It’s hard to believe that an off-season exhibition series from fifty years ago, one that initially looked like a total mismatch, still stands as one of the most important stories in Canada’s hockey history.
In fact, most Canadians, 60 years of age and older, can probably tell you exactly where they were 50 years ago today when Paul Henderson scored his famous goal that won the Summit Series in the dying seconds of the deciding game.
Henderson certainly won’t forget it.
“I remember saying to my wife after we lost the first game over there, ‘If we don’t win the last three, we’re gonna be known as the biggest losers in the history of Canadian hockey,’ Henderson told the Canadian Press. “Now we’re probably the team of the century. Canadians, we’re not great at celebrating a lot of the time, so it’s very satisfying.”
Younger Canadian fans are certainly aware of the series but can’t possibly romanticize about it the way older Canadians do. That would be like asking a fan in 1972 to be completely enamoured by a hockey event from 1922.
Fifty years is a long time. And 1972 was a different time.
In 1972, the best Canadian players from the NHL agreed to face off against the Soviet Union’s national team in an eight-game exhibition series. A few months earlier, the Soviets had just won their fourth gold medal in five tries at the Winter Olympics.
But since professionals from the NHL – most of them Canadian – weren’t allowed to compete in the Winter Games back then, the only way for the Soviets to try and prove they were the world’s best would be in the NHL’s off-season. The two sides agreed on a September series with four games in Canada, then four games back in the Soviet Union.
Canada was more than happy to take this on. They’d read all about the Soviet stories of Olympic hockey glory and this seemed like a good way to remind them, and the rest of the hockey world, who’s best. The Soviets weren’t in Canada’s league. It was still Canada’s game.
Adding another layer to the rivlary, the Soviets were also seen then as opponents in the Cold War, the tension that developed after World War II between the United States and the Soviet Union, with their respective allies taking sides. A Soviet victory in this series would certainly be trumpeted as yet another example of Soviet superiority.
And they definitely showed up ready to play.
They didn’t look like much, but they were good – really good. They showed up in shape, with team systems and tactics Canada hadn’t encountered before.
Meanwhile, all NHL players back then basically used September training camps to get in shape. So, Canada showed up for Game One on September 2nd out of shape and overconfident. The Soviets blasted them in Game One 7-3 at the Forum in Montreal.
By Game 6, the Soviets had taken 7 of a possible 10 points, with 3 wins, 1 tie and 1 loss.
Canada had to win all three remaining games in very unfriendly Moscow, and with the nation holding its breath the entire way, that’s just what they did, with Henderson scoring the winning goal in all three games.
Some will suggest Mario Lemieux’s 1987 Canada Cup winning goal was Canada’s biggest goal. Other fans favour Sidney Crosby’s golden goal at the 2010 Winter Olympics. But the biggest goal ever, particularly if you’re of a certain vintage, is still the one that was scored in Moscow 50 years ago today.
By Steve Warne | Faces Magazine