The 1972 Canada-Russia Series

September 1, 2022   ·   0 Comments

By Keith Schell

Where were you, 50 years ago this month on September 28, 1972, when you heard these words:


I remember it like it was yesterday and I always will. I was 12-years-old and in grade seven at the time. Foster Hewitt had just spoke the most beautiful words in the world to the people of Canada. Paul Henderson scored to win the 1972 Summit Series for Canada, the most significant and important hockey series of all time.

Granted, this a memory for Canadians of a certain generation. Those out there who were very young or who weren’t even born at the time will never understand the significance of this series. It was the height of the cold war and Russia was the evil empire, responsible for much of the misery that befell the world according to the news broadcasts of the time.

When the hockey powers of the day announced the 1972 Summit series, it was a huge deal back then. Never before had Canada’s best been allowed to compete in an international competition because they were openly paid professionals and all international competition back then was strictly amateur.

Canada could only send teams to the Olympics and the World Championships that were certified as ‘unpaid’ amateurs; people that worked regular jobs through the day and played senior hockey at night just for the love of the game. At one time that was good enough for Canada to still win, but times had changed. The Russians had begun to take a very scientific and professional approach to training their amateur hockey teams with an eye to knocking off Canada who was still the benchmark for hockey excellence at the time.

The Russian approach was beginning to pay off; they started to beat the Canadian amateur teams on a fairly regular basis. We could usually still beat everyone else but the Russians were just too good. By then, their training methods, both on-ice and off-ice, had become so advanced that their teams were training 12 months a year. Their amateur teams became more professional than the Canadian pros who would take the summers off to relax and then use training camp in the fall to get back into shape again for the upcoming season.

Because the Russians insisted they were still amateurs, this became a major bone of contention in hockey boardrooms when amateur tournaments like the Olympics and the World championships were being played.

But feelers had been put out by the Russians who felt they had finally outgrown world amateur hockey competitions and wanted to take on the gold standard: the Canadian pros. When Alan Eagleson, head of the NHLPA in good standing at that time, heard about this he began to initiate talks with the Russians to participate in some sort of series competition.

And thus, the 1972 eight game Summit Series was born.

GAME ONE, SEPTEMBER 2, MONTREAL: My Grandma and Grandpa invited us to their place to watch the inaugural game. They had just bought the first colour TV in the entire family and game one was the first time my family had ever seen colour TV. Pretty heady stuff to a 12 year old kid at the time! We marvelled at the bright reds on the Team Canada uniforms and the Russian helmets. Like everyone else in the country, when Canada jumped out to a 2-0 lead I was happy and proud in our natural hockey superiority which was finally on display for all the world to see.

But Canadian smugness across the country vanished very quickly as the game progressed.

FINAL SCORE:  RUSSIA 7, CANADA 3.  WHAT HAPPENED? By the end of the game, the Russians’ superior conditioning was obvious and the out-of-shape Canadians were absolutely exhausted! You could see the giant sweat patches showing through on the Canadian sweaters in glorious colour on my grandparents’ TV. What a shock that loss was to the entire country!

Team Canada had no idea how good the Russians actually were. No one did. Maple Leafs scout Bob Davidson was the advance scout that Canada had sent to check out the Russians and he only saw them play one game before the series. Davidson pretty much reported back that Tretiak, who has since gone down as one of the greatest goaltenders in international hockey history, wouldn’t stand up to the onslaught of the Canadian shooters. Turns out that on the sole night that Davidson saw Tretiak, his mind was not on his business. Tretiak was getting married the next day and allowed eight goals that night.

Had the Russians deliberately pulled the wool over Canada’s eyes before the series opener? I wonder.

GAME TWO, SEPTEMBER 4, TORONTO:  CANADA 4, RUSSIA 1. THAT’S MORE LIKE IT! Coach Harry Sinden made some major changes in the lineup for this game and it paid off big time! Peter Mahovlich scored one of the most beautiful goals of the entire series. The relief in the country after this game was palpable. During a later interview Paul Henderson said, “If I ever had cause to kiss a man in my life, it would have been Peter for that beautiful goal he scored in game two.” I think the whole country felt the same way at the time. 

GAME THREE, SEPTEMBER 6, WINNIPEG: CANADA 4, RUSSIA 4. Canada started off well, building a 4-2 lead, but the Russians began to take control towards the end of the game, tying the game up. Russian forward Valeri Kharlamov was outstanding, his speed and skill becoming more evident in each game. He was becoming a thorn in Team Canada’s side as the series progressed. There is an old sports saying that says ‘a tie is like kissing your sister’; but with Canada hanging on by the end of that third period the sister started to look pretty good!

GAME FOUR, SEPTEMBER 8, VANCOUVER: RUSSIA 5, CANADA 3. Back to my Grandparent’s place to watch their new colour TV. Team Canada did not have a good game. The Vancouver crowd booed Team Canada mercilessly. Team Canadas over the years always seemed to have a history of never playing well in Vancouver (fortunately, that all changed with the 2010 Olympics when Canada’s men’s hockey team won the gold medal).

At the end of the game with Canadian pride smarting and the country not at all happy with their team, I distinctly remember watching Phil Esposito’s post-game interview when he lectured the country about getting behind Team Canada. I believed him and was not prepared to jump ship yet.

With Canada down 1-2-1 in the series, the country very unhappy with Canada’s performance so far and serious cracks forming in team unity, the series shifted to the Luzhniki Ice Palace in Moscow, USSR, for games five through eight.


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