Dramatic Cold War clash kept all Canada breathless until the dying seconds of the final game.
It was a roller-coaster ride that a team and a nation took as one – starting with confidence, sinking to despair and rising to dying-seconds triumph.
The 1972 Canada-USSR Summit Series was a clash of titans, with a finale for the ages. With heart, grit and pride in this country, Team Canada 1972 earned hockey immortality.
Now the series has been honoured as one of the country’s unforgettable moments since Canada’s centennial in 1967. The eighth to be issued in a set of 10 stamps that mark Canada 150, the Summit Series stamp was unveiled today at Canadian Forces Base Winnipeg.
Several players from Team Canada 1972 attended. They included Pat Stapleton, who chairs the board of Team Canada 1972, Bobby Clarke, Yvan Cournoyer, Pete Mahovlich, Frank Mahovlich, Eddie Johnston, Brad Park, Wayne Cashman and Jean Ratelle. Sean Goldsworthy (representing his father Bill Goldsworthy) and John Ferguson Jr. (representing his father John Ferguson) also participated. They fielded questions from members of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 17 Wing Winnipeg.
The indelible moment: Paul Henderson’s goal
The Summit Series climaxed with the scene on the stamp: Paul Henderson, arms raised, stick skyward, after he’d banged in the series-winning goal with 34 seconds left in Game 8. Forty-five years later, Yvan Cournoyer is beaming just talking about it.
“When he scored the goal, he just jumped in my arms, then I said, ‘We did it! We did it!’”
Before the series, the press and fans in Canada had predicted eight lopsided wins in eight games for the National Hockey League’s best players. The Soviets had won nine out the the previous 10 world and Olympic titles, but they were amateurs who had beaten only other amateurs.
Nobody in Canada had heard of these guys. They didn’t have a chance.
Team Canada’s loss shocks the country
In Game 1, Team Canada quickly realized their opponents were fitter, fast, just as skilled and tough, too. Their teamwork was dazzling. They patiently circled in set-piece attacks, forming up like soccer players. Their passing was like a ballet at the Bolshoi. They didn’t shoot much – but made their shots count. Repeatedly.
Team Canada took a 7-3 drubbing. Condescension took the nearest exit. Shock and humiliation settled in. “Suddenly we were in a dogfight,” recalls goaltender Tony Esposito. Angst gripped the country. This was the best hockey team Canada had ever assembled. Could it actually lose the series? How could our game be their game?
In Game 2 in Toronto, Team Canada answered “not yet.” Canada won 4-1. Game 3 in Winnipeg was a hard-fought 4-4 tie. In Game 4 in Vancouver, the exhausted Canadians seemed to live in the penalty box and lost 5-3. Leaving the ice for the dressing room, the glum Canadians skated past a gauntlet of booing fans.
Esposito’s outburst rallies the country
That disrespect ignited a fire in Phil Esposito. Dripping sweat, breathing hard, he scolded the country in his post-game, on-ice interview. “All of us guys are disheartened, we’re disillusioned, we’re disappointed in some of the people. We cannot believe the bad press we’ve got, the booing we’ve got in our own buildings,” Esposito said on live TV. “Every one of us guys who came out to play…
“We did it because we love our country.”
Esposito jokes nowadays about his emotion-fuelled eloquence becoming famous. “The British have Winston Churchill and the Americans have Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and Canada has… me! A hockey player!” Still, his outburst rallied the country. Hundreds of fans greeted the team at the airport when it returned to Toronto. Some 3,000 Canadians booked trips to travel to Moscow – hardly a tourist destination in those days.
The country was with them again. They rested and trained for a week in Sweden. A united Team Canada arrived in Moscow prepared to play the four final games.
They had to win three.
Mind games in Moscow for players and fans
Cold War surveillance and suspicious activities injected a spy-novel atmosphere to off-ice life in Moscow. Much of Team Canada’s steaks and beer disappeared. Some players found microphones planted under their hotel beds. Scowling uniformed police ringed the boisterous Canadian fans at the rink. The Canadians saw it all as an orchestrated attempt to throw Team Canada off its game.
It didn’t work.
Canada lost the first game in Moscow 5-4, but won Games 6 and 7 – each one capped by a game-winning goal by Henderson.
Game 8: a nation holds its breath
Game 8 would decide hockey supremacy; all of Canada shut down to watch it live. It was the largest television audience in Canada’s history, up to then. Adults crowded around the TV at work. Kids sat cross-legged in the school auditorium. Others simply stayed home.
“Everybody watched that game,” says Serge Savard, a stalwart on defence for Team Canada. “Everybody remembers where he was.”
Canada traded goals with the Soviets, but were down by two goals going into the final 20 minutes. If they tied, Canada would lose the series on total goals.
“We had to score three goals in the third period,” says winger Rod Gilbert. Incredibly, they did, and “it was pure will,” he says.
For a third time, the hero was the journeyman winger who never expected to make this team of all-stars – Paul Henderson. When he banged it in, all Canada leaped to its feet. Relief and joy engulfed millions. Like Neil Armstrong stepping on to the moon, or hearing that the war in Europe was over, it was a defining experience. An entire generation lived it together.
The Summit Series of 1972 remains the most unforgettable hockey drama ever. For the country. For the men who played a path to glory.
“I relive it every day,” says Gilbert. “It’s constantly part of my soul.”
Here are the other stamps unveiled so far as part of our Canada 150 program: