The Greatest Day in Canadian History

September 28, 1972: the day a hockey game--a hockey game--gave a nation the thrill of its lifetime.


There is an argument to be made that September 28, 1972 was the greatest day in Canadian history. That it was greater than July 1, 1867, "a bright sunny day right across the country," the day the Dominion became its own country. That it was greater than May 8, 1945, the day Canadians celebrated after six long years of sacrifice. You can make this argument about this day, 40 years ago, because it was a day when Canadians achieved some measure of glory alone, without the help or the blessings of the Americans, the English or the French, achieving something bold which proved to themselves and the world that they could be the best at something they had always held dear.

I don't think it's too much hyperbole to suggest that no Canadian alive and awake today, who was also alive and awake on September 28, 1972, has ever forgotten that day. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a Thursday. I was in kindergarten at Algonquin Elementary, in Montreal, and the school's principal assembled us all into the gym during the early afternoon. We came in, we sat on the floor, and out came a television, or maybe it was two, atop those portable audio-video stands. The whole school was there. The janitors and the teachers, too. And we all watched. Everyone. More people watched television that afternoon than ever before in this history of Canadian television.

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It has been written and said--indeed, it has become part of the folklore of America--that television coverage of the assassination of John F. Kennedy was a singly unifying moment in the history of the United States, a fleeting period in late November 1963 when Americans everywhere, all at the same time, experienced shock and grief at the sudden, violent death of the young president. Now just imagine that happening to a large, diverse country, only the collective moment that everyone experiences at the same time, that everyone follows on television, is one of pure joy and pride and accomplishment and satisfaction. No one died on September 28, 1972. There was no collateral damage.

What happened to Canada that day, what we all saw happening right before our very eyes, was nothing short of a blessing to a country that has always been insecure about its place in the world, always a bridesmaid, always an understudy. But no one but Canadians fought for Canada that day. There was no British governor or French priest or American general to lead the way. Canada succeeded in the limelight, at the center of the world's stage, all by itself and in the end against great odds. They had done it. We had done it. And in the school gym that day, I felt as though I had done it. It was to me a gift then. And it is a gift that is still with me all these years later.

In case you don't already know, that day all of Canada was watching a hockey game. A hockey game. The final game of the 1972 Summit Series, a bright idea forged by hockey executives to bring together some of Canada's best players to play against Soviet stars in an eight-game exhibition series. Four games would be played first in Canadian cities--Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver. Then the teams would go to the Soviet Union for four games. It was supposed to be a branch of détente but it became a bloody fight. By the time the series got to Game 8, it was tied 3-3-1. The Canadians, facing the biggest home-ice disadvantage in history, didn't just win the game in the last seconds. They won it after trailing, they won it after controversy, they won it in a way even the cheesiest novelist would never have dared to imagine. You couldn't make it up. And yet it happened. And we all saw it.

A million words already have been written about this and there isn't much more I can add. It is all Canada has been talking about this past month, as one anniversary after another from the Series is replayed and honored. There are thousands of web pages and links and videos where you can chronicle it all. For the past 40 years, in fact, Canadians have celebrated this team, this series, this game and this result. It is one of the few things during that time, indeed during the nearly 150 years of Confederation, that has bound the country together, French and English, Montreal and Toronto, for the miracle that day was forged by Quebecois and Western Canadian boys alike.

The Summit Series did not start out the way it ended. There was little drama until the Soviets came into the Montreal Forum, the ancient shrine of Canadian hockey, and blew away the Canadians in Game 1. The story lines were right out of a fable. The Canadians were overconfident. They were cocky. They didn't practice well. The Soviets were tough and lean. The Canadians thought it would be an exhibition. The Soviets were out to prove their power to the West. Think for a second about the way of the world in September 1972. The Munich massacre occurred that very month. And Nixon had just gone, and come back, from Moscow and Peking (now Beijing).

So the Soviets spied on Canadian players. And Bobby Clarke, dirty through and through, broke the ankle of the brilliant Valeri Kharlamov's ankle with a slash that turned around the series. The referees and timekeepers were manipulated by Soviet officials, so much so that Canadian team executives nearly came to blows with their counterparts on the bench and in the stands. Phil Esposito, who emerged as the team's leader, lashed out at Canadian fans in what stands today as the most important interview in the history of the sport. It wasn't just that Game 8 was great-- it was that it was preceded by four weeks of courage and villainy. And young men who had been merely hockey players became political and national symbols for the rest of their lives.

Nothing brings out the character of young men more quickly than war. And what is so remarkable, even 40 years later, is how quickly the young Canadian players realized how much more was at stake in the Series than just hockey. All of their lives they had been taught and told--hypnotized, really--that no one played better hockey than Canadians. And in a span of the first few weeks, when they lost two games and tied another on Canadian soil, they had to confront the fact that this was just plain wrong. And then they had to immediately adapt and overcome and figure out a way to win anyway. So they roughed up the Soviets. And they bellowed at the referees. And they threw themselves into the path of slap shots. The peaceful Canadians became warriors. And the war-like Soviets gradually gave way.

This month, many of the players from the team returned to Russia for a reunion. And most of the ancient enmities between the players have long given way. The great Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak, for example, is so beloved in Montreal that he could probably be elected mayor there. But the hero of heroes wasn't able to make the trip. If the Series reestablished Canada's supremacy in hockey, it established a player named Paul Henderson as one of its greatest heroes. Although few outside of Toronto knew who he was before the Series started, he scored in Game 8 the most famous goal in his nation's history. Today, however, the 69-year-old Henderson suffers from cancer amid a great outcry from his countrymen that he deserves, for the Series alone, to be inducted into the National Hockey League's Hall of Fame.

I'll leave you now with the solemn words of Canada's poet laureate, Norm MacDonald, who captured Monday night (on Twitter, no less, in a beautiful stream of thought) what Canada's victory over the Soviet Union 40 years ago today meant to generations of Canadians. Here is some of what he wrote:

Game 8. There will be no school in Canada today. A history class? Ridiculous. History instead. But there is school, I'm told in the morning. You can watch at home or at school. School with the older kids from grades 5, 6, and 7. The gymnasium is packed. Blue mats are everywhere. The teachers are like children today. "We're gonna win", I say to anyone, "You'll see. Cournoyer will score the winner."
"Helluva time for Bobby Orr to be hurt", the Latin teacher says. "Goddamned Commies", says Mr. Rose. The puck is dropped and all is silent. The entire first period is very tough to watch. But we get through it. Together. In the first intermission the gymnasium is alive with raw nerve. The young all say we will win for sure. The old men don't.
The second period is like taking a punch in the gut from the school bully. I go outside so the big kids won't see my tears. Mr. McCarthy, smoking a cigarette. "Don't worry kid, things don't work out a lot in life." The unimaginable is 20 minutes away now, the gym is grim. But Esposito scores and we all go nuts and we're running in the gym now. Sitting cannot contain this.
And then the greatest moment in my life.
Yvan Cournoyer, my hero, scores and ties the game. Or does he. My elation pushes me into the arms of an old lady that taught me geography. Everyone is everywhere, cheering. And I replay the goal in my mind. And I see that something is missing. The red light. And I see the little M climbing over the boards and into the crowd, we are all surrounding the TV on wheels now, Eagleson is there. The score counts. The game is tied.
Two minutes left. The old man I don't know says we'll win the rematch and this time we'll have Hull, and Sanderson too. Trudeau will see to it. There's only a minute or so left now, but Cournoyer was on the ice and an small boy's hope has no bounds.We're all on our feet now and Team Canada has it in enemy territory. Cournoyer has it. "Cournoyer is my guy" I yell. Everyone knows this.
Cold wars don't end in ties.
Cournoyer blasts a shot. Henderson has a chance to redirect it but falls and crashes into the boards behind the net. The puck gets past 2 Russian defensemen and finds the stick of Espo, who swats it toward the net. And now from nowhere is Henderson.
It's just Henderson and Tretiak now. Everyone else alive watches. I feel like I'm choking. Henderson, so close to the Russian netminder, shoots and is denied, but then the second. Henderson scores with 38 seconds left. The nation is in unbelief.
The old come to their feet. I go to the air. I'm still there.

In many ways, much of Canada is still in the air. And that's why September 28, 1972 is the greatest day in its history.