Paul Henderson scored the most famous goal in Canadian hockey history to seal the 1972 Summit Series. (Photo by Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty Images)
The 1972 Summit Series – an eight-game tournament between a Canadian team of NHLers and one from the former Soviet Union, with games played across Canada and in Moscow – remains not only a seminal moment in hockey history, but also of the national histories of both Canada and Russia. To mark the 40th anniversary of the Summit Series, THN spoke to several members of the Canadian squad for an oral history of the on-and-off-ice details of the event. (NOTE: This is an expanded version of the original story, which appeared in the Sept. 10, 2012 of The Hockey News magazine.)
Led by team manager Alan Eagleson, head coach Harry Sinden and assistant John Ferguson, Team Canada invites 35 NHL elite players (excluding WHA superstars) to training camp in Toronto in mid-August of 1972.
PHIL ESPOSITO: We were called Team Canada, which I didn’t agree with. I said it at the very first meeting. I thought we should be called Team NHL, because they didn’t let Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe play.
RON ELLIS: It was very cumbersome there were that many players in camp, but the that was so we had competitive intra-squad games. The little carrot they dangled for players was that if you came to camp, everyone would play at least one game in the series. They assumed like everyone else in Canada we’d win the majority of the games, if not all, and it would be very easy to move people in and out of the lineup. That proved to be a mistake, because the Russians were that good.
ROD GILBERT: Everybody was promised one game, but there were too many of us. 35 guys and everyone had to get in a game. Once they found that winning recipe in Toronto in Game 2 we could have stuck with the lineup, but everyone had to get into a game.
PETE MAHOVLICH: They wanted to have everyone play at least a game, but a lot of guys didn’t get to play. I looked at the roster and was hoping to play two-to-three games. I was just excited to be part of the team. This wasn’t all of Team Canada. This was team NHL. Right off the bat, that excluded Bobby Hull, Dave Keon and Gerry Cheevers in net. Two of those three made Team Canada 76. If we had Bobby and Dave, I don’t see myself making the roster.
J-P PARISE: They had Vic Hadfield, Frank Mahovlich, so many good players, I had no expectations of playing. If those WHA guys had played, I wouldn’t have been there. I think they would have played Bobby Hull before me. (laughs)
TONY ESPOSITO: When we came into training we didn’t train as we should’ve trained. And they were training for months. We weren’t even at more than 75 percent at the start. We didn’t take it seriously.
Both the Canadian media, Team Canada scouts and many Canadian players were confident the Soviets would be easily beaten. But a few people connected to Team Canada knew its opponents were no pushovers.
PAT STAPLETON: Harry was the one voice in all of it who was telling us how good the Russian athletes actually were.
SERGE SAVARD: I remember (legendary Montreal columnist) Red Fisher wrote a saying we weren’t going to lose a game. And we had our scouts telling us they didn’t have a chance against us and we started believing them.
RON ELLIS: (Former NHLer) Billy Harris, after his career and just prior to that series, he coached the Swedish national team. He was the only guy who said the Soviets had a chance to win this. He knew how good they were and nobody listened to him.
Team Canada scores the first two goals of the game, but is overwhelmed by the determined and highly skilled USSR squad and loses 7-3 before a shocked crowd at the Forum.
BOB CLARKE: That first game, we weren’t even close to being prepared.
ROD GILBERT: The first time I went on the ice at the Forum, (linemates Jean) Ratelle and (Vic) Hadfield and I were on the ice for a minute-and-a-half, two minutes. When we were back on the bench we looked at each other and I said, ‘Jean, did you touch the puck once?’ He said, ‘No, did you? And I hadn’t touched it either. None of the three of us had the puck – they wouldn’t let us near it. When we were kids we used to do that, but now they were doing it to us.
RON ELLIS: We were up 2-0 early in the game and I remember our line came off – I played on a line with Bobby Clarke and Paul Henderson – and I came off and looked at Paul and we looked at each other. I know my legs were burning and my chest was heaving, and Paul looked at me and said, ‘Ron, this is going to be a long, tough series’. We knew right then we were given wrong information about the Soviets. We didn’t have a lot of information about them. Not a lot of film clips you could watch them playing NHL-caliber players.
BRAD PARK: My first impression in Montreal was, boy they have lousy equipment. How do they play with that s---? It was rag-tag, they all had different helmets, different sticks, holes in their practice sweaters, pants were a little raggedy. They did drills we hadn’t seen or thought of. When you looked at their roster, there was a big poster that listed the roster of both teams, I was looking at it, and all their guys were supposed to be 5-8, 5-9, 175 pounds. When I got on the ice in Montreal, I said, ‘They lied!’
PAT STAPLETON: The players who didn’t dress were sitting in the stands and the people recognized who we were. They were trying to ask us, you know, what happened out there, what was going on. I didn’t have any more clue than they did.
STAN MIKITA: All of Canada said “What happened?” after Montreal.
J-P PARISE: I’d never seen so many good players in all my life. They just dominated. I couldn’t believe they could toy with us that way.
ROD GILBERT: I’d invited my family and my brother, John, to the game. He came to me after it ended and said, ‘What happened?’ I said, ‘Didn’t you see the game? They’re really good.’ He said, ‘No, no. I want you to know you’re all a bunch of bums. And furthermore, you’re a disgrace to your country, all of you.’ I said, ‘John, take it easy, we’ve got more games and we’ll get to it.’ People were upset.
BOB CLARKE: The arrogance wasn’t from the Canadian people, it came from ourselves, Sinden warned us, but we didn’t prepare enough. Guys were moaning and groaning about training camp in the summer, but then we got our asses kicked and we were scared. We were angry at ourselves and scared to death.
The Canadians avenge their opening-game loss with a 4-1 win, but the Soviets were still giving them all they could handle.
BOB CLARKE: In Toronto our conditioning still wasn’t great, but our emotion was so high that it won us the game. The Toronto win was just emotion.
Although the series was tied, the Soviets, led by star left winger Valeri Kharlamov, quickly made huge impressions on the Canadian players.
BRAD PARK: Kharlamov wasn’t taking s--- from anybody. He gave what he took and wasn’t backing down from anyone. If you were going to hit him, he made sure he’d get your ass first.
BOB CLARKE: Their best player was (left winger Alexander) Yakushev. I played head-to-head against (Alexander) Maltsev through a lot of that series, and he was a tough son-of-a-bitch to play against. When it was all over, I thought, ‘Man, that’s a hockey player.’
PHIL ESPOSITO: The best player on that team without a doubt was Yakushev, not Kharmalov, not (goalie Vladislav) Tretiak. Yakushev was 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, could skate like the wind. He scared us. He reminded me of Bobby Hull, only he was bigger than Bobby.
SERGE SAVARD: I thought Kharlamov was the best Russian. And Yakushev was a great player. For me, he was like Jean Beliveau. Big, tall guy, skilled player, not a dirty player.
PHIL ESPOSITO: I hit this guy (Alexander) Ragulan with everything I had, and it was like skating into a brick wall. And his breath was so bad from the garlic they ate, I said, “Christ, if I come over here again I’m bringing a case of Scope!” He looked at me like, “What did you say?” I said, you stink, you son of a bitch!`
ROD GILBERT: They didn’t shoot when they were supposed to. They made that extra pass for the open guy. Instead of playing angles, goalies had to play more in their net.
BOB CLARKE: Our goalies were used to a north south game. Soviets passed the puck around through the box, and so goalies were going post-to-post way more than they were used to. It was a real challenge for our goaltenders – and the heat was on them all the time because we were down most of the series.
PAT STAPLETON: They would come in units of five, and that was new at that time. We always had units of three forwards and two defensemen and they were interchangeable. I thought they were all superior and as good as any athlete I’d ever met. And they were very deep. It didn’t seem to matter who was out there.
The Canadians build on their momentum from Toronto and take a 2-1 lead after one period at the Winnipeg Arena, only to see Team USSR re-assert themselves and eke out a 4-4 tie.
TONY ESPOSITO: Our biggest thing was misjudging the opposition. I was always in very good shape, however I don’t think I was mentally prepared for a playoff series in the middle of summer.
BRAD PARK: Winnipeg was supportive. We lost in Montreal and the country is stunned. First time I’ve seen the Forum that quiet. Now we had the country’s attention because we got smoked. Then after the Toronto game, the country is thinking, ‘Alright, that’s how it’s supposed to be’. Then after Winnipeg, we had a lead, lost it and finished tied, so it wasn’t the end of the world.
RON ELLIS: For me, the most critical game for maybe the whole series was the Winnipeg game. We had a 4-2 lead with 2 minutes left in the second period and the Russians scored a couple of quick goals to tie it. If we’d won that game, I think we’d have gone into Vancouver with a whole different mindset. Because it ended up in a tie, the Russians felt strongly they could beat us in Vancouver and they’d have the series won.
The frustrated crowd at the Pacific Coliseum booed the Canadians relentlessly and it only got worse from there as the Soviets dominated and won the game 5-3.
PETE MAHOVLICH: I was in the stands that game. It was 10 minutes in and the booing started. I said to myself, ‘these people don’t get it and the rest of Canada doesn’t get it either’. They don’t realize how good the Soviets are. They think they’re amateurs. They were more professional about the game than we ever were.
BOB CLARKE: Vancouver was by far the low point. We had no energy and were totally undisciplined. We were just a s--- hockey team for that particular game.
BRAD PARK: We lose in Vancouver, and we don’t show a lot of class. It was definitely frustrating. Vancouver expressed the feeling across the country – basically, “You guys let us down”. We said, ‘Hell, we let ourselves down’. Nobody realized how hard we were trying. We’re trying to get our identity as a team and learn what everyone’s role was going to be.
BOB CLARKE: Winnipeg was just alright, but in Vancouver we stunk because our conditioning was so poor, we couldn’t keep up with them.
RON ELLIS; Vancouver is a memory I don’t cherish, but in retrospect – and I’m not judging the people of Vancouver – it was frustration they felt and they bought in to what the press said, which was we’d win all eight games by large scores. But it was very tough to be booed off the ice. It was a low point in my career, but as I reflect back I understand the fans’ frustration.
J-P PARISE: That was the game I thought, ‘Oh my god, I don’t know if we’ve got it, or if we have enough time to recover.’ Everything got a lot more important after that.
The incensed fans in Vancouver booed the home side off the ice following the loss. And in a post-game TV interview, Phil Esposito gave his now-famous speech chastising Canadians for not supporting their own team.
BRAD PARK: We never heard Phil’s speech at the time. But I’m glad he did it. It brought some reality to the Canadian public.
SERGE SAVARD: Phil felt hurt by the crowd’s reaction. Me, I see it differently. When people pay to get into the building, and they’re telling you they’re not happy, they have that right. Every player has been booed in their life.
STAN MIKITA: That speech couldn’t have come at a better time. I’ve never applauded Phil Esposito except for that one time in my life (laughs). It was the greatest thing I’d ever heard.
PHIL ESPOSITO: A guy told me one time the British people have Winston Churchill’s famous speech, the Americans have Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg, and in Canada our most famous speech was made by a hockey player. I said, ‘Wow, imagine how s---ty our politicians are” (laughs).
BOB CLARKE: Most of us didn’t hear what Phil did until the next day. But what he did wasn’t good just for the team, but for him. We needed leadership and when he did that he basically took over the leadership of the hockey club.
The two-week break between Games 4 and 5 gave the reeling Canadians time to both rest mentally and improve their conditioning while playing a pair of games against the Swedish national team. It also gave them time to bond as a team and to get accustomed to the larger European ice surface.
PHIL ESPOSITO: It was absolutely wonderful to get the hell out of Vancouver.
SERGE SAVARD: The 10 days there was very good. If that series had’ve continued three or four days after Vancouver, I think we would have been done.
BRAD PARK: In two games there, they took more dives than the Soviets did in four games in Moscow. It was extremely frustrating, but it gave us a sense of what it was going to be like in Moscow. We knew it wasn’t going to be fair.
ROD GILBERT: In Sweden, we really united as a team. The two games we played against a very strong Swedish team – they were as good as the Russians – was great competition and really opened our eyes.
RON ELLIS: The Swedish national team was very strong. A guy by the name of (Borje) Salming was on that tem. Won one game and tied one. But we played hard and played well and coaches had to make hard decisions about the lineup. We couldn’t afford to move people in and out of the lineup.
BRAD PARK: We left Canada with no confidence. When we got to Sweden, we had no distractions. All we had was each other. The Swedes trying to win, but we just wanted to get into condition.
PHIL ESPOSITO: When we left Canada, everybody and their brother was against us and that helped turn us into a team. When we got to Sweden, everybody was still against us so we had nobody to depend on but ourselves. We didn’t care whether we won or lost in Sweden. It was about becoming a team.
Sinden and Ferguson continue to tinker with Team Canada’s lineup – and more importantly, got the players to buy into the changes.
RON ELLIS: When Harry took that job he took the toughest coaching assignment in history. He had all these NHL stars and had to get them on the same page and get many of them to play different roles. You had to be able to change your role and play at both ends of the ice because the Russian transition game was so good.
BOB CLARKE: Sinden did an outstanding job and was never given credit for it. Guys bitched and moaned, but he and John Ferguson held it together. They should have been given way more credit. Not only are you dealing with big egos, you’re dealing with players and trying to keep them focused in another country. They were instrumental in us winning as anyone.
PHIL ESPOSITO: I think sometimes of Harry and John and whether they would’ve gotten another job in hockey if we’d lost that series. I don’t think they would’ve.
BRAD PARK: Harry was very well spoken and laid things out very simple for us. He made adjustments that made sense. You didn’t question what he was doing.
PETE MAHOVLICH: They were all business. John Ferguson was the most competitive guy. Wherever he worked, he wore that crest with passion and pride. Harry was terrific, too. To control all these players the way they did was amazing. There were probably 20 Hall of Famers on that team. They were supposed to play everyone at least one game, but after Vancouver, they said, ‘Look, we’re going with lineups we think we need to get some continuity and win games’.
J-P PARISE: I played for Harry way back in my first year pro. He was just a fantastic coach, just so far ahead of his time. He would make changes after games, even after periods, and that was unheard of. Fergie was kind of the peacemaker, the good cop, and they worked it together.
SERGE SAVARD: I didn’t know Harry personally before and I have great respect for him. He and John Ferguson played a very important role. He really was the leader of that team. He’s a very clever person and everyone respected him. I had a new respect for him after the series.
Meanwhile, the pressure on the Canadian team was building and the players were realizing more and more this was a series that had become bigger than hockey and was a de facto referendum on freedom vs. communism.
RON ELLIS: When we were flying out of Toronto to go to Sweden, there was literally no one – no fans, no press – to see us off at the airport. We felt it was us against the world at that point. No one wanted to be associated with us. Everyone jumped off the bandwagon, because they felt at that point we were going to lose. We were hated by our own fans and ridiculed in the papers. Then I knew, wow, we’ve got ourselves into something here much bigger than just a hockey series.
BOB CLARKE: Going into Russia, we were at what I think is the point Canadians shine the most: we were down and we had f--- all to lose. When you have nothing to lose, Canadian teams rise to the occasion.
The first of four games at the Luzhniki Ice Palace began with great promise for the Canadians, who led 3-0 after two periods. The Soviets roared back with five goals in the third period to win the game 5-4 and force the Canadians to the brink of defeat in the series. No longer could they afford to lose, or even tie one of the remaining three games. But even then, there were positive signs for Team Canada.
BRAD PARK: We were stunned, naturally. But that was the first time in the series we controlled large portions of periods. We were being proactive and not reactive, and our conditioning was starting to kick in.
The Canadians were also getting their first glimpse of life inside the Soviet Union and were less than impressed.
RON ELLIS: The Russian way of cheering was they would whistle. The whistling got so high-pitched and loud, it became unbearable. It was terrible. And to see guards at the end of the hotel hallways with machine guns was alarming in many senses. This was tense stuff.
ROD GILBERT: The hotel was depressing. There were two players in each very small room, and a big Russian babushka girl on each floor. When you went in and out, you had to get the key from her, and she’d knock on the door at all different times to disturb us. We’d receive phone calls on the hour in the middle of the night to wake us up. It was not very hospitable.
TONY ESPOSITO: At the time I was worried about them being such a powerful country, but when I saw how everything was, they were more like a third-world country. A lady was cleaning with a broom on the street, and the broom was just tree branches tied to a stick.
ROD GILBERT: I’ve never seen people so serious and depressed-looking. Everyone wore grey or black, people who walked on the streets never made eye contact, people looked over their shoulder all the time and never smiled.
PAT STAPLETON: It wasn’t totally backwards. We went to the ballet and circus on off nights. We were shocked some people could speak English, but they were learning it in school.
PHIL ESPOSITO: The people were friendly as long as the soldiers weren’t around. They’d be happy with you and smile, but as soon as they’d see a soldier they’d change instantly.
ROD GILBERT: I went shopping for a ‘Dr. Zhivago’ hat one time, and I found a hat I liked, and they wouldn’t sell me the hat because they’d already sold four of that kind in that month and weren’t allowed to sell any more. I waited 40 minutes, and they said, ‘Nyet’. I was upset. I said, ‘Then stick it up your nose’.
The Soviets continued playing psychological games with the Canadians. Players would receive prank calls at their Moscow hotel and practice times were shortened, but that wasn’t all.
BRAD PARK: We had brought our own food, New York sirloins and things like that, but when the meal arrived we’d only get half of the steak. A lot of our stuff was missing. Our beer went missing, and was that upsetting? You bet it was. It wasn’t like you could run to the corner market for anything. Russian beer at that time was very skunky. And there was nothing to replace it with.
PHIL ESPOSITO: Most of the guys weren’t pissed off at the food, it was because they had taken our beer. We had 350 cases that were supposed to be there, and half was gone!
TONY ESPOSITO: I think the employees didn’t have anything, so they stole some of our stuff. I don’t think it had anything to do with the team being messed with.
Controversial officiating began to play a key role in the series beginning in Game 6. German referees Josef Kompalla and Frans Baader assessed 31 minutes in penalties to the Canadians and only four PIM to the Soviets. But Canada’s penalty killing and goaltending was masterful and the visitors held on for a 3-2 win.
BOB CLARKE: It was not good, the officiating. We criticize NHL officiating, but it’s far superior to what you get over there and it still is.
J-P PARISE: The penalty discrepancy against us was just unbelievable. We escaped in that game and I don’t know how, but we did. Nothing fazed us.
RON ELLIS: In Game 6, we’re winning 3-2 with 2 minutes left. I took a penalty. And it was a questionable call. Ron Ellis doesn’t take penalties in the last two minutes of a hockey game. Ron Ellis usually kills penalties in the last two minutes. So I wasn’t going to go out and do something stupid. So this ref calls a penalty and I do believe in my heart the ref was giving the Russians a chance to tie the hockey game – because remember, if the game was tied, the series was over and they’d won. I felt like I had the world on my shoulders because I would’ve been the goat, but my teammates, thank god, killed that off.
Meanwhile, the animosity between the two teams was approaching full boil.
BOB CLARKE: For me, there was ever any politics, there was just hockey. I hated the Russians because they were our opponents, not because they were communists.
PHIL ESPOSITO: I used to call (Boris) Kulagin, their assistant coach, ‘Chuckles’. I’d skate by the bench and yell ‘Hey Chuckles!’ and (Soviet players) Mikhailov and (Vladimir) Petrov and Yakushev would smile because they’d know I was being sarcastic. And he’d just look at me. He understood, that big fat son of a bitch. He knew I didn’t care. We had to be strong and that’s what I told the guys in the dressing room.
With their backs still to the wall, the Canadians pulled out a 4-3 win in part thanks to Esposito’s two goals.
TONY ESPOSITO: As the series went on, we got better and they didn’t get any better.
The thing they didn’t have that we had was that emotion. When things were going tough, we didn’t back down into a corner, we just worked harder and accomplished more. It was a sort of a refuse-to-lose type thing.
Canada also benefitted from the 3,000 Canadian fans who made the trip, as well as hundreds of cards, letters and telegrams sent from home.
J-P PARISE: All the Canadians were in one end of the arena, and were wearing all different colors, but everyone else in the building was in black, or grey.
PETE MAHOVLICH: We started to get messages from thousands of people from all these wonderful Canadian communities. And we’d put them on the walls in our dressing room and the hallways of the arena, It was like wallpaper.
J-P PARISE: I still have some of those telegrams. They were wonderful for us to read. We never realized how big an impact the series had until we came back to Canada. We didn’t know how big this was. I didn’t. We had no phone, no TV there, so we weren’t aware schools were stopping classes for our games or anything like that.
PHIL ESPOSITO: Those fans have no idea how much they mean to us. It made us feel like they were behind us no matter what. I can’t tell you how many of those telegrams I read as many as I could.
The Canadians, already suspicious of the officiating, were incensed when a number of questionable calls were made by the officials (including Kompalla, a last-minute replacement for a Swedish official.) Parise was ejected early in the first period after nearly coming to blows with Kompalla after an interference call.
PHIL ESPOSITO: What they did to Parise was a disgrace. Giving him a misconduct for no reason and he almost lost it. Nearly took the ref’s head off with his stick, and I don’t blame him.
RON ELLIS: That is not the J-P Parise who played in the NHL. That showed you the level of intensity that was involved here.
J-P PARISE: (Kompalla) comes to me and says, ‘Two minutes, interference. I said, ‘(The Soviet player) is carrying the puck!’ He says, ‘You’ve got 10’ (for a misconduct)’, I had never gotten a misconduct in my life prior to that, nevermind being ejected from a game and I snapped. After, I was just sick, not just for myself but for the team.
The Soviets led the game 5-3 after two periods, but after Esposito and Yvan Cournoyer scored to tie it up, Paul Henderson scored his legendary goal on Tretiak with 34 seconds left in regulation time to lead Canada to a game and series victory.
ROD GILBERT: The seventh and eighth game we broke that and they’d keep looking at the bench asking, ‘What do we do now?’, but they couldn’t adjust at the end.
BRAD PARK: The elation was above and beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. Walt Disney couldn’t make a movie that good.
RON ELLIS: When the goal was scored, I was one of the first players who jumped off our bench and jumped on top of Paul. There was almost like a chant: ‘We did it, we did it, we did it’.
PAT STAPLETON: It wasn’t a wild celebration. It was just everybody kind of sat down and said, ‘Well, that’s over’. The satisfaction came in knowing you had accomplished something that looked impossible after the first game.
PHIL ESPOSITO: I didn’t reach that pinnacle I reached as a player in that series before after it. We weren’t mentally ready for that series at the beginning, but they couldn’t match our intensity, our passion. And therein lies why we won.
It didn’t get much recognition, but the Canadians had another game still to play against the Czechoslovakian national team in Prague. They nearly lost it, but Serge Savard scored in the last moments of regulation to give Canada a 3-3 tie.
J-P PARISE: On the flight from Russia to Prague, one of our players says to me, ‘You won’t believe who is on this flight: Kompalla’. I said, ‘You’ve gotta be s---ting me.’ He was sitting near the front of the plane, so I went behind him and grabbed his cheek and squeezed it. He turns white and I said, ‘I just want you to know I’m here, you stupid communist so-and-so’. We threw a couple cucumber slices at him, too. Just a couple (laughs). It’s one of those things you regret for the rest of your life, but it was emotional.
PHIL ESPOSITO: Most of us went because of Mikita, because that was his homeland before he came to Canada. It was important to Stan, and for me, it was reason enough to go there.
STAN MIKITA: That was a highlight of my hockey life. I was on the big ice against tough opposition. Harry could’ve sat out the major players, but he said, ‘Boys, let’s go out there and show Stan’s family and friends what we’re made of’. What more could you ask for?
SERGE SAVARD: The moment that will stay in my mind forever was when we left for the airport after the game, Mikita’s mother and brother were crying at the door of the bus. I have a lot of respect for Stan. He was probably never going to see his mother again, so it was a terribly sad moment.
PETE MAHOVLICH: People in the States now come up to me and say, ‘We didn’t realize what this was really all about’. It’s like taking a group and going into Iran or Iraq now and trying to put on a sports event. It was much more than a hockey series. It was a political assertion that our way of life was better than theirs. We were playing for an ideal.
RON ELLIS: I’ve played in Memorial Cup championships and Stanley Cup championships, but my emotions were never on the edge like they were in that series.
PAT STAPLETON: It ended up being the most important series in hockey history, because it brought in the idea we weren’t the only ones who could play. It opened the doors to other countries and that was wonderful for the game – not just for different players, but for different styles.
PHIL ESPOSITO: The Russians now play hockey like we did in the 70s, and we now play hockey like they did in the 70s. And I don’t like it.
BOB CLARKE: The interest in the series doesn’t surprise me any more, but it did for a lot of years. It was only a hockey series, but it meant so much to Canada. It was a high point in all of our lives.