Team Canada’s hockey heroes reflect on the epic 1972 Summit Series that changed the game—and the country—forever.
My memories of Team Canada’s tumultuous hockey series against the Soviet Union in 1972 are as erratic as the original TV satellite feed back from Moscow — impermanent impressions flickering over the capricious medium of a five-year-old boy’s unformed consciousness.
When I cast my mind back to Sept. 28, 1972, I can only conjure up fleeting images: watching Game 8 in the school gym, the dour-looking, helmet-clad Russian players, Ken Dryden’s alarming mask, the Team Canada poster on my brother’s wall. But Paul Henderson’s winning goal? I’ve seen it replayed so often, I can’t possibly claim that memory as my own.
Curse my untimely birth! Because those of an age to clearly remember the entire eight games lived through what will forever be known as the greatest international hockey series ever played. It was our best players versus theirs, good Canadian boys versus evil Russkies, tenacity against skill, with the country that invented the sport at risk of losing bragging rights to these mesmerizing Slavic usurpers. Most of all, it was every player’s dauntless will to win – at any cost – that’s never been matched since. In the end, it became the rare time when a sporting event becomes part of a nation’s biography.
You won’t need reminding how the tournament’s dramatic twists and turns captured the fascination of two countries, a riveting eight-part miniseries with the cloud of Cold War politics shadowing its every moment. You’ll recall that sweltering September night in Montreal when the overconfident Canadians shockingly lost Game 1. Your faith was restored when we bounced back to win in Game 2. But the desultory tie in Game 3 and ugly loss in Game 4 in Vancouver had the crowd booing the team off the ice, perhaps echoing your own sentiments. You were inspired by Phil Esposito’s rousing “we’re trying our best” speech, then devastated by the Game 5 loss in Russia. Hope returned after back-to-back nail-biting victories in Game 6 and 7. And, of course, the magnificent third-period comeback in Game 8, with the series-winning goal in the dying moments.
Like the epic sagas of the past, it’s a tale that’s been told and re-told a thousand times, yet it never seems to grow stale or get drained of meaning. That’s why, when 10 representatives from Team Canada ’72 gathered in June to reminisce about that eventful time and series, it drew a standing-room-only crowd to the TV studio where they were shooting an episode of theZoomer.
I had the great fortune to sit with the players throughout the day, from the green room to the photo shoot to a local bar after all was said and done. Not only did I get to meet these hockey demigods up close but I also got a glimpse of what it might have been like in the locker-room during the series.
As the grey-haired gladiators limped into the green room to prepare for the show, the excitement is palpable. Even the younger members of the crew instinctively know these guys are special. In walks Phil Esposito, quickly assuming his old role as team leader and spokesman. Though his once bushy black hair now sits in a silver coif, he’s the same old Espo, forceful and confident, qualities that made him an unstoppable force in the series. In stark contrast is the smiling Pete Mahovlich, who takes up his old role as locker-room clown. His incessant joking (he asks the makeup artist whether she’s mistaken him for Johnny Depp) eases the commotion Phil brings to any room. Beside Pete is his older brother the Big M, Frank Mahovlich, at 79, an icon from hockey’s golden era of the ’50s and ’60s.
At the end of the table sits Brad Park, a stylish two-way defenceman in ’72, explaining defensive strategies to me with the weary look of a teacher trying to enlighten an unpromising student. Next to him is Eddie Johnston, Team Canada’s back-up goalie who jokes that though he didn’t see any action he had “the best seat in the house for every game.” At age 81, he’s still working, a hockey lifer who’s now senior adviser for the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Across from EJ is Yvan Cournoyer, still the dapper French Canadian, whose excellent series culminated with him on the ice for Henderson’s winning goal. He jokes that his recent shoulder surgery was caused “by lifting so many Stanley Cups.” Close by, the cool Jean Ratelle and the gritty Wayne Cashman – whose teams lost multiple playoff series to Cournoyer’s Montreal Canadiens’ juggernaut – roll their eyes theatrically; they’ve heard that one too many times before.
Among all these famous names and big personalities, it’s easy to overlook Pat Stapleton, the unsung defensive hero from ’72 who didn’t score much but figured out how to disrupt the baffling Russian attack. “They became predictable,” he says “So we put our foot on their throat and didn’t let up.”
A cheerful Irishman (he came for a beer after the event and would have stayed for a few more if he didn’t have to catch a 5:30 train back to Strathroy, Ont.), Stapleton was hit hard by the recent loss of Bill White, his long-time teammate and defence partner on Team Canada. He notes that five other teammates predeceased White, including Gary Bergman, Bill Goldsworthy, Richard Martin and J.P. Parise and assistant coach John Ferguson Sr. Others are ailing, including Paul Henderson, fighting a long-time battle with cancer, Stan Mikita, whose dementia has obliterated all memories of the Series, and coach Harry Sinden, who had to cancel his appearance at the last moment due to ill health.
To help ensure that the team’s magical story will be passed down to a whole new generation before too many more depart for the great arena in the sky, Stapleton now serves as the chair and driving force behind Team Canada 1972 (teamcanada72.ca), an organization that runs cross-country events to relive all those great moments. Everywhere they go, they’re mobbed by curious young fans eager to learn more and older fans grateful to meet heroes from the past.
If the event I attended is any indication, these gabfests are as meaningful to the players as they are for the fans. Recounting the high drama of Game 8 in front of the studio audience, Phil claimed he still gets goosebumps talking about it. Later, Frank and Pete struggled to contain their emotions as they recounted their own special moments in ’72, and Brad got all choked up recalling a tearful reunion with his mother soon after he returned to Canada.
“When we won with Team Canada,” recalls Phil, “we knew we’d walk forever with these guys.” With so many dramatic stories from that magnificent autumn 45 years ago yet to be told, we wish they could talk about it forever as well.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2017 issue with the headline, “The Cold War,” p. 82-86.