September 27, 2012

The Two Faces Of The 1972 Summit Series

Guy Lapointe once said “Who says nothing lasts forever? This series will.”

The series Lapointe refers to is, of course, the 1972 Summit Series. Anyone who witnessed it first hand could not possibly forget.

Lapointe should know. He played against the Soviets in the epic showdown back in 1972. The Hockey Hall of Famer also played against them in the inaugural Canada Cup tournament in 1976. He’s seen all of the great Canadian hockey moments since then. Gretzky to Lemieux in 1987. Canada’s first Olympic gold medal in 50 years in 2002. And Sidney Crosby’s golden goal on home ice in 2010.

When asked if Crosby’s Olympic clinching goal in Vancouver would one day surpass Paul Henderson’s heroics in terms of national significance, Lapointe said “Nothing will ever beat ’72 in terms of importance. But Crosby’s goal may become more celebrated over the coming years. More and more there are more people in Canada now that were not around in 1972. It was a different time.”

Like most things the 1972 Summit Series is eventually destined to be mothballed into history rather than kept in public mystique. But that time may be a long ways off yet. It seems there are two groups of people keeping it very much alive and pertinent. Those who were there to witness, and those who were born afterwards and have grown up under it’s undeniable influence.

The amazing thing is that with the passage of time, both segments of the population have actually made the series grow in stature to the point where it overshadows reality.

“Henderson Scores For Canada!”

Almost any Canadian who is old enough can tell you exactly what he or she was doing on September 28, 1972, when Paul Henderson scored the 6-5 goal at 19:26 of the final period. For a moment, our world stood still, and then as the red light flickered behind Vladislav Tretiak, our hearts filled with joy, and relief.

"Here's a shot. Henderson makes a wild stab for it and falls," Foster Hewitt breathlessly described. "Here's another shot. Right in front. They Score!! Henderson has scored for Canada!"

As Foster Hewitt's ghostly words described "the goal heard around the world" millions of Canadians danced and hugged in a scene that was reminiscent of the celebrations at the end of World War II. Never has a single sporting moment meant so much to so many Canadians a sense of unparalleled nationalism.

Paul Henderson's goal sealed a remarkable comeback victory over a Soviet squad that had pushed Canada to the brink of defeat. Of course, none of this was supposed to happen. Team Canada was composed of the NHL's greatest stars, and were expected to easily defeat their communist counterparts. The success of the Soviets stunned Canadians, who had always unquestioningly believed in their country's hockey supremacy.

Team Canada restored the faith of fans by fighting back to win the final 3 games of the series, all on game winning goals by Paul Henderson. Henderson was a talented but unspectacular left winger who was the unlikeliest of heroes. Unlikely heroes have come to define Canadian hockey.

"I found myself with the puck in front of the net," remembers Henderson. "Tretiak made one stop and the puck came right back to me. There was room under him, so I poked the puck through."

"When I saw it go in, I just went bonkers." Millions of thrilled and extremely relieved Canadians went bonkers as well.

Overblown Myth Becomes Reality

Forty years later, Canadians are still going bonkers about the series. In fact, if anything, the series has inexplicably become bigger than it ever was.

Is it baby boomer nostalgia? In part, yes. History is often over sold by the victorious. Be it war battles, political wins or hockey games, we often over play the significance of such signature moments.

Or is it due to the generations of Canadians that have followed. They have grown up under the undying presence of 1972, and in their struggle to truly understand it they have inadvertently made it bigger than it ever was.

For those who lived through it, the 1972 Summit Series was an important piece of the Canadian fabric. But for those of who were born later - who grew up knowing the narrative but never truly understanding why these 28 days in September 1972 came to occupy such a privileged place in Canadian history - we experience the Summit Series somewhat differently.

You can read all you want about how this was Canada’s Cold War and how we defeated Communism. Or about how this series unified our own country in the height of the Quebec separatist movement.  You can even focus on how the hockey world was changed forever that September. But for those of us born too late, we can never truly understand what we missed.

It was such a foreign time. Much of the off ice drama that made the series so unforgettable is impossible to recreate. No history book or documentary can truly recreate what it was like to actually be a part of that moment in time.

The on ice action of course is now easy to re-live, thanks to DVD releases. Baby Boomers may enjoy re-watching all the action, but my generation finds even that impossible to watch now.

I actually tried to watch the DVDs a few times, but I quickly realized there was no way watching the games could come close to matching my expectation. We grew up with the Summit Series’ legacy - the unmatchable drama, the overwhelming nostalgia, the cultural importance, the national pride. But if you were not actually there to experience it in the first place, so much of the experience is mythical. To go back and watch it for the first time you quickly realize there is no way the grainy video could possibly live up to the legend this series has become. The heroes would deteriorate to just ordinary. The storylines would become anti-climatic. The emotion would all but be removed. Thanks to all the children - including myself - that have recreated Henderson’s goal a million times, there’s just no way the real thing could live up to the hype and euphoria that the legend has become after all these years.

For the generation born after 1972, the overblown legend of the 1972 Summit Series is our common experience. And we like it that way. We want to forever keep it that way. To watch the games now would tarnish our image of one of the most important events in Canadian history. Watching the games now would only disappoint.

The reality is the 1972 Summit Series has become an overblown myth larger than the actual event. And we never want to change that.

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