Summit Series at 50: A fight on ice that shaped today’s NHL

On Friday, it will be 50 years since Canada faced the Soviet Union in a bitter clash on the ice, beginning with Game 1 of the Summit Series at the Montreal Forum.

The series wasn’t just about hockey — in the midst of the Cold War, the 1972 series became a symbol of a clash between political ideologies.

During this period, professionals were not allowed to participate in international tournaments. But this time was different and the best Canadians in the NHL took to the ice to play.

“We were Canadians. We were the originators of hockey, we were the developers of hockey, and we were the best in the world at hockey. And yet the Soviets were named world champions every year in the 1960s,” recalled goaltender Ken Dryden in an interview with CTV Montreal.

Despite the “World Champion” title, most wrote off the Soviets.

“The first thing Canadian players noticed when the Russians came out was that they weren’t wearing proper gear,” NHL historian Dave Stubbs said in a CTV interview. “They wore skates you might wear in a beer league. I mean, it was just like, ‘Really? So these guys are coming to play us?’”

As fans crowded into the Montreal Forum, former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau dropped the puck in the ceremonial faceoff. Canada opened the gate early and took a 2-0 lead within minutes.

“We thought, ‘Oh, isn’t that wonderful, that’s how we imagined it,'” forward Peter Mahovlich told CTV.

The Soviets were down, but certainly not out.

“Suddenly someone crashes the party and it’s a disaster,” Dryden said.

The Russian players stormed back and eventually won 7-3 in front of a stunned hometown crowd.

Team Canada goaltender Ken Dryden looks back at the puck as it goes into the net on Saturday, September 2, 1972 during Summit Series action in Montreal. Dryden had seven goals against him in the first game of the series to win 7-3 USSR CANADIAN PRESS/Peter Bregg

“The defeat in Montreal was totally unforeseen for anyone, especially the way the Russians just presented their lunch to Canada. It was very dramatic,” said Stubbs.

The series was played across Canada and ended in a dramatic Game 8 in Moscow. Paul Henderson would win it for Team Canada with one of the most historic goals in Canadian history.

Ultimately, while Canada won the series, the Soviets would significantly affect the game itself.

“The Soviets have shown that not only can they play differently, they can play differently at the top. We realized that maybe there wasn’t just the Canadian method,” Dryden said. “Alexander Ovechkin, you know, his roots are in the 1972 series. Wayne Gretzky’s roots are in the 1972 series,” he added.

“Some of the things that happened there helped change things in Russia for the better,” Mahovlich said. “Six or seven years later, Russians are playing in the NHL. That breaks some of the stupid boundaries we have.”