How Vancouver's Surly Fans Helped Win the '72 Summit

And key people who propelled the drama.

By Steve Burgess 8 Sep 2012 |

Steve Burgess writes about film and culture every other week on The Tyee.

Take pride, Vancouver. You played a key role in Canadian hockey's finest hour. Today, Sept. 8, marks the 40th anniversary of Game Four in the epic 1972 Summit Series, played at the Pacific Coliseum. For Team Canada, Vancouver would prove to be the low point. The booing began during Team Canada's pre-game warm-ups, while Soviet players were cheered during introductions. The game ended in a decisive 5-3 Soviet win as Team Canada fell behind in the series, 1-2-1, heading into the four Russian games. Our Canadian heroes were booed off the Coliseum ice. And that upset Phil Esposito. "Every one of us guys, 35 guys that came out and played for Team Canada, we did it because we love our country, and not for any other reason," Esposito told the TV audience as he stood on the ice that night. "They can throw the money for the pension fund out the window.... We came because we love Canada... and I don't think it's fair that we should be booed."

It's often claimed that Espo's televised outburst was the turning point. Just like we planned it, Vancouver.

In some ways it's an odd choice for a national defining moment. Unlike America's feel-good Miracle on Ice in 1980, the 1972 Canada-Soviet Summit Series was not a David vs. Goliath story -- unless you cast Canada in the role of Goliath. Our hockey establishment was indeed smug, swaggering and overconfident until those stones started flying. The basic facts are practically tattooed on our national coat of arms: Early shocks, desperate times, the string of must-win victories back in Russia, and finally Paul Henderson's joyous leap with 34 seconds left in the eighth and final game. Goliath, bloody but unbowed, had come through. Some players and people who made up the drama:


Scouting can be a tough business. In 1962 a Decca Records talent scout declined to sign a Liverpool group, remarking, "The Beatles have no future in show business." Ten years later, just days before the opening of the Summit Series, Toronto Maple Leafs head scout Bob Armstrong was quoted after watching a Soviet team practice: "We saw Vladimir Tretiak -- their No. 1 goalie -- and he didn't look particularly good."

The 1972 remark may tell you more about the future of the Leafs than it did about Tretiak. But in fairness, Tretiak was somewhat distracted that day. He'd gotten married the day before. "Two days later I was back in training and a day after that the team left for Canada," Tretiak said afterwards. "I tell people I spent my honeymoon with Canadian hockey players."

The Summit Series would make Tretiak arguably the most famous goalie never to play in the NHL -- the first non-NHL player to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

The Cassandras

The overconfidence of the Canadians has become legendary. A Canadian Press story from Aug. 24, 1972 was given the headline Scouts Suggest Eight Game Sweep in the Simcoe Reformer. But there were Cassandras out there. Montreal Star sports columnist John Robertson promised that if the Canadians somehow prevailed, he would eat his column.

In an eerily prescient interview, former Canadian national team player Herb Pinder warned of what was coming. "The Russians will have an edge in conditioning no matter how hard Sinden works his players," Pinder told the Canadian Press in August 1972. "We just aren't prepared to pay the price to get in shape like the Russians.... They shoot hard and they don't waste shots.... They can hit, they are big and they are in better condition."

"You could see the refereeing so bad that they (the Canadians) pull out and come home. People don't know how bad it can get."

They found out. Team Canada's J.P. Parise became so incensed with German referee Josef Kompalla he threatened to decapitate the ref with his stick.

As for Robertson, his warnings had essentially been proven right. But a promise is a promise. At a Montreal restaurant not long after the series ended, he choked down a bowl of shredded newsprint. Not by itself, of course -- the column was served up with tasty Russian dressing.

The Missing

In 1997 The Hockey News compiled a list of hockey's all-time greatest players. Three of the Hockey News top ten -- Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull -- were active at the time of the Summit Series. None played in it. Orr was listed on the roster but had just had knee surgery. Hull was named to the team by coach Harry Sinden but had committed the unpardonable sin of defecting to the upstart World Hockey Association. He was blackballed by tournament organizers, in spite of a direct plea from Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

Hull and Howe, who had also gone to the new league, would get their chance two years later when the WHA staged its own version of the Summit Series. Lacking the same sort of supporting cast, the WHA all-stars were beaten soundly, 4-1-3 -- despite the presence of 1972 hero Paul Henderson, who had since joined the new league. Hull did prove himself against the Soviets, leading the series in scoring with seven goals. Howe scored three. Not bad, considering he was 46 years old at the time.

The Posterized Boy

In the NBA they call it "being posterized." Every bedroom wall poster of a monster dunk co-stars some unfortunate defender standing flat-footed, or perhaps leaping ineffectually as the ball slams through the hoop. Superstar vs. stooge, in a frozen image that never changes. So pity poor Yuri Liapkin -- posterized on the most famous goal in Canadian hockey history.

By 1972 Liapkin was established as a great defenseman for Soviet league teams Khimik Voskresensk -- he would later join Spartak Moscow. He was the national team's highest-scoring defenseman. It's no wonder #25 was out there for the final crucial seconds of Game Eight along with #6, Moscow Dynamo defenseman Valery Vasiliev. After Henderson's first wild swing at the puck that carried him behind the net, the puck ricocheted off the side boards toward Vasiliev, who could not corral it. The puck then seemed to carom off Liapkin, positioned just beside Vasiliev. Henderson, back on his feet, grabbed the loose puck and swung around a diving Tretiak to deposit the winner.

It is hard to watch that video and pin the blame solely on Liapkin. Yet in that iconic photograph, as familiar to Canadian boomers as the flag, there is a despondent Liapkin skating just behind the jubilant Henderson. Mercifully for the Russian he was cropped out of the photo that graced most Canadian front pages the next day (near-identical versions were shot by photographers Frank Lennon of the Toronto Star and Montreal Canadiens team photographer Denis Brodeur, father of Martin Brodeur). But fairly or not he is still cast as the goat. "It turned out to be my worst nightmare," Liapkin later said. "Now all these years later everyone knows Henderson scored when Yuri Liapkin gave up the puck."

The (Larger) Turning Point

At the start of the 72-73 season NHL rosters featured three Swedes: Juha Widing, who had played his junior hockey with the Brandon Wheat Kings; Bobby Nystrom, who had moved to Canada with his family at age four; and Thommie Bergman. The Bruins' Ken Hodge had been born in England and Ranger Walt Tkaczuk in Germany. That was it for Europeans.

Ten years later Europeans would make up slightly more than 10 per cent of NHL rosters. 1982 was also the year that a Soviet player first took the ice in an NHL game: Viktor Netchaev played three for the Los Angeles Kings. (He had married an American.) Not until the defection of Alexander Mogilny before the 1989/90 season would a Soviet-trained player really star in the NHL.

Eventually Mogilny would make his way to the Vancouver Canucks, joining superstar Pavel Bure in 1995. It made sense. After all, Vancouver fans started cheering for Russians early.  [Tyee]

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