Growing up in hockey obsessed Toronto in the ‘60s and early ‘70s did little to prepare me for the most momentous occasion in my short life, also known as the 1972 Summit Series. The opportunity for our best players to take on the best that the USSR had to offer was what all Canadians had been waiting for, for far too long. Our national pride was wrapped up in our hockey superiority, as it was our game, after all.
My introduction to professional hockey came on my eighth birthday at Maple Leaf Gardens in March, 1967. The Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the New York Rangers 3-2 on their way to their fourth championship season of the decade. This was a tradition in Toronto, of course. (Please do not remind me that this seemingly routine feat would not be repeated through this much later date, perhaps not again in our lifetimes.)
The all-knowing Toronto media forecast a sweep – 8 wins for Canada – with the Soviets lucky to escape with a few goals here and there. Game 1 in Montreal saw our boys jump out to an early 2-0 lead, and viewers across Canada felt vindicated for the years of humiliating losses to the team in red, if only because we were not represented by our best players. Despite the quick offensive burst by Team Canada, however, something was amiss. Team USSR was more than a little bit quicker, executed passes more brilliantly, stymied our heroes with superb goaltending, and by the end of the game, our national pride was severely bruised by a 7-3 loss. How could so many “experts” have been so wrong?
Fast forward to Game 2 in Toronto where Team Canada rebounded with a solid 4-1 victory. Game 3 in Winnipeg ended in a 3-3 tie. Team Canada’s 5-3 loss in Game 4 to a better USSR team turned out to be the pivotal game in the series. Ongoing booing from the Vancouver spectators led captain Phil Esposito to respond with both a rousing tribute to Team USSR and a heart-felt protest to the lack of support for Team Canada who, after all, were doing their best against the talented, cohesive visiting team. This set the stage for the upcoming four games in Moscow with the upstart Soviets ahead 2-1-1.
Few hockey enthusiasts could have predicted the crazy twists and turns the series would take behind the Iron Curtain. Because of the time difference, these games occurred during the school day, so the thousand strong student body of Milneford Junior High School gathered in the school’s auditorium for the viewing of Game 5. Despite the taciturn Soviet crowd, who were drowned out by a much smaller and enthusiastic Canadian contingent, our boys lost 5-4 after building an early three-goal lead. To many in the Toronto media, the series was all but over.
But somehow, our boys rebounded in Game 6 with a thrilling 3-2 victory. Similarly in Game 7, Team Canada responded with a brilliant 5-4 effort with Paul Henderson scoring the game winner in the closing minutes. Bedlam broke out in the school auditorium. It was the most exciting moment of my life. The series was now tied at 3-3-1 with a decisive Game 8 on the horizon.
I was looking forward to another communal happening in the auditorium for Game 8 when it was announced that students were welcome to return home to view the upcoming historic event. As we lived only a few blocks from campus – and owned a colour TV, unlike the small black and white variety at the school – I opted to view the game from the comfort and close proximity of my family room. Today, I harbour mixed feelings about this decision since; yes, I did get a much better view, but, no, the experience lacked the ambiance and sheer excitement of being part of the crowd.
Nevertheless, Game 8 proved to be one of the most anxiety ridden and thrilling experiences of my early adolescence. My mother was home, and together we endured the ups and downs of this momentous occasion. With my stomach in knots, I do not remember too much about the game until the late third period. With Team USSR ahead 5-3 after two periods, I had begun to resign myself to a Canadian loss in the series, painfully trying to accept that we would lose to a better team. But then, early in the third, Team Canada roared back with two goals to tie the game. In the closing minutes, I humbly acknowledged that the Soviets were a much better team than any of our experts had ever given them credit for and that Team Canada had shown tremendous fortitude, tenacity, and determination to even the series on enemy soil. A tied series was not a bad result.
Not long after these consoling thoughts ran through my mind like a movie, the puck was in the net, and our hero, Paul Henderson was being swarmed by the entire team. It would have been difficult to write a more dramatic script. I remember jumping up and down and screaming and hugging my mother repeatedly. Of course we were better, after all, we were Canadian. This was a comforting conclusion for the time being.