Big, big anniversary today — it was exactly 40 years ago that Canada’s soul was saved when Vladislav Tretiak didn’t get a pad out in time to stop a shot by Paul Henderson from going in and giving Team Canada a 4-3-1 victory in the best-of-eight Canada-Russia Series in 1972.
Big, big goal in a big, big series, and in the 40 intervening years, some big myths have grown and been repeated so often they’re widely accepted as fact.
First of all, it was never, ever referred to at the time as the “Summit Series.” It was called, simply and accurately, the Canada-Russia Series.
The smarmy Summit Series moniker seems to have been invented by clueless commentators on CBC-TV.
As for Henderson’s goal being
a defining moment in Canadian sports, that much is accurate. Losing to the Russkies — or managing only a tie — would have been a national calamity, at least for hockey fans. The other dozen or so people in the country might not have cared.
This is the worst myth that has developed: “Everybody hated the Russians.”
Actually, no. Some of the players undoubtedly did, and so did a lot of analysts and commentators on TV and on the sports pages. Contempt and insults abounded.
Alan Eagleson’s open hatred for the Russians was a national embarrassment, even by the lax standards of behaviour at the time, when “rink rage” had not yet been coined.
But if you loved playing hockey and watching hockey, there was no reason to hate the Russians.
We wanted Canada to win, obviously.
But you could still recognize and admit the Russians played fabulous hockey.
This is the worst slur that was made, and has endured for four decades: “The Russians were like robots.”
No, they weren’t.
They played a fast, free-flowing game, especially in the offensive zone, where forwards whizzed all over the ice rather than staying strictly in their lane, as was the Canadian custom.
This is now a standard style of play.
Canadians didn’t invent it; we learned it from the Russians.
“Robots” was often used to describe the Russians’ alleged lack of enthusiasm or celebration after scoring a goal. In other words, they weren’t hotdogs. They didn’t jump or raise their sticks after scoring.
Here’s something to ponder: neither did Bobby Orr. The most exciting and dominant player of all time did not indulge in theatrics during his career, even after scoring yet another unbelievable goal.
Mostly, he’d bend over and coast with his stick across his thighs, and skate back to his blue line.
Nobody ever accused Orr of being a robot.
(While we’re on the topic of hot-dogging, a plea to minor hockey coaches: will someone please tell the kids to stop mimicking the pros, and stop skating along the front of the bench to tap gloves after every goal? It’s showing off. It’s bragging. It’s rubbing it in. Take a lesson from Bobby Orr.)
My favourite players on the Russian team were Valery Vasiliev and Valeri Kharlamov. Even on an amazing team, in an amazing series, those guys were amazing to watch. Some commentators have rightly said Kharlamov deserves to be included in the elite hockey pantheon occupied by Orr and Gretzky. (Bobby Clarke, who deliberately broke Kharlamov’s ankle in Game 6 of the series, doesn’t.)
Tragically, Kharlamov was killed in a car accident in 1981 at age 33.
A few weeks after Henderson’s heroic goal, my bantam teammates and I were in the dressing
room, putting on gear and talking about the series. Somebody said, “Wouldn’t it be great if the Russians could play in the NHL?”
Typically, the kids were light-years ahead of the experts.
Brian Jones is a desk editor at The Telegram. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.