Register Tuesday | December 10 | 2019

Waiting for the Miracle

NHL hockey starts in October. In the meantime, there are always DVDs.

Okay, I admit it: I’m getting kind of antsy about the new hockey season. The strike is over, the Leafs finally signed Eric Lindros (and Mariusz Czerkawski—I’ve been waiting all my life for that one), so let’s go already!

With less than two weeks remaining before meaningful games begin, what better way to whet the appetite than watching, as a lady friend of mine put it, “a meaningless game that happened thirty years ago and doesn’t even involve Darcy Tucker”? My brother got me the entire 1972 Summit Series on DVD for my birthday—my twenty-eighth birthday, which means that this series of eight games between Canada and the USSR is five years older than me. Still, everyone knows about the tension surrounding Game 8, about its place in our history and about Paul Henderson’s last-minute goal. But we must not forget that there were seven other games, each with their own unique drama.

Though I knew the outcome of the series (Canada wins! Hooray!), while I watched the DVDs I purposely tried to remain ignorant of the final scores. Rather than worrying about who was going to win (Canada!) I instead focussed on some of the interesting cultural quirks of the time. It was the seventies, after all.

Before Game Three, for example, Foster Hewitt noted that the most valuable player of the game would receive a 1973 Ford Mustang. Sweet! Vladislav Tretiak and Paul Henderson were the MVPs for their respective teams—can you just imagine Tretiak tooling around Moscow in that thing? Were Mustangs even allowed in Communist Russia?

The fans were groovy too. There was a dude in the crowd in a purple denim suit. Everyone else’s sense of fashion was generally swingin’ as well—lots of thick-rimmed glasses and really big sideburns. Valery Vasiliev, a young Soviet defenseman, wore blond highlights, very much ahead of his time.

The portrait of Queen Elizabeth hanging in the Winnipeg Arena during Game 3 cast a withering eye on the festivities, but for Game 1 in Montreal, Pierre Trudeau dropped the puck in a ceremonial faceoff. Ol’ Pete was in Toronto for Game 2 as well. It was very much a scene, as Canada was expected to drive the Soviets like a Zamboni. Of course, it didn’t turn out that way—the Big Red Machine won the first game, 7-3—though Canada managed to win the second game 4-1, with the help of one of the prettiest goals ever scored, by Pete Mahovlich.

Before the third game, the arena was silent for a moment, as the announcer asked the players and fans to pay their respects to the Israeli athletes who had been killed in Munich earlier that day. This serves to make all the rhetoric about the series being a “war” and it being about “our society” versus “theirs” seem a little ridiculous. Relax, guys, it’s only a game.

It’s strange to think that while the Summer Olympics were going on in Europe, Canada was all wrapped up in hockey. This would never happen today—the television networks would never allow their pie to be sliced up in such a fashion. The hockey itself was quite different too. There are complaints these days from so-called “purists” that the NHL shouldn’t change its rules, as if the rules have always been some sacred text, carved in stone.

This is, of course, not the case. Watching the 1972 games, I have to say there were some old regulations that really threw me for a loop. For instance, faceoffs following an offside took place on a dot in the middle of the rink, just outside the blue line, not to the right or left, as they do now. The third period was divided into two ten-minute sections, according to international rules—this was because hockey used to be played outside, and weather conditions had to be accounted for. The players seemed more engaged (maybe it’s because they weren’t wearing helmets and you can see the effort on their faces), and defencemen hustled back when they got beaten instead of trying to hook the streaking offensive player. Also, players would skate over the blue line, into the zone, shoot and score—more than once. This hardly ever happens anymore—I think Mats Sundin is one of the few players who can still do it (or Joe Nieuwendyk, if he’s facing Patrick Lalime, but that’s not really fair).

With all the differences highlighted in this famous series, it’s interesting to note the similarities as well. Like the fact that Tretiak’s helmet says “Montreal” and that the Soviets used “Victoriaville” hockey sticks— clearly, well before the players met on the ice, Canadian businesses were selling their wares behind the Iron Curtain. After the embarrassment of Game 1, and the vindication of Game 2, Game 3 was an exciting back-and-forth match that Canada probably should have won. Though it ended in a tie, it felt more like a loss for Canada and more like a win for the USSR.

For me, it was just a great hockey game. It’s funny how the tension dissipates when you know the outcome. It is almost laughable to hear commentators note that this game is a “must win” when, for the DVD viewer, there’s not really anything at stake—the series is long over (Canada wins!). But it was enough, for the moment, to satisfy this hockey fan’s cravings for the game. And soon, it starts again, for real this time.

John Lofranco takes breaks from rigorous training to push the limits of sports writing for Maisonneuve. His column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by John Lofranco.