50 Years Ago Today, The Cold War Was Melted By Ice Hockey
In September of 1972, an all star team of NHL veterans took on the Soviet Hockey team in a battle of contrasting styles and ideologies. It was an epic eight game series that was decided by one goal.
The Soviets Dominated Amateur Hockey For Decades
Beginning in the early 1950s, the Soviet National Hockey team began a twenty year domination of Winter Olympic hockey tournament and subsequently all amateur tournaments.
Canada, the birthplace of modern hockey and the long time dominant country in the world, couldn't keep up with the Soviet juggernaut, mainly because most of their best players became professionals, who were not allowed in the Olympics or amateur tournaments.
Canadian hockey officials withdrew their teams from amateur play, arguing the amateur playing field wasn't level, because the Soviets were essentially pros, playing together year round, supported by their government.
The Series Marked A Cold War Thawing
In the spring of 1972, officials from both nations met in Prague, Czechoslovakia and agreed to an eight game series in September, with the first four games in Canada, and the next four in the the USSR. A squad of NHL All Stars dubbed 'Team Canada', would take on the world champions Soviets.
Both countries wanted to prove their nation the best, but the Soviets had the most to gain, IF they could hold their own with the likes of NHL Hall of Famers like Phil Esposito and Bobby Clarke, they could be considered the best in the world.
Team Canada Was Stunned On Their Home Ice
The Russian team whipped the Canadians 7-3 in the opening game on September 2, 1972, played in the shrine of Canadian hockey, the Montreal Forum.
“They were ready for us; we weren’t ready for them,” former Detroit Red Wing great Mickey Redmond recently told MLive.com. "We sat around all summer doing nothing."
The Canadians got revenge in game two in Toronto, winning 4-1. Game three wound up a 4-4 tie, and game four in Vancouver went to the Soviets 5-3.
The Russians then won the first game in Moscow, 5-4, and had a commanding advantage over Team Canada, 3 games to 1 with one tie.
The Canadians were beside themselves.
“We stumbled on it, almost,” center Bobby Clarke, now 73, told Daily Faceoff. “Nobody was expecting a series like that. It was going to be a fun time, and we were going to kick the shit out of the Russians, and all of a sudden we’re in big trouble.”
Team Canada Rose Up And Got Physical
The NHL Stars had been humiliated, and their own countrymen turned on them, booing during game four, and sending a rock through the window of goalie Tony Esposito's dad's car.
"We hated each other more than we hated the Russians," Brad Park recalled.
But that changed after that opening loss in Moscow. Team Canada started playing what they referred to in the classic movie 'Slap Shot' as 'old time hockey'. That meant hitting the Russians with crushing forechecks and stick checks.
In game five, Clarke broke Soviet star Valeri Kharmalov's ankle with his stick. It was a turning point.
“I didn’t really care when I did it, nobody told me to go out there and do it, I did it in the heat of the game, and I don’t regret it,” Clarke said. “I don’t recommend doing something like that, but it happened. And there was no complaint about it. The Russians didn’t complain."
“I told Clarke, I’m really pissed at you. He said ‘What?’ I said ‘You should’ve done it in the first game,” Esposito said. “This was war. It was Communism against capitalism. And that’s what we believed, because it became that, it became political. God I hate politics. Fuckin son of a bitches, all of them.”
Paul Henderson, The Hero The Canadians Needed
Team Canada was unstoppable from that point forward, winning three straight games in Moscow, all by a single goal, 3-2, 4-3 and 6-5.
In the game eight finale, the Canadians rallied to tie it late, and with just 37 seconds remaining, Paul Henderson of the Maple Leafs scored what it now known in hockey lore as 'The Goal'.
“I found myself in front of the net,” said Henderson afterward. “Tretiak made one stop, but the puck came right back to me. There was room under him, so I poked the puck through. When I saw it go in, I just went bonkers.” So did the entire country.
The score made the Canadians 4-3-1 series winners, but there was no joy in America's Attic. While Team Canada had saved face, hockey had been changed forever. The European game, and the Soviets had been proven legitimate.
"Besides the feeling of winning, for us who played, there was a feeling of relief,” Clarke said. “We didn’t let our country down, and our family backed us 100 percent, especially after we left Canada and we weren’t very good in Canada. They backed us so much and it’s just a relief that we didn’t let the country down. I think we all have our own opinions of how things were. And in the end, none of that is important. What was important was that we became a team, and a team beat the Russians.”
The Red Wings 'Russian Five' Brought Soviet Greats To The USA
Just 17 years later, the Berlin Wall fell, and the Detroit Red Wings grabbed five former Soviet greats to play in the NHL. Those five led the Wings to their first Stanley Cup in 43 years in 1997.
Hockey was forever changed by the series, in ways for the better, and in ways for the worse, but those of us hockey fans who watched the series by rigging up antennas to pick Canadian TV, were won over to a new Cold War, this time fought on the hockey rink, which culminated with the great 'Miracle On Ice' USA Hockey win over the Soviets in 1980.
“For all purposes, those guys were pros,” Redmond said. “They kept saying they weren’t, but they were getting paid, they were pros for God’s sake, and they’re winning the Olympics hands down, so it really wasn’t fair. That’s why 1980 (Miracle on Ice) was so crazy special.”
Three Detroit Red Wings played in the Summit Series. Besides Redmond, Red Berenson, who would go on to coach the University of Michigan to nine Frozen Four appearances and a National Title and defenseman Gary Bergman, all notched playing time for Team Canada.
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