Ask Americans that were alive when President Kennedy was shot and they can instantly remember where they were. That moment was so significant in their history, that people can remember hearing the news vividly.
For Canadians that were alive, that moment was when Paul Henderson scored the winning goal with 34 seconds left in game eight of the 1972 summit series in Moscow, between Canada and the U.S.S.R. This month is the 40th anniversary of what is known as the greatest hockey series in the history of Canada.
It wasn’t supposed to be that tough. Most experts expected Canada to roll over the Russians and win quite easily. A glorified exhibition was what most people though. For years, the Russians had dominated international hockey, beating the best of Canadian amateur teams who competed not only in the Olympics but in the World Hockey Championships. This time though, it would be different. For the first time Canadian professionals would play the Russian amateurs. Despite only filling the roster with NHL players (no WHA players were involved) and having no Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe or Bobby Orr (due to injury), it was expected to be a cake walk for Canada. It turned out to be anything but a cake walk.
What ensued for most Canadians was a roller coaster of a ride, which took the country from the low of low’s to the high of high’s. What started as hockey series between two countries, turned into a battle of two ways of life, between good vs. evil, democracy vs. communism, small vs. large, the Big Bad Russian Bear vs. Canada. All of this during the height of the Cold War. When intense feelings of nationalism surfaced between both country’s. To say that the series meant ”everything” to Canada was an under-statement and the nation as a whole swelled with pride.
Game eight was epic, not in just the fact that Canada won the series on a late goal, but on the gravity of the situation. The country as a whole came to a stand still. The time difference was eight hours, so the games were played during the day. The country came to a standstill. Businesses ceased to do business, with TV’s being brought in to watch the game. Schools held assembly’s as teachers and student’s watched the game from the gymnasium. For the first time Canadian hockey was broadcast by satellite internationally from another country.
For the players, the series was “War”. Players from both sides fought with ferocity. The Canadian players took it personally, and stooped to depths never seen before, all the while digging deeper and with more emotion than they ever had shown in their career’s.
Today, the series is still looked on as the greatest hockey series ever. What 40 years ago was a war is viewed with great respect. The hate like the cold war is gone and both Canadian and Russian players have a deep respect for one another. Players from both countries have come together to celebrate the anniversary this month.
For Canadians fans, the Russians are revered and respected like no other opponent. The Russians not only have earned their stripes but our respect too. Russian players from the series who come to Canada are celebrated. A number of them are in the hockey hall of fame.
Even our games have evolved, incorporating each other’s style in our games. The Canadian game, now includes off ice preparation and dry land training, a staple of the Russian game. Five man units, once only used by the Soviets have been incorporated into our game too. For the Russians, they now play with more physicality and emotion. Where once you could hit the Russians and intimidate them, now the you hit the Russians as a defensive measure to slow them down or to knock them off the puck. The Russians play with emotion too. Just watch the Russians at the World Juniors. Their intensity is only matched by Canada and the U.S.
These two hockey country’s are now entwined in hockey history and forever will be known as rival’s, respected rivals in fact. Unlike the U.S. who internationally has not earned their stripes, there is mutual respect between Canada and Russia. In the end both country’s won. Canada won a series it had to win and the Russian won the respect of the greatest hockey nation in the world.