It’s 40 years ago today that Canada and Russia faced off in Montreal to start the most gut wrenching, confidence shattering, depressing and joyous sporting even in Canadian history, and one of the most epic in the history of sports anywhere (you heard me, Super Bowls and World Series’). It is one of the most vivid memories of my teenage years (admittedly, there isn’t a lot of competition in that department), but I am in a minority. With the median age in Canada (half the population is younger than this age, half is older) now 41 — and if you take into account how many Canadians have been born and died since 1972, and how many people have moved here from other countries since ’72 — it’s safe to say that only a very small minority of Canadians have any memory of the series.
While millions of Canadians know of the series, most don’t feel the significance, because they didn’t live through it.
So, for the benefit of those who are too young to remember the September summit, a few words of explanation are in order.
The Canada of 1972 was not the Canada of 2012. While Canadians today can be accused of being arrogant and smug about our place in the world, Canada of 1972 was a decidedly more modest country. We were a middle power, well respected for our peacekeeping duties around the world (remember peacekeeping, anyone?), but not much else. We had Pierre Trudeau, who was way cooler than any other world leader, but otherwise, that was about it.
But there was hockey. And we were, without doubt, the Greatest Hockey Playing Nation On Earth.
The NHL was the unquestioned best hockey league in the world, and in the 1970s the league was made up almost entirely of Canadians (in the 1971-72 season, NHL rosters were 95 per cent Canadian; today, it’s about 50 per cent). We were the best, and everyone knew it.
The trouble it, we couldn’t prove it. The International Ice Hockey Federation allowed only amateurs to compete for the world championships, which meant Canada’s best were unavailable. For many years, Canada could throw together a team of beer leaguers and still win, but in the 1960s, that changed. The USSR took to hockey in a way that only totalitarian states can, winning nine straight championships from 1963-71.
Of course, Russian “amateurs” were anything but. The best Russian players were members of the Red Army. They probably didn’t know which end of a rifle to point, but they knew hockey. They were professionals in everything but name, and we knew it. In protest, Canada withdrew from international hockey in 1970, knowing that we couldn’t send our best, or even our second best, while Russians and other Iron Curtain countries were playing their best (cough, cough) “amateurs”. We couldn’t compete, so we walked away.
While Russian was racking up world championships, Canadians were content with the knowledge that the REAL world champion was the winner of the Stanley Cup.
Finally, an eight-game series was announced for 1972 that would put the best of the NHL against the best of the USSR. No trophy was awarded, no medals given out. It was just an “exhibition” series — with nothing less than world hockey supremacy as the unstated prize. But it wasn’t just our hockey versus their hockey. It was our system (democracy, freedom of speech, capitalism) versus their system (communism, state control of the economy, suppression of speech). The Cold War was still red hot (Russia had invaded Czechoslovakia just four years previous when the Czechs got a little too uppity). The term “evil empire” had not yet been used (that didn’t come until 1983), but it certainly applied. In 1972, the USSR controlled East Germany, Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria. The Russians were bad, bad people, who had enough nukes to wipe out the world many times over, and designs to rule to world.
So, young ones and new ones, that was the situation. Our way of life versus theirs. Our hockey versus theirs. Our freedom versus their totalitarianism. If this sounds like an exaggeration, it isn’t. The Canada-Russia hockey series of 1972 was a life and death battle. Phil Esposito, who would attain mythical status with his heroic efforts in the series, has said that he was willing to kill to win. I believe him. And I would have cheered him on.
OK, I was only 16. But that’s truly how important that series was. We would lose game one in Montreal 7-3, the myth of Canadian hockey superiority would be shattered, and Canada would enter into a month of agony and ecstasy. I’m glad I was alive to experience it, but I don’t think I’d want to go through it again.