1972 Under the Microscope
The 1972 Summit Series between the Canadian and Soviet national teams was one of the most monumental events in hockey history. On top of that, the game-winning goal by Paul Henderson to complete the Canadian comeback is now considered one of the most iconic moments in the sport's history. Despite the fact that the Soviet team had already begun its impressive Olypmic gold medal run, it was still a coming out party of sorts for the "Big Red Machine." The Summit Series left no doubt that the best Soviet players could hold their own with the best Canadian players and that North America no longer had a stranglehold on the top levels of the sport. That said, in this post, I want to give a few reasons why I do not think that the Summit Series would have been quite as close as it was with all things being equal.
Reason #1 Unreasonable Expectations
Say what you want about the players being professionals. Having the weight of the expectations of a country -- or the weight of the Western world, in some respects -- is a tough load for anyone to carry. Thanks to the "us versus them" mentality of the Cold War, that is exactly where team Canada found themselves. While it is true that the Soviet team would have felt that pressure to some degree, there was something that added to the pressure on the Canadians: they were not only expected to win; they were expected to win big. After all, hockey was Canada's sport.
In fact, no less of a name than goaltending legend Jacques Plante brashly predicted that the Canadians would sweep all eight games. So sure was he of that prediction and that Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak would be embarrassed that he offered advice to Tretiak that he thought would help to temper that. Allan Eagleson agreed. "We gotta win in eight games. Anything less than an unblemished sweep of the Russians would bring shame down on the heads of the players and the national pride." I say all of that to say this: had the Summit Series been a true exhibition series with no pressure on, I believe that would have helped the Canadians a little.
Reason #2 Soviet Gamesmanship
This one took a lot of different forms. Perhaps there was some suggestion of what was to come when the Soviets downplayed their chances by stating they were playing merely to learn. During the course of the series, the Soviets practically threw a fit after game two, blaming the officials for their loss and demanding a change of officials for game four. Before game eight, they nearly reneged on an officiating agreement hoping to have two officials that had heavily favored them in game five. It took a threat of the Canadians pulling out to force a compromise. During games played in Moscow, the goal official sometimes refused to turn on the goal light after Canadian scores. In fact, Canadian coach Harry Sinden went as far as to send his entire team onto the ice to ensure that Henderson's goal in game seven would be counted.
The gamesmanship was not restricted to the on the ice product. It reached as far as the players' wives. Originally, arrangements were made to house the Canadian players and their wives in separate hotels, nearly leading to a boycott by the Canadians. Even after new arrangements were made to house both the players and their wives in the Intourist, the poor treatment of the wives continued. They were fed substandard food and resorted to going to the dressing room looking for more food.
Reason #3 Missing Players
Part of this could be avoided; part of it could not. The team was without Bobby Orr, who was injured. Sinden wanted Bobby Hull on the roster, but the NHL insisted that WHA players be ruled ineligible, guaranteeing that Hull could not suit up for Canada. Before the tournament began, Gerry Cheevers, Derek Sanderson, and J.C. Tremblay all became inelligible for the same reason. Harold Ballard, the owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and no fan of the WHA argued for the inclusion of WHA players. Hockey Canada governor Phil Reimer resigned over the controversy. No less of a name than Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau waded into the conversation, hoping to guarantee that Canada put out its very best, but it was all for naught as Hockey Canada refused to back away from its agreement with the NHL.
There can be no doubt that if those involved could have moved past hurt feelings and grudges that names like Hull could have played. In no way could that be called unavoidable. As for Orr, injuries are definitely a part of hockey, but if we are going to consider a perfect environment for the series, he would have been there too. If the Summit had been held at the right time, under the right circumstances, Team Canada could have been a bit better.
Reason #4 Poor Conditioning
Consider the fact that after game five, Gilbert Perreault asked to return home in order to get into shape for the upcoming NHL season. That tells you all you need to know about
the conditioning of the Canadian team. Several of the Canadian players commented on how poor their conditioning was compared to their Soviet counterparts. However, Bobby Clarke
also commented on how the series changed as the physical shape of Team Canada improved. "Our conditioning was poor. But once we got into shape and were at the same level of
physical conditioning as them, we were able to handle it. And once we got into the same condition as them and had some games under our belt, they couldn't handle us." Clarke's comment makes sense when the Canadian and Soviet portions of the series are compared. The Canadians went 1-2-1 in Canada and 3-0-0 in Moscow. Would they have fared better had they started the series in better shape? It seems highly likely.
Reason #5 The Soviet Team
The last word is the key word: team. Ostensibly, they were amateurs. Officially, many of them were in the army. In reality, they were hockey players. They were amateur in name only. In fact, the rosters of the Soviet National Team and the dominant Soviet League team, CSKA Moscow were largely the same. Therefore, in addition to training together as the national team, many of the players were familiar with one another as teammates on the club level. That fact was key in helping the Soviets establish their dominance in Olympic and World Championship competitions.
There was, of course, no such set up for the Canadians. There were 14 teams in the NHL at the time, and the top players were spread out across those rosters. Since "professionals" were not allowed to play in the Olympics in those days, there was no "Canadian National Team" in the same sense as the Soviets had one. The Summit Series was then, a true team playing against a group of scattered all-stars.
There can be no doubt that the Soviets proved their mettle. There can be no doubt that they outperformed expectaions, and they are certainly worthy of recognition for such. They certainly had some of the best players in the world. But, all things said, I think the Canadians were better than their record indicated. Then again, maybe we owe the Soviets some thanks. After all, they proved to us North Americans that we are not the only ones who can play great hockey.