People & Culture

Interview with John U. Bacon on the 1972 Summit Series and its impact on hockey culture 

The best-selling author and journalist discusses the reinvention of the game and the pressure to win

  • Aug 29, 2022
  • 992 words
  • 4 minutes
  • By 
  • Interview  by David McGuffin
On Sept. 28, 1972, the Canadian-Soviet Union Summit Series ended in a dramatic Canadian win. John U. Bacon revisits the victory in The Greatest Comeback. (Photo: Frank Lennon/Toronto Star, Library and Archives Canada, E008440339)
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Fifty years ago, the Summit Series became a seminal moment in Canadian hockey history. It was September 1972, and Cold War political tensions were playing out on the ice rinks of Canada and the U.S.S.R. An overconfident Team Canada made up of future Hall of Famers expected to crush their Soviet opponents in the eight-game series. Instead, five games in, the Soviets had three wins, while Canada had just one win and a tie. Team Canada would have to win all three remaining games — in Moscow. The Summit Series would pit West against East but would also change the very way the game was played. John U. Bacon interviewed almost every player on that storied team for his new book, The Greatest Comeback. Spoiler alert: This Canadian team would emerge victorious and cement its place in hockey (and Canadian) lore.

On 1972 hockey culture

NHL hockey culture in ’72 was quite different from now, and that’s what almost ruined it for Canada in the Summit Series. It’s fascinating to go back 50 years to see how different the game — and the infrastructure around it — was. Now, we’ve got the under-17 team, the under-18 team, and they get together and play around the world. They know the best players in Finland, Sweden and the United States before they’re 19. They go to different NHL teams, but they’re all still friends. None of that happened in 1972. There were silos. Your rights were bought by the Bruins, the Blackhawks, the Canadiens. And that’s the only system you knew from age 15 on. Few players were ever traded. So all they knew was the Rangers or Bruins or Canadiens. And not only was it set up that way to begin with; they had rules to make sure you were not friends. 

John U. Bacon has written more than a dozen books on sport and business and has also worked as a sports commentator on TV and radio. (Photo: John Schultz)
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On team dynamics

The Canadians are teammates, but they hate each other. The All-Star Game is a good example. You’re teammates for one night, but you don’t talk to each other. [Brad Park, who played for the Rangers then] made a great pass to one of the Bruins. He goes in and scores a crucial goal. But after that goal? No eye contact. Not a high five. Not a “good pass.” That’s how cold things are internally. Forget the Russians for a second. Internally, you have big problems before you even play Game 1. 

On the pressure to win

After Game 1, the final score was the Soviets seven, Team Canada three. And that’s when it’s Apocalypse Now. Ken [Dryden] gave me a great quote about this. He wakes up the next morning in his hotel room, and before he even opens his eyes, he thinks, “If I don’t open my eyes, maybe this didn’t happen. It was the lowest day of my career and maybe my life.” And every player felt that way. And the country was beside itself. I mean, truly.

On the turning point

Phil Esposito gave one of the most famous speeches in Canadian history. Not just hockey history — Canadian history. Any Canadian around at that time can remember it. [Game 4, played in Vancouver] is going downhill fast, and the crowd is booing. But at the end, Phil Esposito is the player of the game for Team Canada, so he’s still on the ice and he’s got to do an interview on national television. He’s got a microphone in his face, while two teenage kids are by the Zamboni screaming at him and booing. That was the final straw. He said, “Look, guess what? These guys are really good, and we’re out here doing our best. And if they get booed in Moscow, I’ll come back and apologize to every one of these Canadians. But I bet that’s not what’s going to happen. We need your support, and we’re in a battle, so please support us.” It had an immediate effect on the Canadian people.

The Greatest Comeback adds insight to a series that still resonates 50 years later. (Photo: Melchior Digiacomo/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images; Jacket design: Greg Tabor)
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On team bonding

[Ahead of Game 5, the team travelled to Sweden for two exhibition games designed to help the Canadian players get used to the larger international ice surface in Moscow.] They had to become a team. Part of the chemical reaction is beer. They’d go to a park across the street, they’d get some beer, and they’d hang out together. The silos were breaking down. They realize they’re in this together. And the second thing they gain is they play European hockey for the first time on a European rink — an international rink — which most of these guys had never once played on. So that’s when they become a team. 

On the level of play

What you got from watching these games is the incredible emotional fever pitch of every shift, every game. No one’s coasting on either team, ever. And almost all the guys have told me they could never achieve that level again, individually or as a team.

On the Gretzky link

Wayne Gretzky is 11 or 12 years old in Brampton, Ont. And the final games are played at night in the U.S.S.R., which is early afternoon in Ontario. So what does Walter Gretzky do? He lets his son stay home from school to watch the neighbours’ colour TV. Rare treat back then, and the neighbours are not even hockey fans. So Wayne’s there by himself at the table, no snacks. His mom stops in occasionally to make sure he’s not bothering the mom. And I said, “Didn’t school ask where you were?” And he said, “They knew where I was!”

On a nation standing still

More Canadians saw Paul Henderson’s winning goal with 34 seconds left in Game 8 than saw the moon landing three years earlier. And I pointed this out to Wayne Gretzky, and he shrugged and said, “It was more important.”

Listen to the full interview with David McGuffin in episode 47 of the Explore Podcast. 

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This story is from the September/October 2022 Issue

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