SiriusXM NHL Network Radio returns to the 1972 Summit Series with an exclusive “hockumentary”
On Wednesday, September 14th, at 12 pm/9 am PT, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio unveils its latest hockumentary, Back To The Summit.
The 1972 Summit Series, Canada against Russia, the greatest hockey series of all-time, the most influential hockey series of all-time, happened 50 years ago this month. Half a century ago.
We like round numbers. They speak to us of the seeping, often unnoticed steady, unwavering passage of time that occurs around us every second of every day. They are a stark reminder that it all slips away.
It takes a moment of joy, tragedy, or something out of the ordinary, to jolt us out of our collective somnambulist state, and look up and acknowledge the world beyond our immediate gaze.
Looking back over time, most of what we experience is squashed together, the minutia of everyday life reduced to a faint background hum. Even the milestones that mark our journey through our respective lives are compressed into categories; birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, celebrations, and championships. A cavalcade of photo ops that are largely interchangeable, except for the special few.
September 1972 was one of the special few.
It was only a hockey game, actually 8 hockey games…actually 11 hockey games, counting the two in Sweden and the final one in Czechoslovakia…but the shock waves from those long-ago games continue to break on distant shores.
Even half a century later (let that sink in…50 years before 1972 was 1922…the Great Depression was still fermenting…the lives of untold millions of people were still filled with hope and promise before being obscenely snuffed out in World War Two…and that’s just for starters).
It’s a way of saying a lot happens over the course of 50 years. Even in hockey.
The cloistered world of ice hockey circa 1972 chiefly consisted of Canadian professionals plying their trade in the United States. Skating north to south, the black-and-blue NHL pretty much resembled a table hockey game, with notable exceptions.
There were a handful of American players in the league, and though a few brave souls from Europe had skated in the NHL, none were yet to make a sizeable impact on the closed club that was the best hockey league in the world.
Women’s hockey? Please. You had Ringette (which actually is a pretty awesome sport, but it was seen as a number of steps down by the male hierarchy that had an iron vice grip on hockey in those days. You think today is bad).
But, like clockwork, the world was changing, as it always does. For example, by the early 1970s, satellite television had both served to open up the world and dumb down its audience. In the right hands, it was a unifier. And in the right hands, there was money to be made.
Regardless of political doctrine, money is a shared human pursuit. Call it greed if you wish, but we all, in some way, strive to make more. For it provides security, comfort, opportunity, and sometimes (if you accrue enough filthy lucre) power.
Power means influence and control. And by the summer of 1972, influence and control in hockey were solely the realm of the National Hockey League.
They had sat at the top of the food chain pretty much since the early days of the sport, with some pretenders taking a run at them over the years but always falling short.
The NHL was forced into doubling in size in 1967 after the International League publicly mused about going pro. The old boys club was roused from their slumber and begrudgingly joined the swinging ’60s just before the ’70s hit us.
And then it hit them; expansion is a good thing. There was money to be made. A lot of it. And it could all be televised in colour, even from exotic locales such as Moscow, pretty much unthinkable only a decade earlier.
By 1972, the NHL had grown to a 16-team circuit, with the newly hatched Atlanta Flames and New York Islanders ready to join the fold. The Islanders were admitted into the club chiefly to ward off the expansionist threat from the brand-new World Hockey Association, a grifter enterprise if there ever was one. (The WHA would become an important footnote to the Summit Series when players such as Bobby Hull and Gerry Cheevers were not permitted to participate because they were no longer employed in the NHL).
With all this off-ice drama unfolding around it, the NHL was still the gold standard for hockey, even though their players (professionals) were not allowed to play for Olympic gold.
International hockey had grown in leaps and bounds over the past decades, leaving behind a difficult adolescence that was dominated by admittedly second-tier Canadian teams that almost unanimously ran roughshod over the competition.
The Russians changed everything.
Post-war, the emerging Soviet Union had barged its way onto the world stage in its own as times rough, brutish manner. But it was now a world power, second only to the United States.
And the political was everywhere in its existence. The Communist state spoke out loud what the rest of us only discreetly muttered to each other; we are better than you. We believe our system is better, our art is better, our culture is better, and our athletes (aka youth) are better. The Olympic Games held every four years are ostensibly about friendly competition, but there was a stark reason a medal count board was kept, and still is.
It’s certifiable proof. We win more gold medals than you because we are better than you. Everything we do is better than you. We believe it, and we have to believe it. Because to think otherwise is to question everything.
It was the height of the Cold War, a state of affairs that has unfortunately risen from the grave all these years later. Convince yourself that you don’t care about politics, but politics cares about you. Everything you do is covered in a thin layer of the stuff.
Including sports. Especially sports. For decades, the NHL told itself it was the best hockey league in the world. And no doubt it was.
Even though the centre of pro hockey power was beginning its inexorable shift south to the States, in 1972, the NHL still meant Canada. Canadians, not wont to wave flags, had a reason, an excuse, to express public pride over something distinctly Canadian.
We may not have invented it, as badly as we want to embrace the creation myth, but we certainly codified the sport and nurtured it until it could skate on its own.
Hockey is Canadian. Canada is hockey.
And by 1972, nobody else had really challenged that primacy until the Russians.
The communist Soviet Union. The scourge of all things good. The antithesis of God, country, and home. Heck, they even played hockey the wrong way. They looked like interchangeable robots out there. No emotion, no heart, no soul. Deadly, yes. Talented, sure. But not real hockey as we’ve known it for so long.
The Soviets rolled over their Olympic opposition much like their tanks did through smaller countries during the post-war era. Canada long ago had shifted the majority of their attention to the ever-powerful National Hockey League, and while happy when one of their lesser senior teams made the trip overseas to collect gold, weren’t all that upset when they fell short.
Because Canadians (and the few Americans at the time that also cared for the sport) could always fall back on the ultimate explanation.
Our best were not there. Our best were busy plying their trade in the NHL.
Over the years since the 1950s, touring Soviet teams would face Canadian clubs, and people would flock to the arenas to watch these faceless invaders take on our boys.
The results were a mixed bag. But there was never a national panic because our best boys were elsewhere.
We’d watch, cheer, shake our heads, and say to each other, “imagine if the Russians had to play Jean Beliveau, Andy Bathgate, Doug Harvey, or Terry Sawchuk.”
The funny thing is that the matrix of the Soviet hockey program is Canadian. They carefully studied our sport, both with admiration and with a purpose.
What did the Canadians do right? What did they get wrong, or more accurately, what could be improved upon?
Was there another way of approaching this game? And most importantly to the Soviets, how could they compress decades of a Canadian head start into a few years?
Realms of pages have been written about this undertaking, and they are well worth your time. Suffice to say, the Ruskies caught up, and then some.
To the point, by the mid-1960s, there were more than a few casual conversations about finally getting the Russians to face our best. Our pros.
Back to that.
It gradually occurred to both sides of the great divide that a lot of money could be made. Akin to a heavyweight tilt, where finally the two top contenders go mano-a-mano in the ring, the meeting of the NHL players and Soviet players would be beneficial for everyone involved.
Besides, we’d wipe them in every game. They didn’t stand a chance.
The actual negotiations behind the scenes to set up the series is a worthy tale unto itself, and finally, by the summer of 1972, the stage was set for an Ali-Fraser-like “Fight of the Century.”
September 1972. Eight games. The first four in Canada and the final four in Russia.
The Canadians could use their best players, all of whom were in the National Hockey League.
(And while many, including Phil Esposito, have stated that the team should have been called Team NHL due to the short-sighted disallowance of WHA players, it was named Team Canada. Which certainly ramped up the drama a hundred-fold).
No more second-rate Canadian teams, no more what-ifs. Your best against my best. Your “amateurs” against my professionals.
Bring it on.
And here we are, a half-century later, still talking about it. Still dissecting this series, still asking the by now old men who played in it why things happened as they did, how they felt then, and how they feel now. How did we almost lose this series? How did we rally to win?
It remains fascinating to us all these years later. Because of the setting, because of the drama, because of the comeback. And that’s with Canada barely winning the series. Imagine if they had lost?
There has been a bookstore’s worth of new books written in these past few months dealing with 1972 to join an already impressive catalogue of tomes on the subject over the years.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) has teamed up with the likes of Dave Bidini (noted hockey author and one fine musician) to present a retrospective series that will be must-see TV.
And since we love round numbers, it should be remembered that we’ve been doing this up here in Canada since at least 1992. TSN produced a wonderful 20-year retrospective of the Summit Series that I feel still hasn’t been topped in quality.
SiriusXM NHL Network Radio has only been on the air since the autumn of 2005, so this is our first big kick at the 1972 can. Over the years, we’ve had the good fortune to talk with the likes of Phil Esposito, Brad Park, and Harry Sinden about the series, and their observations, and remembrances, are a part of our two-hour-long hockumentary.
We’ve also recorded brand new interviews with hockey legends such as Ken Dryden and Peter Mahovlich, who took part in the Series, and Scotty Bowman, who wasn’t a part of the Summit Series but watched it with curiosity. It’s always worth your time when Scotty discusses hockey.
With the passage of time continuing its pace at an alarming rate with each passing year (trust me, once you hit 50, you’ll feel the same way), it is imperative that the words and the voices of the players and team members of the 1972 Summit Series are recorded. Already such names as Bill Goldsworthy, Bill White, Rod Gilbert, JP Parise, and Tony Esposito have left us.
Will we still be talking about this series 50 years from now?
Probably, but most likely to a lesser extent. History crushes everything into bite-size pieces. The 1972 Summit Series will probably be reduced to a couple of lines in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy…
“First meeting between hockey superpowers. Mostly influential”.
Even if the kids of 2072 don’t eagerly gather around the digital display monitor to watch the Russians dominate in Game One, or Peter Mahovlich undress the Russians in Game Two, or Espo addressing the nation after Game Four, or the comeback of comebacks over in Moscow, the influence of the 1972 Summit Series will live on as long as hockey is played.
Pretty much everything in the game changed from that point on. Both the Western game and the Russian game learned and benefitted from the cross-pollination. Canada emerged victorious, with the winning goal scored with a mere 34 seconds remaining in the series, but the cliché that the game of hockey was the real winner is accurate.
The country exploded in celebration from coast-to-coast, but also in relief that our boys had found a way to beat the robots. It was personal, or it had become personal rather quickly. It was war on ice, but it also really wasn’t war, as important as it seemed to us at the time and all these years later. Maybe this is the way battles should always be waged.
Join us on SiriusXM NHL Network Radio Channel 91 for Back To The Summit as we go back 50 years to when everything about this Series was still to be written, and Paul Henderson was just known as a good depth player on the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Back To The Summit airtimes (all times Eastern):
Wednesday, September 14th at 12 pm
Thursday, September 15th at 7 am
Saturday, September 17th at 9 am and 5 pm
Sunday, September 18th at 12 pm and 6 pm
Monday, September 19th at 7 am 10 pm
Wednesday, September 21st at 9 pm
Friday, September 23rd at 6 pm
Saturday, September 24th at 9 am and 5 pm
Sunday, September 25th at 12 noon ET and 6 pm
Wednesday, September 28 at 12 noon ET