Excerpt: The Greatest Comeback

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How Team Canada fought back, took the Summit Series, and reinvented hockey

Editor’s Note: When prolific author and Michigan Today contributor John U. Bacon, BA ’86/MA ’94, pitched me on his new book about the 1972 Summit Series, I had no idea what he was talking about. But after a few sentences, delivered with Bacon’s characteristic ebullience, I was in. Below is a little morsel that teases The Greatest Comeback (Harper Collins, 2022), a chronicle of the “most unforgettable matchup in hockey history.”

It was September 1972, and Cold War tensions were off the charts. What better time for an unprecedented eight-game hockey series between Canada and the national team of the Soviet Union? Team Canada, flush with its country’s best players — all NHL stars, half of them future Hall of Famers — was expected to sweep the series. But five games in, the team had mustered only one win. With just three games left, Team Canada had to win the last three in Moscow. (Spoiler alert: They did.)

The Summit players asked Bacon to tell their story and he spoke to almost every living member of the team. He says the series was an experience so unforgettable that each player considers those eight games to be the highlight of their storied careers. And, as with all unforgettable stories, the University of Michigan had a part to play. Red Berenson, BBA ’62/MBA ’66, U-M hockey coach for 33 seasons, not only played on the team, he’s naturally one of Bacon’s best sources.

Enjoy the adapted excerpt below, and listen to a quick chat between John and me. Michigan Hockey turns 100 in January, and he has some fun highlights to share about the program’s history.

‘Nobody watches wheat’

For decades the Canadians’ hockey supremacy was so complete that, from 1920 through 1953, they could send their best amateur teams to the Olympics and world championships and win all but three of the sport’s first 18 international gold medals. But when the upstart Soviets took 10 straight international gold medals between 1963 and 1972 against Canada’s amateurs, it was essential for the nation to reassert dominance in their national sport — a sport that defined their very identity.

As head coach Harry Sinden, who had led the Boston Bruins to a Stanley Cup in 1970, put it: “Canada is first in the world in two things: hockey and wheat.”

And nobody watches wheat.

Paul Henderson, Summit Series, 1972

Paul Henderson scored Canada’s second goal in the series. (Melchior DiGiacomo/Getty Images.)

So when the Summit Series was announced in 1972, Sinden knew he had to put together an NHL All-Star team to re-establish Canada’s hegemony over the sport and crush the Soviet Union.

“Because Canadians are not loud or boastful,” Wayne Gretzky told me, “sometimes people don’t realize we have such great pride, especially in the sport we invented: hockey. Even as an 11-year old, I knew we hadn’t sent our best players to play in the international tournaments. Like everyone else, I wanted to see the Soviets against our best players, the NHL all-stars. I was thrilled when they finally announced it. It was like waiting for Christmas.”

That was the idea, anyway. But that’s not how it worked out.

Almost too late

In September of 1972, just about every Canadian fan, journalist, player, and coach expected the greatest hockey team ever assembled to crush its untested opponents eight games to zero. Team Canada’s leaders were so certain of victory that they invited 35 players, two full teams’ worth — including Michigan alum and future hockey coach Red Berenson — to their training camp in Toronto, and promised all of them they would get into at least one game. Anticipating little competition from the Soviets, they figured they could use the older players for the first four games in Canada, then let the younger players mop up the last four games in Moscow.

Of the 35 players Sinden picked, a staggering 16 of them would become Hall of Famers. This was easily the most talented team assembled in the history of hockey at that time, and perhaps ever.

On the other side, few Team Canada members could name even one player on the Soviets’ roster. That would change quickly.

“All those years, we really had no idea what the Soviets had been up to,” says Team Canada’s starting goalie, Hall of Famer Ken Dryden. “But we’d find out soon enough. And by the time we did, it was almost too late.”

On Saturday, Sept. 2, 1972, in front of a standing-room-only crowd at the Montreal Forum, the Soviets humiliated Team Canada — and really, the nation itself — with a 7-3 drubbing that was as shocking as it was complete.

“Oh hell,” Berenson recalls, shaking his head. “That was ‘Wow!’ You looked around the locker room, and no one was talking. No one had to. You didn’t know what to say anyway. It was just, ‘What the hell just happened out there?’ We were in shock. I can think of no better word for it. Everyone who came in started walking around, dazed, like there’d been a death in the family.”

The headlines were apoplectic. The Globe and Mail announced, “CANADA MOURNS HOCKEY MYTH.”

“It was supposed to be eight friendlies,” Sports Illustrated wrote. “Once the Soviets won the first one, 7-3, the friendly part disappeared.”

Must have been a fluke

Ken Dryden, Goalie Summit Series, 1972

Ken Dryden was arguably the NHL’s best goalie, but the Soviets scored seven times in Game One. (Image credit: Canadian Press)

Harry Sinden swapped out half the line-up for Game Two in Toronto, and Team Canada redeemed itself with an inspired 4-1 victory.

The mood in the locker room for the morning skate in Winnipeg was relatively light. When Dryden couldn’t find his skate before practice, “I looked in my equipment bag, under the bench, all over the room,” Dryden recalls. “Finally, I noticed my skate was being used as a stop to keep our door open. The blade was wedged between the bottom of the door and the floor.”

Berenson couldn’t resist. “Well, Dryden, that’s the first thing you’ve stopped all week.”

The locker room burst into laughter, but it’s a safe bet that if they hadn’t won that second game the night before, nobody would have found it funny. But they had not only won, they had beaten the Soviets soundly, playing old-fashioned Canadian hockey, suggesting the first game must have been a fluke, after all.

But in Winnipeg for Game Three, Team Canada blew a 4-2 lead to settle for a 4-4 tie. During Game Four in Vancouver the roof caved in when Team Canada lost 5-3, and their countrymen showered them in a chorus of boos.

“I was in the stands for that one,” Berenson recalls, “and, holy smokes, were the fans ever booing. You couldn’t even hear the PA announcer give Dennis’ goal — our goal. And I didn’t blame them. By the end of the game, we’d played four games in Canada, and lost two convincingly. It wasn’t working out the way we thought it would.”

Team Canada was just a glorified All-Star team, but its chemistry problems went deeper than that. The fiercest hockey rivalries weren’t between nations, but NHL franchises. The 35 players actually hated each other — and had been systematically trained to do so.

When teams still traveled on the same train, Berenson recalls, “You might walk through the opposing team’s car, but you didn’t say a word, and they didn’t, either. You could hear a pin drop.”

They weren’t even allowed to play together at charity golf outings.

Chemistry 101

Between the four games in Canada and the four in Moscow, the team had a week’s hiatus in Sweden to play two exhibition games. What had seemed an extravagant waste of time when the players first saw the schedule now looked like an oasis.

“We needed time away from the fans and the media,” Berenson recalls. “It was like two losses meant hockey had never existed in Canada — like it was over, and we were all personally responsible. There wasn’t any good news from anywhere back home. The sooner we got out of Canada, the better.

“By then we knew this wasn’t just a hockey series anymore. It was now about the identity of the NHL, of Canadian hockey, and really, of the country itself. That’s enough pressure for anyone. With all that, you had to feel that at least the guys in the locker room were on your side. So our team really had to come together.”

However big a hole the players had dug for themselves, however despised they were at home or abroad, they knew one thing: No one else in the world could understand how it felt to be them, playing in a pressure cooker like no other.

One more element completed the chemical reaction: beer.

“In Sweden we had no interruptions of family and friends,” Hall of Fame defenseman Brad Park says. “No media. Just us. We were forced to spend a lot of time together, and we started to hang out and talk to each other — really, for the first time. The old [NHL] system had to be broken down. It’s amazing what seven or eight beers will do.”

United we skate

Team Canada brought its new-found unity to Moscow, and a new hybrid style of hockey the world had never seen before, featuring the best of the rough-and-tumble NHL and the sharp-passing Soviets – a style that everyone now plays.

To get a better sense of what happened in this series, I asked Evan Hall, the analyst for the U-M hockey team, to run these eight contests through the same statistical measures U-M and NHL teams use today, with fascinating results. What’s truly striking, however, is how well Coach Sinden divined all the patterns that analytics show us today without the benefit of modern measurements. His eyes and intuition were working exceptionally well — just one reason why Team Canada still had a chance to come back

The team also had an unexpected weapon: 3,000 crazy Canadians who traveled to the Soviet Union for the first time to cheer on their countrymen.

In Game Five the Canadians took a daunting 3-0 lead into the third period — and somehow lost, 5-4.

Red Berenson, 1960s, Montreal Canadiens

A young Red Berenson with the Montreal Canadiens in the 1960s. (Wikipedia.)

Berenson could never be described as a naive utopian, but watching from the stands that night he saw something he hadn’t seen before, and rushed down to tell his teammates.

“In the third period we backed off — big mistake,” he says. “But I felt good about this game. We were a better team when we got to Moscow, and we showed it in the first two periods. We’re getting going now, we’re a different team, in better shape, getting closer. I felt more like a coach than a player that night. I don’t remember yelling or shouting, just talking to the guys individually and in small groups. I told them, ‘That’s the best we’ve played. We’re playing better than they are. We proved it for two periods. We had the lead! We were outplaying them. We can beat these guys!

“Losing, and losing like that especially, should have crushed us. But we weren’t down. We saw for the first time that we could outplay them after all, and on their ice.”

At this point, Berenson was so in sync with his teammates that his message got through.

“Normally a guy who hadn’t played comes in and gives a pep talk, they say, ‘**** off, dimwit!’” says Alan Eagleson, who organized the series. “But Red, they all respected him and took him seriously. They knew he wasn’t talking to hear himself talk. When he comes in and says, ‘I’m telling you, we can beat these guys!’ everybody listened.”

Meanwhile, the Soviet officials unwittingly provided the Canadians extra motivation.

“I joke about it but it’s true: the worst thing the Soviets did was upset our wives,” Park says. “Giving them bad food, always threatening to move them or take them off the team bus. That was the biggest mistake they made, because when you piss off the wife of a Canadian hockey player, she’s going to make sure her husband is pissed off. And that’s the last thing you want to do, because now you’ve got a battle!”

Sure enough, Team Canada won a hard-fought 3-2 battle in Game Six, then kept it up in Game Seven when Paul Henderson scored his second straight game-winner to secure a 4-3 victory. Thanks to the tie in the third game, this odd eight-game series had been reduced to a winner-take-all finale.

For Canada

Paul Henderson

“Henderson has scored for Canada!” cried legendary broadcaster Foster Hewitt as Team Canada took the series. (CNN/Sports Illustrated Photo, Sept. 28, 1972 by Frank Lennon, Canadian Press.)

Although the evening games in Moscow were telecast in Canada in the early afternoon, right smack dab in the middle of the school or work day, 85 percent of Canadians watched the final game of the Summit Series. The broadcast had more viewers than the moon landing three years earlier.

“They say 85 percent of all Canadians were watching that game,” Eagleson says. “My question is: Who the hell were the other 15 percent?! I’ve never met anyone who didn’t remember that series!”

Trailing 5-3 going into the last period, the Canadians tied it up 5-5 with 7:04 left, then went on the attack, holding nothing back.

Sure enough, “When Henderson scored with 34 seconds left,” Phil Esposito told me, “I’d already been on the ice for two minutes. But I was so thrilled! Ecstatic! That was the closest I’ve ever come to kissing a man!”

Legendary broadcaster Foster Hewitt made the call: “Henderson has scored for Canada!”

Not just “scored,” or even “scored for Team Canada.” But for Canada, the country, and all its native sons and daughters. And they were all watching. When Gretzky and Mark Messier constantly refer to Team Canada as “we,” even though they were just 11-year-old kids watching on TV, that tells you what that team meant to the country.

“When the puck went in,” Berenson says, looking as if he’s just been transported back to that moment 50 years earlier, “it was magical. Holy cow!”

On their Air Canada flight leaving Moscow, filled with fellow Canadians feeling equal parts jubilant, raucous, and homesick, Red and Joy Berenson recall that as soon as the plane had gotten just 10 feet off the ground, the pilot — who knew how they all felt — got on the PA system and said, “Welcome to Canada!”

“The plane erupted in cheers,” Joy says. “People were crying. And everyone started singing ‘O Canada’ — and I mean everyone. I’ve never heard it sung like that.”

When I told Gretzky that more Canadians watched Game Eight of the Summit Series than watched the moon landing three years earlier, he shrugged and said, “It was more important.”

 

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