"It was a war. Our society versus theirs."— Phil Esposito
One of the National Hockey League's legendary players said it best. Sunday, September 2, marks the 40th anniversary of the start of that war—the 1972 Summit Series between Team Canada and the U.S.S.R.
This eight-game exhibition between the two hockey superpowers turned out to be a nail-biting, take your breath away, winner-take-all grudge match that spanned nearly an entire month.
The Canadian squad was proud and powerful, with an established tradition of excellence in the sport. The Russians had become major players on the international stage. However, they were determined to prove they belonged in the same breath as the boys from the Great White North when it came to on-ice supremacy.
There were several major moments in the landmark series that featured everything from spectacular goals to downright dirty tactics. But there were five that stood out among the rest.
Read on, for a look back at hockey history.
September 2, 1972
The game and the series started out the way all Canadian fans had hoped.
When I got on the ice, it was already 2-0. So I'm sitting on the bench saying, 'Let me on. Let me score my goals.' I figured it was going to be 15, 17-0, and I wanted to score a few goals.
But unfortunately and disturbingly for Team Canada, the game turned out much differently. It was the enemy who scored a few goals.
The visitors from the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics composed themselves after the rough start and crushed the home side 7-3 in front of a stunned Montreal Forum crowd.
Players for Team Canada were stunned, too. Pat Stapleton said:
I remember going to the Forum and watching their first practice. They had these funny jerseys on like army vests. You expected when they turned around to see parachutes on their backs. We had no idea that the first game of the series would be played with the same intensity as the seventh game of a Stanley Cup final.
Next up: It didn't get any easier for Team Canada, as the '72 Summit Series moved along.
September 8, 1972
The Soviets scored two power-play goals in the first seven-and-a-half minutes and never looked back, as they salted away a 5-3 victory.
After the game, the home side was booed off the ice by the thoroughly disappointed Vancouver crowd.
That's when Phil Esposito fired his most important shot of the series.
From Dan Ralph's recent article in The Province, here's how Esposito poured out his frustration to millions of TV viewers:
To the people across Canada, we tried. We gave it our best. To the people who booed us, geez, all of us guys are really disheartened. We’re disillusioned and disappointed.
We cannot believe the bad press we’ve got, the booing we’ve got in our own building. I’m completely disappointed. I cannot believe it. Every one of us guys— 35 guys—we came out because we love our country. Not for any other reason. We came because we love Canada.
Little did he know at the time, but his now-famous vent in Vancouver rallied the nation. And his teammates.
Check out the accompanying video to see what the outspoken Hall of Fame center had to say.
Next up: One of the Broad Street Bullies sticks it to one of the best players on the planet.
September 24, 1972
At this point in the Summit Series, Team Canada trailed 3-1-1. The Canadians were hunkered down in enemy territory. The odds seemed stacked against them.
First off, Team Canada won 3-2.
And as it turned out, the feisty Philly center didn't figure in the scoring during the match. However, he made sure that Soviet star Valeri Kharlamov didn't either. Clarke slashed Kharlamov's ankle with a wicked two-hander, and the world-class forward was rendered ineffective for the remainder of the series.
Kharlamov was less than thrilled with Clarke's attack:
I am convinced that Bobby Clarke was given the job of taking me out of the game. Sometimes, I thought it was his only goal. I looked into his angry eyes, saw his stick which wielded like a sword, and didn't understand what he was doing. It had nothing to do with hockey.
To me, that was the low point of the series. If Clarke hits him with a body check and knocks him out, that's fair and square. To go out and deliberately try to take somebody out, there's no sportsmanship in that.
Clark, always the yapper, responded: "If I hadn't learned to lay on a two-hander once in a while, I'd never have left Flin Flon."
Next up: The Eagle has landed—in trouble.
Sept. 28, 1972
Luzhiniki Ice Palace in Moscow
Something happened before the end of this historic game that could have caused an international incident. And it occurred off the ice.
The series was tied at three games apiece with one tie. Game 8 was for all the marbles.
After two periods, Team Canada trailed 5-3. But Phil Esposito scored at 2:27 of the third period, which closed the gap to 5-4.
Canada poured it on and got the equalizer at 12:56, thanks to Esposito once again. He wouldn't be denied, as he shook off two defenders and tested the great Russian goaltender Vladislav Tretiak with a tough shot. Tretiak made the stop, but he was unable to stop Yvan Cournoyer, as the Road Runner rang up the rebound.
Then things really got interesting.
The Soviet goal judge didn't turn on the red light when Cournoyer tied the score. This enraged Alan Eagleson, promoter of the Summit Series, who feared the Soviets wanted to disallow the goal. Eagleson, who was in the stands, tried to get to the public address announcer's booth to make sure that the goal was announced.
He pushed his way past several members of the Soviet military, who didn't appreciate these actions. They apprehended Eagleson and began to drag him off.
That's when Peter Mahovlich arrived on the scene and poked the soldiers with his stick. Mahovlich, who actually hopped the boards and was in the crowd in a scrum with the Red Army, was followed quickly by his teammates.
Team Canada's Bill Goldsworthy commented:
The moment we rescued Eagleson, the doors at both ends of the rink smashed open. In marched the Red Army surrounding the entire rink. Taking our position back on the bench, I turned to Wayne Cashman and said, 'Well, how do you feel about spending the rest of your life in Siberia?'
That would have been an unquestionably bad idea.
The accompanying video takes you back to Eagleson's folly.
Next up: One of the greatest goals in hockey history.
Sept. 28, 1972
Luzhiniki Ice Palace in Moscow
The series was knotted at three games apiece, with a tie thrown in for good measure.
The game was knotted at five with less than a minute left in regulation time.
Two nations held their collective breaths.
The pass was behind Henderson, who was also tripped on the play and crashed heavily into the end boards behind the Soviet defenders.
Fortunately for Team Canada, Phil Esposito followed up the play. He poked the puck toward Tretiak who made a routine save. But by this time Henderson had gotten back on his feet and gained the puck.
Henderson pushed it toward the goal line. Tretiak made yet another save, but left a juicy rebound. Henderson, unchecked in front, flipped the puck over the helpless goaltender at 19:26.
Henderson celebrated. Team Canada's bench erupted. But there will still 34 seconds to play in the game. And the Soviets were more than capable of lighting the lamp one more time.
But Esposito, Pete Mahovlich and Ron Ellis shut them down the rest of the way to ensure that the game and the series were over. When the final buzzer sounded, players from Team Canada embraced on the ice. Some wept openly.
This was a seminal moment in the sport. And the players knew it.
"I was a member of nine Stanley Cup teams, but this was the greatest experience of my career," said Serge Savard.
"I know what I felt at the end. I suspect most players felt the same. That is, that moment of celebration, of triumph, followed by incredible relief," said Ken Dryden.
Next up: The Bonus Slide—keep on clicking for more details on the 1972 Summit Series.
The Canada-Soviet 1972 Summit Series was more than just eight games of historic hockey.
There were political ramifications involved as well. Read about them here.
Taylor Brodarick of Forbes filed a story a few months back about when sports really mattered.
Paul Henderson will not be one of the Team Canada's players returning to Moscow to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Summit Series. Find out why here.
And remember to check out the accompanying video: Team Canada defenseman and Hockey Hall of Fame member Brad Park recounts this sensational series.