Is there a more famous phrase in Canadian history, coined on this day 50 years ago? To be honest, I’m at a loss to come up with another famous Canadian phrase. The only one I can come up with is “He shoots! He scores!” coined by the same man, Foster Hewitt, the father of Canadian hockey broadcasting. Hewitt was called out of retirement to call the epic Summit Series of 1972, and he handled Russian names amazingly well. The only name he stumbled over was Yvan Cournoyer, a Canadian (and a Canadien).
So much happened in those eight games. Euphoric highs and excruciating lows. It was all anyone could think about or talk about. It was, at least for this 16-year-old, all-encompassing.
Although there is so much I remember from those games five decades ago, there is a lot I had forgotten until I watched some of the games on a DVD set. For example, I had forgotten that the boards in Canada were free of advertising, but the Russians, of all people, caught on to the fact that millions would be watching, and allowed advertising (Catelli pasta, CCM, Gilette). I had forgotten about the terrible quality of the live feed from Moscow; you can get a clearer picture on your cellphone today than the muddy, frequently broken-up feed from Russia. (Weirdly, the feed we watched in Canada came from the Russian telecast, complete with Russian graphics.) And amazingly, Russian hockey rinks didn’t have glass along the boards, just loose-fitting nets behind the goals. And for some reason, I had forgotten that Paul Henderson scored the winning goal in all three of the last games; his winner in Game 7, Henderson has said, was the best goal of his life, and it’s a Connor McDavid-like wonder. You can see it here.
But so much else, I will never forget – cannot forget.
While the names of the Canadian players are forever etched in Canadian history, I remember the Russian players, too. Towering, hawk-nosed, Alexander Yakushev, who scored seven goals and never cracked a smile. Tough, dirty Boris Mikhailov (he infamously kicked Gary Bergman), who looked like a Mafia hitman. Splendid speedster Valery Kharlamov, who would have been a factor had not Bobby Clarke slashed his ankle, sidelining one of Russia’s greatest players. Goaltender Vladislav Tretiak, who played every second of the series. Petrov. Bobrov. Anasin. Ragulin. And those were from memory.
Also unforgettable, the officiating team of Franz Bader and Joseph Kompalla (or, as the Canadians called them, Bader and Worst), who were either incompetent or crooked or, most likely, both.
With fifty years of hindsight, I can look at this series with a little more equanimity. Clarke’s slash on Tretiak was a brutal move that I applauded at the time. In Game 8, J.P. Parise was called for interference, which it clearly was, particularly in today’s hockey. The penalty touched off a wild scene, with Parise threatening the ref with a raised stick (a photo of the incident was the only one Soviet newspapers used the next day). The game stopped for about 10 minutes while the Canadian bench threw chairs and towels on the ice, and Phil Esposito (the true hero of the series) argued with the ref. In the same tumultuous game, when the players rescued future crook Alan Eagleson from the clutches of the Russian cops, Eagleson and other Canadians gave the crowd – and most of Canada watching – one finger salutes. I need not say which finger.
But at the time, I felt that we had to do whatever it took to win. Maybe not killing someone, as Esposito has said. That was just a little over the line. But we HAD to win.
It’s not very often that you can remember exactly where you were and what you were doing decades ago; I can’t even remember what I did yesterday. But Sept. 28, 1972 was different.
Game Eight was played during working and school hours in Canada. Not that anyone was working or learning during those three hours. Every TV set in Archbishop MacDonald High School was pressed into service. When one period ended, we just ran to the next class to continue watching the game there. There was just one teacher who insisted on continuing classes in the entire school. Probably a Commie.
When Henderson scored for Canada, the school – and the country – erupted. I remember grabbing the shoulders of the guy next to me, someone I barely knew, exchanging looks of pure joy. When the game was over, everyone was simply vibrating with excitement, so much so that we were all sent home because there was no chance of learning that day.
I know this makes me sound like an old man (which is appropriate, age-wise) but I think the Summit Series was the last great Canadian moment. We’ve had other thrilling sports moments, but nothing compared to September 1972. We were never as united, and have never been as united, as during those 28 days. I loved, and sometimes hated, every minute of it.