With a record of two losses, one win, and one tie, a humbled Team Canada touched down in the Soviet Union for the final four games of the 1972 Summit Series.
They weren’t alone.
Some 3,000 Canadian hockey fans jetted to Moscow to cheer on the embattled underdogs and capture a rare glimpse of life behind the Iron Curtain amid the Cold War.
Here is the rest of the story in the words of those who lived it:
Ken Dryden, Team Canada goalie: Not many Canadians had been to Europe in 1972, and almost nobody had been behind the Iron Curtain. Moscow seemed a very, very, very sinister place.
Paul Henderson, Team Canada left wing: When we got over there, the Red Army was there with guns and lined up. They put us in a holding area and just let us sit there for about an hour-and-a-half just to show us who was in control.
Phil Esposito: Team Canada centre: When I first got there, I remember going for a walk. I was with [Team Canada forward] Wayne Cashman, and there are all these people lined up waiting outside a grocery store, apparently. At 10 a.m. they open and [they] close at 12 p.m. If you get milk or bread or whatever you need, great. But at 12 o’clock, they shut the doors. And if you didn’t get what you need, it’s too bad. I remember thinking, ‘What the hell? How did these poor people survive?’
Gary Smith, then-Canadian diplomat in Moscow: I was responsible for Team Canada arriving in the Soviet Union. And there were issues with accommodation. Did we have the right tickets? What about the spouses? What about hundreds of Canadian journalists?
There were a lot of arguments about the tickets, the rooms, and how we were going to get in meat and beer, and so on. And there were arguments about whether the wives would be in the same hotels as the players.
Esposito: My brother didn't want our wives and girlfriends to come over. I thought it was wrong by Tony, but he was damn right. We should have never because the girls were basically starving. We had to try to steal food for them. We were apparently supposed to have 350 cases of milk, 350 cases of soda, 350 steaks, 350 cases of beer. And when we got there, it was half of that for everything. Now who took it? Nobody knows.
Smith: For the fans, it was about $649 Canadian. You got return airfare, 10 days hotel, all meals, four tickets to the game, tickets to the circus and the ballet and a tour around Moscow. So that was a pretty great deal. And you could buy vodka for 90 cents a bottle.
Esposito: Those fans, I’ve got to give them a lot of credit. We had the Taj Mahal compared to where they stayed — and our accommodation sucked. From what I understand, some of them had one toilet that you had to go down the hall to use when you needed to go. One toilet and one shower. No wonder they stunk.
Pierre Plouffe, Olympic water skier and hockey fan: I think most of the people, if not all, left from Montreal. So that’s where the party started. There were 3,000 Canadians and the party started there. There was no language barrier. It was just Canadians going to prove to the world that it was our game.
Smith: We knew there was going to be trouble. You're bringing these exuberant fans into a totalitarian state where nobody's allowed to get out of control. And they're all dressed in these wild clothes and the Soviets are in browns and greys. Aside from the tickets and logistics, the number one thing for the embassy was to make sure we had an arrangement with the Soviet police that they go easy on the Canadian fans.
Plouffe: I brought my bugle to Russia. I played the bugle outside the window of my hotel, so it didn’t take long for the police to come knocking on my door saying I couldn’t use that. The bugle was a signal of revolution, or whatever.
Smith: The ice was too dark in Moscow. You couldn’t see the puck well, and the TV cameras thought it was too dark. So the Soviet officials at the arena brought in hundreds of bags of milk powder, and mixed the milk powder with water and lightened up the ice.
Game 5, Luzhniki Ice Palace, Sept. 22, 1972
Smith: There were young skaters that came out and presented each of the players with a little clutch of carnations. It seemed one of the petals fell on the ice.
Esposito: The young girls gave us flowers, and I guess I squeezed the flower too much and a leaf fell off. And when they introduced me, I stepped on a leaf and went flying down.
Igor Kuperman: Russian hockey writer, then 14: [Team Canada defenceman] Brad Park then tried to comically help him get off the ice and stand up.
Esposito: You can either laugh about it or cry about it. I chose to laugh. I remember making perfect eye contact with [Communist Party general secretary] Leonid Brezhnev. He just looked at me, and I blew him a kiss. The people around him started to laugh, and he just looked at them and they shut up. I went overboard. But I don’t know. I think it loosened up the Canadian people who were there.
Kuperman: The Russian crowd was quiet. The only reason for that was because those tickets were given to the high priority people — the authorities.
Dryden: When they disapproved of something, they didn’t boo. They whistled.
Plouffe: We were there with our flags. I had my bugle.
Henderson: I got a concussion in the first game there. A guy tripped me and I went into the boards backwards. I was actually knocked out, and they had to help me off the ice. And my wife was in the stands. She’s like, ‘Get up. Do it. I’m not staying in that room by myself at the hotel. Oh, please Paul.’
Ron Ellis, Team Canada right wing: Paul went into the boards backwards, and basically hit the boards with his upper back and neck. Fortunately, he had a helmet on, which I'm sure helped. But there's no question in my mind that Paul had a concussion, just the way he went in. We were all concerned.
Henderson: Dr. Jim Murray, who is no longer with us, he checked me out and said, ‘Paul, you’ve got a concussion. You cannot play. You’ve got to take your equipment off.’ I guess he told [head coach] Harry Sinden. I had a pounding headache, and I was laying on the table, and Harry said to me: ‘Jim has said you have a concussion and you need to take your equipment off.’
I said to him, ‘Harry, don’t do this to me. I’ll take care of myself. Please, please let me play.’ He looked at me — I can remember this like morning — and said, ‘Penny, we sure as hell need you. And if you want to play, I’m not going to stop you.’ And I went back out.
Smith: We were up 4-1 and in just over five minutes, they scored four goals. And they won 5-4. So we were completely down. We had lost three games, tied one, and won one. We couldn’t lose anything more.
Henderson: We did lose that game, but that was the first time we really felt that we had outplayed them. We knew basically that we had the team now. We knew we competed with them and now we’re starting to get in shape.
Ellis: We made some major adjustments in our style of play. The Russians do not like to dump the puck in. Instead, they’ll turn back and re-group – and that's not what we were used to. So instead of waiting for them at our blue-line [and] standing still, we realized that when they re-group, we had to go skate with them.
It took us a while to change and counterattack, but we eventually did, and the Russians didn't change their game.
Henderson: You had to stand on the blue-line and listen to the national anthem of the winning team. It was a wonderful piece of music, the Soviet national anthem, but it was too long when you lose. You're standing there and you're just devastated. You lost again. We're skating off the ice after that, and these 3,000 Canadians stood up and gave us a standing ovation. They went crazy.
It was a miserable night in Moscow. We got back to the hotel probably an hour later, and we get off the bus and there were at least 1,000 of those Canadians out in front of our hotel. When we got off the bus, they went crazy again cheering and singing ‘O Canada’ and it was just amazing. Now, the fact that most of them were hammered out of their mind, it's got nothing to do with it.
Game 6, Luzhniki Ice Palace, Sept. 24, 1972
Smith: When we got to Game 6, it was a very heated game with a lot of pushing and shoving going on.
Henderson: I actually scored the winning goal in the second period. I came up the ice and there were two defencemen back. I made a split decision. I was just over the blueline, and I thought, I’m going to use the defenceman as a screen. So I just snapped one. I put it between the guy’s legs, and I don’t think [Vladislav] Tretiak saw it until it was behind him.
Smith: Then we had the famous incident where [Team Canada centre] Bobby Clarke used a two-handed job on [Team USSR forward] Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle. Clarke came up from the side and laid the chop on Kharmalov’s ankle.
Kuperman: Yes, it was a slash, but I don’t think it’s worth talking about for 50 years. There were so many moments in this series that a player would be suspended for life under today’s rules.
Esposito: Well, the only thing I'm really pissed off about was [Clarke] didn't do it in the first game. I told him that, too. I said, ‘Clarkie, you should have done it in the first game.’ And he just listened to me and smiled. Listen, this was war. I’ve had people tell me because of that series, it became more and more evident they wanted to get away from communism.
Ellis: There were a lot of emotions going on. Players were doing things that they normally didn't do, just because of the stress. I'm not saying it was the right thing, but it happens. I did a couple of things [there] that l admit it that I never did in my NHL career just out of frustration, and I'm not proud of it. But that's what it brought out of both teams.
Smith: Clarke was given a misconduct. Kharlamov finished Game 6, but he didn’t appear in Game 7. He came back to play in Game 8 but he was nowhere near the player he was earlier in the series.
The Canadian side was furious at the West German referees for calling lots of penalties on Team Canada, and the Soviets were furious at Team Canada for Clarke's slash on Kharlamov. There was great tension.
Plouffe: When Canada won the second game, I went to celebrate with the hockey players…at their hotel. Pete Mahovlich said, ‘Pierre let’s go have a drink in the bar.’ I went to the bar, and the server wouldn’t serve me. I was a little ticked off. I said, ‘I’ve been here every night’ and tried to explain myself, but she still wouldn’t serve me.
I gave sort of a slap to a bottle that was sitting on the bar. The bottle started to spin and hit some glasses, so it broke some glass. So, she started to yell. I backed up and hit a table. Some glasses fell down, whatever. So she started to whistle. This big guy…a bouncer, came and grabbed me. I was young and dumb. Now, I’m only dumb, I guess. Anyway, I punched him. Oh my God, I know I hurt my fist more than I hurt him.
Smith: What happened was, he was arrested: he got into a dust-up in a bar and got into a fight with a security official.
Plouffe: I was in trouble. They put me in a cell [but] I was young and cocky. I didn’t really care. The toughest thing is, you lose time. They put you in a cell where there’s lights all around the door about 20 feet high. And you fall asleep. Have you slept for 15 minutes? An hour or two? The lights are on 24-hours-a-day, so you don’t know the time. That’s mentally tough.
Smith: A story went around among the Canadians that he had his head shaved and his heels tattooed. So all of a sudden, the Canadian [fans] said, ‘We better watch what’s going on here.’ It cooled them off.
Game 7, Luzhniki Ice Palace, Sept. 26, 1972
Henderson: The best goal I think I ever scored in my life was maybe [with] two-and-a half-minutes left in the seventh game. It was a one-on-four. I took a pass. I looked up and here were two defencemen and two forwards. I beat them all. Just as I was going to shoot it, the defenceman tripped me. On my way down, when I was falling, I put it under the crossbar.
It was the prettiest goal I ever scored in my whole life. Like a Gilbert Perrault-type of guy would stickhandle through the whole team. I was not the greatest stickhandler in the world. But if I don’t beat them and I don’t score that goal, the last game means nothing.
Ellis: There was a scrum in the corner, and one of the Russian players [Boris Mikhailov] kicked [Team Canada defenceman] Gary Bergman in the leg, and the skate blade went right through Gary’s shin pad. He had a boot full of blood for the rest of the game. And that player probably never did that again in his life. There was just so much going on.
Henderson: The fans sang the Canadian national anthem. There were goosebumps on my arms. That's how loud it was and it was unbelievable. It really, really was. I honestly believe — and every player on the team would tell you— they had a tremendous influence on us and they picked us up like crazy.
Smith: Pierre Plouffe was facing charges of hooliganism, [and] one-to-five years of hard labour in Siberia. I had helped negotiate the ticket allotment for who was going to get tickets for the arena. I carved out 250 seats for each game for embassy purposes. And some of those went to the police covering Pierre Plouffe.
Game 8, Luzhniki Ice Palace, Sept. 28, 1972
Plouffe: For the last game, they came and they got me and they took me to the game. I’m sitting in the second or third row between two cops and they told me, ‘No excitement. No yelling. No clapping or anything like that.’
Dryden: I was more nervous for Game 8 than I'd ever been before. I was used to being nervous, but I wasn't used to being that nervous.
Smith: The Russians said, ‘the referees are going to be the two West Germans.’ They all agree. And that's the way it's going to be. So that set off a huge Donnybrook.… I said, ‘How about we each choose one referee? And after a bit, the Russians said okay. And Harry [Sinden] said he wanted the Swede. And the Russian said, ‘The Swede is sick.’ I said, ‘What do you mean? We just saw him in the breakfast room. He looked fine.’
It was obvious that it was a political illness. So they snookered us. We chose the Czechoslovak, [Rudolf] Bata. They took one of the West Germans, [Josef] Kompalla.
Kuperman: Bill White got a penalty at 2:25 and Peter Mahovlich got a penalty at 3:10. And then the Russian, Petrov, at 3:44. And then Jean-Paul Parise at 4:10. Parise went ballistic.
Smith: Parise was given a penalty for interference. When he was given the penalty, he went to the box. Then he came out of the penalty box, skated around and worked himself up. And then he charged the referee, with his stick over his head — he was threatening to bring down his stick on the West German referee.
Parise was given a misconduct and a game misconduct. And the crowd started up, ‘Let’s go home, let’s go home.’ I think if at that moment, Eagleson had said ‘let’s go,’ the players would have gone off the ice. But he didn’t, so we carried on.
Kuperman: My jaw dropped, because he almost killed Kompalla. The previous penalties were questionable, but not that one.
Esposito: One ref called it safe, and the other guy gives us a penalty, and Parise lost it. I mean, you have no idea that pressure and the tension that we're under.
Smith: There’s this famous story that I heard about. The night before Game 8, there had been a ballet performance. Some of the players don’t want to go, but they showed up and left at the first intermission. But Phil Esposito stands up at the end of the first intermission and starts yelling ‘Bravo! Bravo!’ He’s making a big noise about it. And the prima ballerina, Maya Plisetskaya, says: ‘that’s a Canadian hockey player.’
On the night of Game 8, who shows up outside the Canadian dressing room between periods two and three but Maya Plisetskaya. She says, ‘I want to thank Phil for coming to my ballet performance and I’m here to wish him well for the remainder of the game.’
Kuperman: When Esposito scores at the beginning of the third period, you can just see how passionate the Canadian players are. You can see it in their eyes…it’s a matter of life or death for them.
Smith: Then we had the famous case with the fifth goal where the [goal] light didn’t go on, and [promoter] Alan Eagleson was in the stands. He decided that, since the light didn't go on, that the Soviets were up to no good. I guess he was [about] seven seats in from the aisle. Rather than go out the aisle, he just went over the top and crawled over a few people. When the Soviet police saw this, they grabbed him and were escorting him out of the building.
Esposito: Whether I liked Al or not, he was part of the team. I would go to the end of the Earth and fight with him right to the end, because he was part of the team. Al got excited because the guy didn’t put the red light on. The goal was obviously in, no doubt about it, and they eventually let it count. But Al went crazy.
Smith: Peter Mahovlich and Pat Stapleton see this going on, and they came to Alan's rescue and pulled him over the boards and took him to the bench.
Esposito: I’ll never forget the faces of the soldiers. They were like, ‘What are you doing? What are you guys doing?’ Al was going to be taken into custody and put into jail ... We weren't going to let it happen.
Smith: We're now at 5-5 and we're heading towards the last minute of the game.
Esposito: I wasn't going to quit. I wasn’t. I wasn’t going to lose to those son of a b-----s no matter what. I often wonder how you can kill another person, even in a war. But I would have killed those guys to win … I wasn't coming off the ice until we scored. I didn't give a crap.
Kuperman: Esposito was a pariah – a villain – to the fans in Russia. He played excellent, but with the way he communicated with the officials, the referees, and that gesture where it looks like he’s cutting someone’s throat - he was enemy No. 1 of the people.
Ellis: Paul all of a sudden stands up beside me and starts yelling at Pete Mahovlich to come off the ice. You don’t do that. You don’t call professionals off the ice. And to this day, I’m amazed. It’s one of those things that amazed me just that it could even happen. Peter came off. Whether he heard Paul or he thought it was Harry Sinden calling them, I have no idea. But that's how Paul got on the ice.
Esposito: There was something that Paul felt deep inside, man. And he wanted to get out there. He felt something.
Henderson: I stood up and I started yelling at Peter. Never did it before. Never did it again. And Peter came off and I jumped over the boards.
Ellis: Paul jumps on the ice, heads for the Russian net, takes a swing at the puck and gets tripped and falls down behind the net. And the Russians sort of forgot about him back there. They forgot he was back there. They started to come out of their end and Phil Esposito intercepts a pass and throws it back at the net.
Esposito: For some unexplained reason, Tretiak kicks the rebound straight out.
Ellis: And there’s Paul all by himself and no one, no one, near him.
Henderson: My dad had died in 1968 and died very young. He was only 49, and I was very close to my mother. I never thought of my dad the whole series. When the puck went over the line, I said out loud, ‘Dad would have loved this one.’ Isn’t that amazing? I had a touch of melancholy. ‘Dad would have loved this one.’ It’s that father-son connection, I guess. And I jumped into [Yvon] Cournoyer’s arms, and I nearly broke his back.
Dryden: From where I'm standing, I can't see the puck go in. All I can read is the body language, and, then, at some point, a light going on. At some point, I knew the puck was in.
All I remember next wasn’t a visual, it was a sound — the sound of my goalie skates and, at that particular time, they were big and clunky and clumpy. I was clumping my way up the ice, skating as fast as I could to join the scrum, celebrating the goal. I remember the arms up, the light on, then finding myself at centre ice and then finding myself in the middle of this celebration.
And then finding myself, as if I’m interrupting myself, saying, ‘Oh my God, there’s still 34 seconds to play.’
Ellis: I was the first guy off the bench to jump on the pile. We were all together in the corner, and all I remember people saying is: ‘We did it. We did it. We did it.’ And it was just one of those wonderful, wonderful memories that I'll have the rest of my life.
Esposito: The guys did it because of the love of the country. Not for money, because we didn't get any. And we were professionals. We did not get a penny except for the pension 25, 26 years later. And there were a lot of guys that were hurting. But we did it for the country.
Dryden: This wasn't the Canadiens against the Leafs, or the Oilers against the Flames, where you have local divides, and maybe national divides. There was no divide. I mean, this was the full population of the country. There was one Canadian team.
Ellis: Both sides won. We won a game with 34 seconds left. They won by proving to the world they could play against Canada’s best and beat them on any given night.
Dryden: And now, 50 years past, it is by far and away the most important moment not only in Canadian hockey history, but in the history of hockey.