiak on the side of the crease for a good number of seconds, that got the crowd really worked up. Canada really left the ice with boos ringing in its ears.
Ellis: it was definitely a low point, for me, in my career. We got basically booed off the ice by the fans in Vancouver. And in retrospect, today, I’m not upset about it today, because they were told they were going to watch the fourth game that we were going to win.
Smith: We’re on smaller ice, at home. And we’re down with two losses, only one win and a tie. And we’re heading to big ice and Moscow. It’s a Hollywood story, really, of this great expectation, of being the favourite, and then being crushed down and being booed at home.
That led to the now famous Phil Esposito speech, which a lot of people say is Canada’s Gettysburg Address or like Churchill’s defiant speech and so on. It’s up in that type of stratosphere.
Esposito: I remember telling Frosty (Foristall), one of our trainers, I said, “Frosty, tell them to pick somebody else.”He was the only American on the team. He trained for the Bruins, too. He said, “Phil, you’ve got to do it.” And I said, “Okay, okay.”
Ellis: Phil was the right guy. Phil was our leader. He was our leader from the first day of training camp. He did a wonderful job expressing what he felt from his heart. And he didn’t mince words. He told it like it was.
Esposito: The Zamboni entrance in the old Vancouver arena was right behind the net. And that’s where [sportscaster] Johnny Esaw is. And as I’m skating out, these four guys, I think they’re in their 20s, they’re yelling and screaming that communism is better and all this other stuff. Honestly. I wanted to throw my stick like a javelin — a spear — right at them. It just pissed me off so much. Johnny asked me a question, and I went off.
“To the people across Canada, we tried, we gave it our best, and to the people that booed us, geez. I’m really – all of us guys are really disheartened, and we’re disillusioned, and we’re disappointed at some of the people. We cannot believe the bad press we’ve got, the booing we’ve gotten in our own buildings. If the Russians boo their players … then I’ll come back and I’ll apologize to each one of the Canadians, but I don’t think they will.”
Esposito: Whatever came out of my mouth came from my gut and came from my heart. Those kids yelling that communism is better cut me to the core. Because communism isn’t better.
Smith: There were some kids yelling at Phil about how the communists were better than capitalists. Phil said that this wasn’t a game — that it was a war. And for me and other diplomats, including Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, this is what we were trying to prevent.
We didn’t want a war. We didn’t want Phil Esposito with a bayonet and steel helmet. Hockey was supposed to be common ground.
Dryden: We didn’t hear that interview. We were in the dressing room. The game was over. And I’m not sure any of us heard it until after the series was over.
Ellis: We were in the dressing room. Phil came in and basically said, “I gave them heck.” But we didn’t hear the details.
Kuperman: Nobody in Russia knew anything about that speech until the internet was created. It was just such a great, great speech. So inspirational. If I would have watched it back then, I would have known that trouble for the Soviets was coming for the Moscow part of the series.
Esposito: After we lost in Canada, people threw rocks through my dad’s windows and put signs up that my brother and I were traitors – in Sault Ste. Marie!
Ellis: I really think that [Phil’s] interview had a major impact on Canadian fans across the country. When I talked to people about this, I started to wonder what it was like at the breakfast table the next morning, in people’s homes across the country. I think people were starting to say, “Hey, wait a minute. Maybe the Russians are better than we think, maybe we should get behind our guys.”
And that’s what eventually happened.
Part II of this oral history coming soon