Ice War Diplomat: Hockey Meets Cold War Politics at the 1972 Summit Series
Gary J. Smith
Ice War Diplomat arrives at a depressingly timely moment. After 30+ years of the Cold War shrinking in history's rear view, Russia's invasion of Ukraine gives renewed urgency to Gary J. Smith's story. Last year, this book might have been seen as a runway for another hockey summit series. No one now, athlete or ambassador, has any appetite for another Canada-Russia hockey tournament.
If history demands the right person, in the right place, at the right time, Gary J. Smith was it. In 1971, he was a young diplomat, fluent in Russian, newly posted in Moscow. At the same time, he was also a passionate player and student of hockey. When Leonid Brezhnev, Andrei Kosygin and Pierre-Elliot Trudeau started using hockey to build bridges between Russia and Canada, Smith rose to the occasion.
He was not the most senior member of the diplomatic team, but he was the one who worked hardest to bring about the '72 Summit Series. Those in the know would probably agree that without Smith, Canada's greatest sporting moment might never have occurred. His work – the seemingly endless crisis management and secretive negotiating – is what Ice War Diplomat is all about.
As a prelude to the eight games that thrilled two nations, Smith explains how Canadian hockey was introduced to the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Then, he contextualizes Russia as our Foreign Affairs department has traditionally seen it.
The history includes " …purges, pogroms, starvation policies associated with agricultural collectivization, a mass of wealth and privilege at the top and little to nothing at the bottom. Political repression of one kind or another, aided by various secret police agencies, has been passed down through the ages from the tsars to the communists and beyond."
Millennials might think boomers exaggerate when they say hockey used to be 'war by other means.' In March 1969, international hockey was certainly a proxy battleground between Czechoslovakia and the Soviets. When the Czechoslovaks beat Russia on ice, twice that month, 500,000 people hit the streets of Prague to celebrate. The party morphed into protests against the Soviet military stationed in their country. A local Aeroflot office was torched. Moscow used the "Czechoslovak Hockey Riots" as a pretext to remove reformer Alexander Dubček from office and crush the progress of the Prague Spring.
Smith says the Department of External Affairs believed "the decline of our hockey capability had serious international consequences, as it had led to a deterioration of Canada's image abroad, especially in Europe. Hockey and Canada's standing in the world were inextricably linked."
While this story plays out, 10,000 Canadian soldiers were still in Europe, supporting NATO, squaring off against Warsaw Pact adversaries.
His first year on office, Pierre Trudeau oversaw the creation of Hockey Canada, whose purpose was to boost Canadian results in International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) tournaments. In 1971, when Smith arrived in Moscow, part of his job was to pave the way for Trudeau's controversial tour of the USSR.
When Russian Premier Alexei Kosygin returned the visit in Canada, anti-Soviet protestors dogged him. But when Kosygin went to a Vancouver-Montreal NHL game, the applause from hockey fans was the warmest welcome he had ever received outside Russia:
"The light went on for Alexei Kosygin that October night in Vancouver. If the Soviet Union wished to improve its relationship with Canada and enhance co-operation, the way to do it was through hockey."
Boris Fedesov – a sports writer for Isvestia, published a 1971 piece arguing that Russian hockey teams should play Canadian pros, which had never happened. Reading the article, Smith realized that Fedosov must have gotten approval from government censors. He ran down the Embassy halls and urged his higher-ups to start talking with Russian counterparts.
The Summit Series negotiations kicked off with mirth on the communist side of the table, because capitalist Canada had permitted union boss Alan Eagleson to lead its delegation. Eagleson agreed that Harry Sinden, the former Boston Bruins coach, would run the Canadian team. Sinden brought John Ferguson on board as assistant.
There would be four games in Canada, which no Russian fans would be allowed to attend. Then four in Moscow, for which 1,400 package trips went on sale to Canadians. Those sold out in a hurry. For a young diplomat, nearly 3,000 Canadians landing in Moscow was cause for some concern. Every room was bugged and searched daily. Every hockey tourist was under surveillance. At 90 cents a bottle, Russian vodka amped up the potential for trouble.
Diplomacy required at every turn
Diplomacy was needed to pull the Canadian team together. Tensions flared between the CAHA, the NHL, and the NHLPA. American team owners were not keen to lend Canadian players to an event in which all the publicity and money would stay in Canada.
The NHL saw definite value in playing the Soviets just as the World Hockey Association was eyeballing European expansion. The WHA's big salaries had recently won over players like Bobby Hull, Gerry Cheevers, Derek Sanderson and J.C. Tremblay, none of whom could play for Sinden's all-NHL team.
Smith took Toronto Maple Leafs coach Johnny McLellan and chief scout Bob Davidson to watch the Soviet national team scrimmage. Smith had seen the Russians play before and he thought they were holding back on this occasion. A 20-year-old Vladislav Tretiak was in net. He had already won two world championships and Olympic gold, but on this occasion, Tretiak was stopping almost no shots.
Smith commented that the play looked strangely weak. McLellan and Davidson did not suspect a ruse. They were both roundly criticized later for their scouting report, which downplayed the Soviets' skills and grossly undervalued the phenomenal goalie.
On Aug. 30, 1972, an Aeroflot jet left Moscow for Montreal. There were 36 members of the Russian team and delegation aboard, and one Canadian: Gary J. Smith. As they took off, all Russians had been following an epic chess match. The defending world champion, Boris Spassky, was hours away from being beaten by troubled American prodigy Bobby Fischer. Losing to the young American made many Russians uneasy, who genuinely thought their man was unbeatable.
Before play even begins in Canada, a legal challenge is launched by a Quebec citizen. His rental car in Czechoslovakia was flattened by a Russian tank, and he threatened to impound the Russian hockey equipment to compensate for his loss. A little more diplomacy helped settle that business.
Legendary Habs goalie passes out pointers
Jacques Plante, the Habs' goalkeeping maestro, brought an interpreter to a Russian practice in Montreal and gave young Tretiak some tips on defending against Canadian snipers. Canadians saw that as disloyalty, but the Russians were impressed by the sportsmanship.
Russia outplayed Canada in the first match. Between periods, Smith asked Eagleson what was going on with the Canadians. Eagleson does not take the question well. He calls Smith "a fucking commie just like they are."
Game 2 is in Toronto. Smith has an eye for the action:
"In one of the most terrific plays of the entire series and indeed in hockey history, Peter Mahovlich took a pass from Phil Esposito and faked a slapshot as he crossed the Soviet blue line. The Soviet defenceman, Yevgeni Paladiev, moved his feet together to block the impending shot and in an instant Mahovlich flew by, leaving him flailing with his stick. Tretiak had played brilliantly up to this point, but Mahovlich deked left and then right, leaving the Soviet goalie down and out as he slipped the puck into the net, running over Tretiak in the process. The crowd erupted.
There was the absolute beauty of the goal—the artistry of Mahovlich's moves, all achieved while short-handed in pressure-packed circumstances—but there was also the joyous realization that Canada was back on top by two goals. The roof of Maple Leaf Gardens seemed in danger of being blown off in that moment."
The next game, in Winnipeg, ended in a tie.
The Canadian federal election campaign gathered steam. The Liberals glommed onto the now wildly popular and patriotically charged series. At the same time, the visiting Russians went from total anonymity to superstardom in just a few days. Players came here expecting protests from Eastern European Canadians, but adoring autograph seekers made far more noise.
Phil Esposito's speech for the ages
Game 4 in Vancouver turned ugly. Another losing effort for Canada. When Frank Mahovlich held Tretiak down on the ice for waaaay longer than necessary, fans booed the Canadian team. It was a turning point: CTV's Johnny Esaw held a mic for a sweaty and exhausted Phil Esposito, who unleashed an emotional speech:
"To the people across Canada, we tried, we gave it our best, and to the people that booed us, geez. I'm really – all of us guys are really disheartened, and we're disillusioned, and we're disappointed at some of the people. We cannot believe the bad press we've got, the booing we've gotten in our own buildings. If the Russians boo their players … then I'll come back and I'll apologize to each one of the Canadians, but I don't think they will."
Another worry for Smith that night. Esposito said it was no longer a game, but a war. "As far as I was concerned, as a diplomat, Esposito's invoking of the word "war" as a rallying cry for his teammates and Canadians ran directly counter to the Canadian government's diplomatic goal of reducing the risk of "war" with the USSR. No one wanted to replace a stick and a puck with a steel helmet and a bayonet."
Sept. 22, 1972, 8:00 p.m. Moscow time. 150 million viewers tuned in across the 11 time zones of the USSR. Everyone welcomed a change from the stupefying agriculture reports usually shown at that hour. The Canadian games saw no advertising on the boards, but now in Moscow, the Soviets have capitalized nicely on the situation, and ringed the whole place with ads for western brands.
Brezhnev, Kosygin, and Podgorny take seats at centre ice, happy to associate themselves with these skating exemplars of the ideal Soviet man.
Phil Esposito glides out for the player intros, and tumbles over a dropped flower. He rises to one knee and does a theatrical bow to the potentates in their box seats. He later swore that Brezhnev, "the guy with the hairy eyebrows" looked him right in the eye, but for millions of Russians, the irreverance made a big impression. Fun-loving Canadian fearlessness saved the moment. Canadian fans applauded their boys this time, even as the USSR won again, 5-4.
It was not the Soviet custom to cheer with gusto. But leadership was embarrassed by 3,000 Canadians drowning out the much bigger Moscow crowd. Alexander Gresko, from the Sports Committee, was tasked with making local fans get rowdy. He rounded up young female employees to go out in the stands and chant "Shaybu, Shaybu" (We want a goal). But they were overwhelmed by thoroughly refreshed Canadians, who were now chanting "Da, Da, Canada. Nyet, Nyet, Soviet."
A less-than-proud moment in Game 6. Valeri Kharlamov gets whacked from behind by Bobby Clarke. The two-handed slash at Kharlamov's ankle didn't permanently hobble the Russian, as it easily could have, but the referee called two-minutes for slashing, and a ten-minute misconduct.
Soviets agree that the attack on Kharlamov was the series turning point. Smith says that as late as the 1990s, Canadian ambassadors still heard Russians compare it to the siege of Leningrad.
In the unwanted help department, Alexei Kosygin at this point said "We are convinced Prime Minister Trudeau will win the election and if he needs any support, we will send some people to vote for him."
Paul Henderson had a fantastic late goal. Canadians at the game were ecstatic.
After the game, Canadian fans made merry with the cheap vodka. A young water-skiing champion named Pierre Plouffe landed in a Moscow jail for throwing a drunken tantrum. He had already been on the radar for playing his bugle and waving his Canadian flag on the end of a hockey stick. He came close to getting an extended stay in the slammer. More work for the diplomat.
Fireworks in the final game
Fittingly for a diplomacy story, the on-ice diplomats – the referees – play starring roles. Sinden, Ferguson and Eagleson all hated the two West German refs, who they thought were inept and favouring the Russians. The refereeing stoked their simmering beef with Russia's point men: ex-KGB officer Kiril Romesky and Alexander Gresko.
Kompalla, the German ref, called J.P. Parisé for interference. He protested too much, and got upgraded to a ten-minute misconduct. Parisé skated back to the middle of the ice, did a loop, and then charged at Kompalla with his stick up. It certainly looked like a threat. That earned Parisé a game misconduct.
Coach Sinden lost it. He threw a stool and a chair onto the ice from the Canadian bench. Then a bunch of towels. Kompalla was clearly rattled and didn't touch his whistle for the rest of the match.
Foster Hewitt, doing play-by-play for the television broadcast, would say, "The Parisé incident nearly set the place on fire." As this played out, Smith was sitting beside Bobby Orr (who was still recovering from knee surgery). The two men have a lively exchange. Smith tells Orr that the whole point of the series is to build bridges with the USSR, not blow them up. "You've been in Moscow too long," Orr says.
It went downhill from there. A delayed goal light crossed some bare wires inside Alan Eagleson. He jumped up and made for the timekeeper's box. A line of Russian militiamen decided to remove Eagleson from the arena:
"Mahovlich, without hesitating, scaled the boards with his stick raised. Everyone from the bench, players in uniform and some not, coaches and trainers alike, arrived like the cavalry, and soon Eagleson was on the ice and being escorted to the Canadian bench. Various hand gestures were made along the way to the crowd in general, most noticeably by Eagleson, his assistant Mike Cannon, and Team Canada trainer Joe Skro.
The Soviet crowd was stunned and silent. They had never seen anything like it in their controlled environment. The Canadian fans started up with the "Da, Da, Canada. Nyet, Nyet, Soviet" chant. External Affairs Under Secretary Ed Ritchie buried his head in his hands."
When play resumed, Henderson replaced Peter Mahovlich. He, Cournoyer, and Esposito streak into the Soviet zone. Henderson gets in front of the net, Esposito passes, Henderson shoots. Tretiak rebounds. Henderson shoots again.
"Henderson has scored for Canada."
Final score, 6–5 for Canada.
WATCH | Paul Henderson scores in Canada-Soviet hockey series:
Thursday, Sept. 28, 1972, was an indelible day for Canadians. It was a sports moment, but it was also a moment where everything else stopped. Everyone found a TV somewhere. Everyone celebrated. No headline font size was big enough.
"Hockey itself was the victor," Vladislav Tretiak said, whenever he was asked.
Unlike the old communist bosses, who were content to bask in the reflected glory of their team, President Putin likes to pretend he is the next Gretzky. Russian professionals are careful in photo ops to let the shaky beginner wheel to the net. Shaybu!
At a 2017 party in memory of the Summit series, Smith had a quiet chat with Canadian Ambassador John Kur, who told him that hockey "was one of the only threads holding the bilateral Canadian–Russian relationship together."
But even with hockey's lift, there's no joy in Canada-Russia relations now. The 2014 incursions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine led to Ottawa shunning many senior Russian officials. Moscow retaliated in kind. The war began on February 24, 2022, just as this book was going to print.
Among the many atrocities wrought by Vladimir Putin in Ukraine, it feels almost trivial to mourn the cancellation of 50th anniversary celebrations in Canada and Moscow.
As Smith says "It is a situation not completely unlike what Pierre Elliott Trudeau faced in the early 1970s when dealing with a nuclear-armed hostile power following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Russia cannot be wished away; nor the Russian people blamed in full measure for the actions of its leadership. President Putin has to be dealt with from a position of strength with no illusions, but we continue to need to find common ground to prevent further violence and war, and to encourage change.
"Engagement and dialogue remain the foundation of diplomacy. And though diplomacy may falter from time to time, it remains an essential element of foreign policy. Hockey has been, and can again be, part of that process with Russia."
ICE WAR DIPLOMAT: Hockey Meets Cold War Politics at the 1972 Summit Series, Douglas & McIntyre, 336 pages, B&W photographs, 16-page colour insert, cloth. $26.95