Should we still care about the Summit Series?


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“If there’s a goal that everyone remembers, it was back in ‘ol ’72”

That’s the opening line of The Tragically Hip’s Fireworks, which was released in 1998.

The goal to which the band refers is Paul Henderson’s iconic game-winner in Game 8 of the 1972 Summit Series, which essentially sealed victory for Canada after the teams entered the decisive contest with three wins, three losses and one tie apiece.

Now, the time between the release of Fireworks to today and from the song to the goal is nearly equal.

A survey of 1,500 Canadians cited in The National Post this week found that 55 per cent of respondents knew about the series, while only 42 per cent of respondents were familiar with it.

In 2022, if there’s a goal that everyone remembers, it was probably in 2010 — Sidney Crosby’s golden goal at the Vancouver Olympics.

Friday marks the exact 50th anniversary of Game 1 of the Summit Series. Summit 72, a four-part documentary series sanctioned and supported by 1972 Team Canada players, is coming to CBC and CBC Gem on Sept. 14.

WATCH | Upcoming 4-part series, Summit 72, coming soon:

Summit 72 | Coming to CBC and CBC Gem on Sept. 14, 2022

The 1972 Canada-USSR Summit Series of Hockey changed hockey forever, playing out dramas of national identity, pride, politics and ideology while the world watched, enraptured, during the Cold War. Enhanced Photo from the original 16mm film of Team Canada’s series-winning goal. (Courtesy Hockey Hall of Fame)

It sets up a month of reminiscence for many and discovery for others. But the urge for millennials like myself to handwave the entire thing away with a giant ‘OK, Boomer’ is real, too.

The Summit Series was played during the height of the Cold War, when nationalism ran rampant and the Soviets were world enemy No. 1.

Over eight games of hockey, Canada had its chance to make its mark in the battle against communism. Even though Canada wasn’t a main player in the Cold War, tensions throughout the country remained high.

Ahead of the series, no one in Canada thought the Soviets stood a chance — until the buzzer sounded to end Game 1 in a 7-3 Soviet victory. Through four games in Canada, the Soviets held a 2-1-1 lead, and then won the first game on their home ice too.

Moments like Bobby Clarke’s ankle-breaking slash of Valeri Kharlamov and J.P. Parise’s Game 8 temper tantrum are etched in history for what they reveal about the lengths to which Canada went, and how desperately they wanted that victory.

A moment like Phil Esposito’s Game 4 speech is the stuff of legends.

The final three games of the series played out in storybook fashion, with the “heroes” ultimately coming back to beat the “villains.” And Henderson’s goal with 34 seconds remaining was especially important because the Soviets would have claimed victory by virtue of goal differential had the game ended in another tie.

In the end, the good guys won.

Except, since this was real life and not some fairytale — as the mythmaking around the event might make it seem — things aren’t so simple. Especially when viewing the series through today’s lens.

Glorifying Russia, even as villains, just months after Canada once again severed diplomatic ties with the country over its indefensible invasion of Ukraine, seems wrong. As it turns out, the bad guys didn’t go away — they just remained bad. And there’s nothing a group of hockey players can do about that.

Canadian nationalism over hockey right now would also be misplaced. We’ve learned lately that Hockey Canada has allegedly been covering up players’ sexual assaults for years, with accusations against the 2003 and 2018 men’s world junior teams. To make the problem go away, Hockey Canada financed a settlement fund with children’s registration fees across the country.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose federal government froze funding to Hockey Canada, said today it’s “fairly clear that both the government and Canadians in general have lost confidence in the leadership at Hockey Canada.”

Even if we just focus on the hockey itself, Henderson’s goal might be overrated. Sure, it’s a series-winning marker in the final minute of the game. But it was also part of an exhibition series missing arguably the two best Canadian players in Bobby Orr (injury) and Bobby Hull (punishment for signing with the upstart WHA) as well as two key Russians.

Yes, it’s cool that a relative no-name in Henderson had the month of his life, scoring the winning goal in each of the final three games of the series. But even with that head start, Henderson still isn’t in the Hockey Hall of Fame. It’s just not quite the same feeling as if, say, Esposito had played hero.

WATCH | CBC Sports’ Rob Pizzo examines Henderson’s Hall of Fame merit:

Is Paul Henderson a Hockey Hall of Famer?

49 years after scoring one of the most famous goals in hockey history, the debate rages on. Rob Pizzo looks at both sides of the argument.

And in 50 years since, Henderson’s goal has likely been eclipsed. Crosby’s goal is unassailable. Gretzky to Lemieux to win the 1987 Canada Cup speaks for itself. You could take your pick of Marie-Philip Poulin’s golden goals, though the 2014 Olympic overtime winner certainly stands out.

How all that plays into the legacy of the 1972 Summit Series may be in the eye of the beholder. Despite current events, there’s no taking away the feeling children across the country had on that September day, when school was essentially cancelled for the afternoon so everyone could watch Canada take on, and eventually defeat, the enemy Soviet Union.

Fifty years later, not everyone remembers that goal back in ‘ol ’72. But it’s at least worth knowing about.

Speaking of which, CBC Sports contributor Vicki Hall put together a riveting oral history on the first four games of the Summit Series, including voices like Esposito, Henderson and Ken Dryden. Part 2 will be published on Sept. 14.



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