The 1972 Summit Series may have taken place 50 years ago but the memories have never faded. It still feels like it happened yesterday, and the documentaries and articles coming out in the past few weeks have brought those vivid memories flooding back.
I have never felt prouder to be a Canadian. We defeated the sworn enemy in the last minute of a series that could have ended up in a tie as there were no overtimes. We HAD to win, and somehow we found a way.
My two clearest memories of my childhood were both hockey-related, and steeped in similarity.
I will also never forget the famous game in the first round of the 1971 NHL playoffs when my team, the Montreal Canadiens, trailed 5-2 after two periods in Boston, and were in grave danger of going down 2-0 in the series to the mighty Bruins. I was only seven at the time.
It was at that point that a big, veteran center put his team on his back and willed the Canadiens to victory in the most storied comeback in Stanley Cup playoff history. Jean Beliveau was the sparkplug that ignited the Habs in his final season, leading the club to a 7-5 win as the Canadiens scored five unanswered goals in the third period.
That unlikely comeback win turned that series completely around, and Montreal ended up prevailing in seven games against what had been the most dominant NHL regular season team in history. They would go on to win yet another Stanley Cup.
It was just 16 months later that Canada faced a similar dilemma in an even more hostile environment – trailing 5-3 after two periods in Moscow in Game 8 of the Summit Series.
Yet I remained confident that somehow our team – our nation – would claw back and win. Why? Perhaps I figured it was ordained. The Guy upstairs had seen to it that my team snatched victory from the jaws of defeat 16 months previous…surely he’d do it again as we faced the Evil Empire. My Habs had come back from an even bigger deficit versus Boston, so why couldn’t it happen again? I was by no means religious but I believed in the Hockey Gods that day. We would win. We HAD to win.
Just like with Beliveau in the Boston comeback, it would be a big, veteran center who would lead his team to victory. He may not have been wearing the ‘C’ as Beliveau had when he sparked that comeback but Phil Esposito may as well have been. He was the unquestioned leader of that 1972 Canadian team that played without an official captain.
Espo was in on all three of the Canadian goals in the third period of Game 8, scoring the goal that made it 5-4 and then setting up Yvan Cournoyer for the tying goal and Paul Henderson for the series clincher with 34 seconds left.
Thirty-four seconds. I am not one for remembering the exact time left on the clock when big goals were scored in hockey history but I will always remember that it happened in the final minute of play, and I would bet that if you asked every living Canadian male over the age of 57 how much time was left when Henderson scored, most would still remember.
It was our moon landing, our moment in time when we could say WE beat the Soviets. We were the first to do it, just like Neil Armstrong was the first to walk on the moon.
What made the series even more unique for me is that it was the only time I would ever watch a hockey series that started with the first game at our family’s cottage, and the last game at my school. It was the first, and only time in my childhood, that I would watch a hockey game at either place, and I remember both so clearly.
The cottage after that would represent anxiety as it was there where I saw the Soviets stomp on our supposed hockey supremacy with a 7-3 win in the opening game of the series. The school gym would represent euphoria as I recalled witnessing the greatest sports victory in my lifetime.
It’s also the only time that I got to watch my team win with the majority of my friends present. They were all in the gymnasium that afternoon with me sitting on the floor watching the game on one of those black and white Panasonic TVs on wheels that every Canadian school had, and we all hugged, cheered and jumped up and down in ecstasy when Henderson scored.
It was sheer mayhem. Even girls who had not shown any previous interest in the sport I loved were celebrating – we all knew the significance of the victory, and we all celebrated together for the first and only time. Girls who professed to hate hockey were fans of the sport that day. It was our day. Canada’s day.
School buses were lined up after the game to take students home immediately afterward as the game had finished past the end of the school day, and my most vivid recollection of the aftermath was walking home and having buses go by that were in complete chaos. The one and only time when thousands of school bus drivers in our nation had absolutely no problem with kids jumping up and down screaming in a complete frenzy. I even heard a few honks from those buses as they joined in the celebration.
I always wondered if the bus drivers were all in the gym watching the game too or sitting in their buses waiting. I have always hoped it was the former, as I don’t think any Canadian should have missed it.
I recall going home and waiting impatiently for dad to arrive so I could ask him what he thought of the game. It was with abject disappointment that I discovered that he’d missed the game – he had tire deliveries that couldn’t wait.
I was very fortunate to have not missed a single game of that series. It was a huge bonus that our elementary school principal was a huge hockey fan. Our entire school got to watch the last two games in the gymnasium, and I was one of two students in the entire school who had watched Game 6 at school as well.
Our principal knew how much I lived and breathed hockey, and he came to our classroom shortly after the game started, called me and my buddy Terry out into the hallway and asked us if we wanted to watch Game 6 in the principal’s office. We felt like we’d won the lottery. I don’t think the principal wanted to watch the game alone.
The Henderson goal will always be the one that we most remember but I was just as happy when Yvan Cournoyer tied the game. It meant that we were no longer losing, and as much as I didn’t want the series to end in a tie, it sure as hell beat losing after being down 3-1-1 in the eight-game series.
What made that goal extra special, of course, was that The Roadrunner played for the Canadiens, and when he backhanded in that rebound I jumped up and uncharacteristically hugged my elder neighbour, who was a fellow Habs fan. I’m not certain that I had hugged anyone in my entire life other than mom and dad up until that point. As it turned out, he would not be the only schoolmate I would hug that day.
Up until that series, I had despised the Big, Bad Bruins. They had just won the Cup and my eldest sister adored Bobby Orr, so I had no time for them. They were my team’s chief rivals, and I considered them the enemy.
That all changed for 27 days in September of 1972, however. It was okay that Esposito led Canada in scoring that tournament. It was okay that Espo was the best player in that series. Somebody had to do it, and it was infinitely better it being him than a Kharlamov, Yakushev or Tretiak.
I would never cheer again for Espo, with the one exception being the 1976 Canada Cup, of course, but I would also never despise him. He may have been my NHL team’s chief rival but he was Canadian, and he was a huge part of my favourite team ever…so I couldn’t hate the man. I begrudgingly respected him from that day forward, and it reminded me that despite the intense rivalry, we were all in this together. We were all Canadian, and we all loved our country.
The second most iconic photograph of the winning goal celebration encapsulated it perfectly – the Montreal Canadien Cournoyer and the Boston Bruin Esposito hugging the Toronto Maple Leaf Henderson. Players from the only teams that had won Stanley Cups in the previous 11 years.
Three bitter rivals sharing our country’s sweetest moment. It was a time for togetherness, and our country has never been closer. It’s a moment we will cherish forever.