The Summit Series was the start and end of an era

Fifty years later, we can fully appreciate how the 1972 Canada-USSR hockey showdown changed the sport. And why it could never happen again.

1972 Canada-USSR showdown changed hockey — and could never happen again

The sublime Phil Esposito and Vladislav Tretiak were two of the central combatants in the one-of-a-kind 1972 Summit Series. (Peter Bregg/The Canadian Press)

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At the beginning of Summit on Ice, the superb 1992 documentary on the '72 Canada-USSR hockey series, narrator Kenneth Welsh describes the canvas on which the ensuing nationalistic drama would unfold: "We struggled as the '70s began. The FLQ crisis. Soldiers in Montreal. Separation was the issue. We faced a '72 fall election, preoccupied with unity, questioning, even back then, our identity." The last words before the end credits belong to Canadian defenceman Serge Savard, speaking in 1992, when Quebec sovereignty was (still) a hot-button issue and Canada was just coming out of a two-year recession. "This [series] really… unified our country. We probably need that right now — another Team '72."

Fast forward to today — 30 years from the film's release and 50 years from the Summit Series itself — and separatism has faded as a pressing concern. But plenty of other challenges (some new, some sadly familiar) tear at the fabric of our country and the world. The pandemic exposed troubling rifts in our society that can no longer be ignored. Inflation and general economic uncertainty weighs on people across the country as Canada stands on the brink of another recession. Meanwhile, Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine has reignited some of those old Cold War tensions from the last century.

So, what struck me most in re-watching the 1992 documentary and diving into the new Summit 72, a four-part series on CBC, is that many of the basic ingredients for a dramatic Canada-Russia hockey showdown — the tension, the anxiety, the raw fear about challenges both foreign and domestic — are still around. The difference is that it's no longer possible for a bunch of hockey games to deliver us from those terrors.

To state the obvious, something like the 1972 Summit Series simply could not happen today. Sure, the Russians have made a real comeback as global villains with the Ukraine invasion and (on a much lower-stakes scale) their massive state-run doping scheme for Olympic athletes. But we know their hockey players too well now. They're playing for our favourite NHL teams. We can no longer be stunned by the skill of a Valeri Kharlamov or some other mysterious and marvelous Russian talent.

But it's not just them. It's us too. The internet-fuelled dissolution of the monoculture makes it tougher and tougher to get everyone in Canada watching any one thing. And, even when we do, the choices are a lot broader these days. Canadian athletes are excelling in truly international sports like basketball and soccer, where the national women's team won Olympic gold last year and the men's will soon play in its first World Cup since 1986, plus marquee Olympic attractions like swimming and track. Our sense of national pride — even when viewed through the narrow lens of international sports success — has been diversified, depending less on hockey now than ever before. And that's probably a good thing, especially since the revelation of Hockey Canada's crude handling of sexual-assault allegations put the sport's "culture" at the elite level under intense scrutiny.

Summit 72 | The Canada-USSR Summit Series changed hockey forever:

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

4 months ago
Duration 1:03
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)

What we can still do, though, is reminisce about that wonderful '72 series. A half-century later, it remains one of the most fascinating and transformative events in sports history. How incredible is it, for instance, that a regime as repressive and backward as the Soviet Union could produce such an imaginative and innovative — even futuristic — hockey team? To go back and watch those exceptionally fit Soviet players skate circles around the meat-and-potatoes (with a beer on the side) Canadians is to glimpse the puck-possession tactics that would take decades to earn full acceptance in the NHL. Seeing a young, athletic Vladislav Tretiak tend goal opposite a lanky, flailing Ken Dryden is to witness the butterfly take flight. Modern hockey, in many ways, was born that September 50 years ago.

These delights and more (many of them courtesy of the irrepressible Phil Esposito) are presented in Summit 72, a worthwhile watch for anyone interested in the series. Even for serious fans who may think they've seen it all, there's plenty of new footage (both in-game and behind the scenes) and interesting hockey-specific insights on stuff like the Soviets' superior conditioning, Tretiak's surprisingly brilliant goaltending and the star-studded Canadians' blasé "training" methods (a backyard bocce game might count as an off-season workout for the Esposito brothers).

Episode one is now available CBC Gem, with the others dropping on the following three Wednesdays at 8 pm on CBC. Fans of the Summit Series should also check out the excellent oral history by Vicki Hall for CBC Sports. Read part one, about the opening four games in Canada, here.

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