'I feel the history': 50 years on, the Summit Series looms large for Canadian coach

·6 min read

It's been nearly 50 years since millions of Canadians sat holding their breath, glued to the grainy black-and-white television images being beamed into living rooms, offices and schools from a rink in Moscow.

It's been five decades, but the moments remain vividly etched in the minds of the men who were part of the eight historic hockey games between Canada and the USSR in September 1972.

“Every detail of dinner together or a particular airplane ride or particular game. I mean, finite details they remember after 50 years," said Harry Sinden, head coach of the Canadian team. "It really was indelible on almost all of (the players.)"

One moment Sinden didn't see remains especially clear.

It was Sept. 28, 1972 and Paul Henderson had scored to give Canada 6-5 lead over the USSR with 34 seconds to play in the final game of the Summit Series.

On the bench, the coach briefly averted his eyes from the ice.

“The Russians were famous and notorious for odd-man rushes, three-on-two," Sinden told The Canadian Press. "We were doing everything we could to cut down the number of those kind of rushes. We had a timeout after we scored the goal and I warned the team at the bench. We faced off and what do you know, the first thing they get is a three-on-two.”

He couldn't bear to watch.

“I did look away because nothing good could happen if they scored," Sinden said with a chuckle. "I just kind of looked down for a second and then saw the end result.

"Anyway, it was an unbelievable period of time.”

Friday marks 50 years since the puck dropped in Game 1 of the series, kicking off a highly anticipated tournament that saw Canadian NHLers battle Soviet players for the first time ever in a best-on-best competition.

The eight games were played over four weeks, with stops in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver before the series shifted to Moscow.

With the Cold War raging, the Summit Series was about more than hockey — something the Canadian players only had a slight idea of heading into the tournament, said goalie Ken Dryden.

"We knew the bigness of it because it was that big to us, that hockey was that big in our own beings," he said in a recent phone interview. "And we knew it was in other Canadians and we knew the feeling of pride that we had in being the best in the world, that we knew we were the best in the world.”

Team Canada — stacked with stars like Phil Esposito, Bobby Clarke and Serge Savard — was heavily favoured as the series began.

Then the Soviets stunned in Game 1, torching Canada for a 7-3 win.

The USSR's team was in faster and more skilled than the Canadians expected, and the NHLers struggled to keep up.

By the time the tournament made it to Vancouver for Game 4, each side had a win, a loss and a draw apiece. And hometown hockey fans were restless.

When Canada lost 5-3 in Vancouver, the crowd rained boos down on the players. Esposito responded in a post-game interview with an impassioned speech about how the team was doing its best.

“It was something that Canada had to brag about, being the greatest hockey playing nation in the world. And it was being challenged," Sinden said. "And we were maybe about to lose that. And people knew it and they were mad. They were genuinely mad at us for not doing better than we did in the first four games.”

Canada lost its first game in the USSR, too, dropping a 5-4 decision in a rink stacked with Soviet dignitaries. The USSR led the series 3-1-1 with just three games to go.

It was adversity the Canadians hadn't expected to face.

“You went out for every game and almost every period, and almost every shift of every game, not knowing what was going to happen to you next. And you had to find a way of dealing with that. And that's not an easy thing to do," Dryden said.

"It's almost as if you find that you can handle this, you can handle pretty much anything.”

Canada clawed its way back into the series, posting a 3-2 win in Game 6, then taking a 4-3 victory to set the scene for a decisive Game 8.

The Soviets did not score in those moments that Sinden looked away from the play. Canada won 6-5. Nearly 7,500 kilometres away, millions of Canadians cheered.

Dryden recollects the moments after the win in his latest book, "The Series: What I Remember, What it Felt Like, What it Feels Like Now."

"I remember the yelling and shouting in the dressing room, the hugs, the way it is when every championship is won," the Hall of Fame goalie wrote. "Then I remember it being less loud than I expected. Still some hugging, still the big smiles, but more players sitting, more a little by themselves, into themselves.

"It was almost quiet. It was still celebration, deep, deep celebration. But more than that, like the feeling of being shot at and missed, it was deep, deep relief."

The games were a geopolitical battle as well as a sports tournament, Sinden said, and that gave the series a heavier gravity.

“That's why it affected the country the way it did," he said. "Because even non-sports fans, non-hockey fans, were paying real close attention to it.”

Russia's current geopolitical situation has complicated plans for a 50th anniversary reunion, the coach said. The country's ongoing invasion of Ukraine means Canadians won't go to Moscow to celebrate with the men who were part of the Soviet team.

Events are still planned for several Canadian cities. Sinden would like to attend, but he'll turn 90 later this month and mobility issues may prevent him from travelling from his longtime home in Massachusetts.

Whether he's at the celebrations in person or not, the coach knows he'll spend time remembering and reflecting on those eight games.

Sinden won a Stanley Cup as coach of the Boston Bruins in 1970 and was inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1983, but he said the Summit Series remains a highlight of his long career.

Five decades later, those games are still a key piece of Canada's hockey story, Sinden said.

“I feel the history of that tournament, the legacy of that team just as strongly as all Canadian fans do. I mean, it never goes away. It's kind of like a good wine, I guess," he said. "Actually, the legacy of it grows.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 2, 2022.

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press