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Where Were You In '72? (It Was More Than Just Hockey)

Where were you in ’72 - the 28th of September 1972, to be exact?

There are not many events in the world for which we remember exactly where we were at that specific moment.

The 28th of September 1972 is one of those times. If you are roughly my age, chances are that, on that date, you were in a school classroom where the teachers had broken all the rules, paused classes, hauled out whatever “audio-visual” (how quaint) equipment was available at that time - a television or even a radio - and let us watch or listen to, with rapt attention, the final game of the Summit Series ’72 (also known as the Super Series or, more commonly, the Canada-Russia series), the much-heralded hockey tournament between Canada and Russia. At that time, Russia was known as the USSR, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. This was a wise decision by school officials - there might not have been any students at school that date otherwise.

50 years later, CBC is airing a four part documentary about the series which got me dusting off the definitive book '27 days in September' (1973, Hockey Canada) and checking Summit Series ( as a refresher. Thinking back, I must have saved forever to buy this book in 1973.

The series was set to be the best of eight games, four to be played across Canada and four to be played in Moscow, Russia. It came about as a challenge to determine who was better – the ‘amateur’ Russians who had won endless Olympic medals or the Canadians from the National Hockey League, considered the highest rank of hockey in the world.

We did not know then that Summit Series ’72 would be more than a turning point for hockey. It would become an eye opener for our naive, adolescent, sheltered, prairie understanding of the world ‘out there’. (On an unrelated note, is there any better smell than September harvest on the prairies?)

Looking back to 1972, we were innocent and naive in so many ways. We thought hockey was everything. We glorified those persons simply because they were athletes who had skills in skating and handling a stick. The world was still closed, the Cold War was still in effect, travel to eastern European countries (most of which were communist) was unheard of and, for the most part, our knowledge of the USSR was limited to grainy film of soldiers marching on cold, grey ‘Red Square’. We knew nothing of the Russian players that would soon become household names – such as Vladislav Tretiak and Valeri Kharlamov. We also knew very little about the Moscow Circus and the Bolshoi Opera and the Kremlin.

So, the prevailing thought in Canada was that the professional NHL players would certainly win the series in eight games straight. The NHL professionals believed the Russian team must be sub-standard while the Russians thought the NHL players would be superior (at least, that is what they had us believe).

Again, if you are roughly my age, you know what happened. The arenas were packed in Canada for the expected rout. Even Prime Minister Trudeau (the other Prime Minister Trudeau) and his entourage attended. The NHL players had seen little necessity to practice or work themselves into shape for the September series. The look on the faces of Canadian players, news media, fans, and Canadians in general was one of shock and disbelief as they found themselves down one game. By the time the four games in Canada were finished, the teams headed to Moscow with Canada down 2 games to 1, with one tie.

Canadians were livid and booed their own team. The media was critical. Remember Phil Esposito’s impassioned speech that can actually still be found on social media?

In Moscow, Russian communist leaders attended with their military support. Things got really messy. And it became more than just hockey. The play got dirty, embarrassingly dirty – and Canada was a guilty party. I vividly remember soldiers and police intervening at one point. There were allegations that the Canadians were not treated well off the ice, being served less than ideal accommodations and food. Both teams believed the officiating to be biased. One Canadian player stated that it was “war” between Canada and the USSR.

As you remember, Russia won the fifth game, and Canada had to win the remaining three games to win the series. They eked out wins in Games 6 and 7. Which brings us to the school classrooms all across Canada where kids and teachers huddled together around televisions and radios for Game 8 on the 28th of September 1972. Again, you know what happened. Paul Henderson scored the winning goal with about 34 seconds let to play – and the rest is, literally, history, embedded on posters, in books, and in social media.

In hindsight, Canadian players reported that the series was a life-changing moment. They were surprised by the emotion and intensity and by their own (sometimes not so positive) behaviour. This was also a defining moment for many Canadians. Yes, we learned that we did not have supremacy in hockey. But our televisions opened the doors to the world. We learned that those countries ‘over there’, despite their politics, were well-developed, talented, beautiful, emotional, and (surprisingly) ‘human’. We saw Red Square in a different light - and the onion-shaped domes of St. Basil's Cathedral and the Kremlin and the Moscow Circus and the Bolshoi Opera.

The world began to open. More Canada-Russia series were held between NHL teams and the USSR national team. Eventually, a few Russian players defected and were allowed to join the NHL. The Cold War ended on 26 December 1991, opening the world further. Last year, 57 Russian-born athletes played in the NHL ( And we have visited many of the countries that once were part of the Eastern Bloc which would have been unheard of in 1972.

Unfortunately, Russia's recent decisions and actions (the invasion of Ukraine) have again tarnished their reputation on the world stage and have again cut themselves off from the rest of the world. And the current allegations against Hockey Canada (sexual misconduct by players) have made us question the sanctity of something we once held in such high regard. We were too young in1972 to know if the players then had the same arrogance and entitlement as some athletes today.

So, in 1972, we cheered madly on the 28th of September. Canada had won and beat the Russians. It remains a vivid memory for many of us ‘boomers’. But it wasn’t just about hockey. It was the opening of our minds to something bigger than our own little world here, especially on the prairies, in Canada.


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