Episode 53: The Greatest Comeback, featuring John U. Bacon, BA ’86/MA ’94

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Episode 53: The Greatest Comeback, Featuring John U. Bacon, BA ’86/MA ’94

Deborah Holdship: Hi, I’m Deborah Holdship, editor of Michigan Today. In this mini episode of “Listen in, Michigan,” I chat with John Bacon about his new book, The Greatest Comeback, and his top five highlights from the 100 years of the Michigan Hockey program. The 85% of the Canadians tuned into this game, so it’s so crazy.

John U. Bacon: Every Canadian knows about the Summit Series in 1972 and almost no Americans do.

It is the most important sporting event by far in Canada. I have argued, I think persuasively, that is the single most unifying month in Canadian history, more than Confederation when they become a country in 1867, because that took until 1982 until they were finally fully independent. Believe it or not, it’s 115 years. World War One, World War Two: Obviously they were very important, both those wars, including D-Day, because of our shared sacrifices, shared triumphs. But this is Canada alone.

It’s an eight-game series. Oddly, it’s supposed to be just an exhibition. Four in Canada, four in Moscow. And the reason for it is the Canadians, like our basketball team, the Dream team in ‘92 with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, they were sick of losing to the college kids. So they say, OK, screw it, we’re getting our best guys together. You’re going to get the full, full load. It’s NHL All Stars, 16 of them are Hall of Famers, including, by the way, Red Berenson, who is on this team. And he plays a few games for them and plays an important role as well.

Everyone predicts Canada will win. Everybody, all the writers, you name it. But they lose the first game, 7-3 in Montreal. And the headlines are atomic bomb headlines. “Hockey myth dies.” Harry Sinden, the coach of the team, gave me a great quote. He said, “Canada is known for two things: wheat and hockey. And nobody watches wheat.”

So there whole national identity is wrapped up in this. You know, hockey is their first, second, and third sport. It’s not like us. We have, you know, basketball, football, baseball.

So they’re in Moscow. They’ve lost three of the first five games, tied one. So you’ve got three games left. You’ve got to win them all, in Moscow. You haven’t won a game there yet. Guards with AK47s are lining the rink. Brezhnev is there for every game. It’s a big global event for them, for Europe, and so on, [Canada] winning them all. And they do win them all, all by a goal, all. In the third period, Red Berenson had a great assist in the sixth game. They won 3-2, so obviously a crucial assist, and then they pulled the thing off.

Game 8 is around 8:30 at night in Moscow and that’s 2:30 or so in Toronto. And then what? 11:30 or so out West and Vancouver. 85 percent of the country watches that game. No one did anything in Canada that week. Not the companies, not the schools. At one point they wheeled TVs into the classrooms for students to watch. Then Wayne Gretzky complained to his dad that — he’s 11 at the time — that they’re wheeling in this old black and white TV, “I can’t see it…” So his dad said, “OK, fine.”

So he allows him to skip school and go to the nextdoor neighbor’s because they had a color TV, which in 1972 is a big deal. So Gretzky watched all four games there. And I say, “Well, did they accuse you of skipping?” And he goes, “They knew where I was.” I explained to him that more Canadians saw Game 8, than saw the moon landing three years earlier, and they watched the moon landing. Like I said, 85% watched the Summit Series.

Alan Eagleson, the guy who organized this whole thing said, “My question is, what the heck were the other 15 percent doing?” And I told Gretzky about the moon landing and he shrugged and looked at me as though I had two heads and he said: “Yeah, it’s more important.” His great teammate Mark Messier was another. He wrote the foreward ffor the book. God bless him, and I explained the same thing to him. He said, “If the moon had better ice, maybe we’d go, right? We had no reason to go.”

So this is the most important event in Canadian sporting history and it’s one of the two or three events, according to their surveys in their history. It changed hockey forever. The hybrid style that University of Michigan now plays, which is hard hitting NHL plus fast skating and passing European style, that was all born month. And this month in 1972 was the same month as the Boris Spassky/Fischer chess match. It’s the same month as the Munich Olympics, with Mark Spitz, the USA Basketball team losing the gold medal for the first time with a crazy triple finish. They got screwed out of the gold medal. And of course, the the PLO and the Israeli athletes. Mark Mulvoy, the longtime editor in chief of Sports Illustrated who covered this series, said that this is the most important month in sports as far as all things that happened all at once. And the chess match was on the cover of Time magazine, which is pretty crazy. And Ted Turner, of course, who founded CNN, said, “Look, you don’t care about kayaking, but if one of those guys is a Soviet and the other guy isn’t, you’re gonna watch.” Because back then you would. So, this is the throwback to this amazing tension that we felt.

Every guy on this team — and some of them have won ten Stanley Cups — every guy on this team says this is the highlight of their career and, in many cases, their lives. I love it.

DH: So, you must had so much fun talking to all these guys.

JUB: There are 35 players crazily and I talked about 25, 26 of them, all the ones who were left. I got to do this because Ross Child, who played goalie at Michigan, that’s his photo when you walked down the steps of the new Pretzel Bell. He’s the goalie with no mask and his son was my best friend and he was a teammate of Red’s. So we’re the only kids in the U.S., in our school at least, that were running home after school to watch this on Channel 9, CKLW, CBC. This is one of my very first sports memories. I got to meet all my heroes in the process,s and they usually tell us, Deborah, in my line of work, don’t meet your heroes. You’re going to be disappointed.

These guys were fantastic, including Red Berenson. He plays a central role not only in the series, but also in this story for a lot of reasons.

DH: So, so talk a little bit about that Red’s role.

JUB: Well, there’s a few things. One, as we know, he was the first player to wear a helmet in the NHL. He didn’t have to because he didn’t already have a steel plate in his head. The first guy to go straight from college to the NHL. One day after his last game at Michigan, he’s playing for the Canadians in Boston. First guy to do that. So, he had a lot of respect for these guys on the team and he played two games. But after the fifth game might have been his biggest moment when he was not on the ice, but in the stands. The Canadians had a 4-1 lead, and in the third period they blew it and they lost five to four and it’s devastating. And on the way off the ice, the Canadian fans who had booed them in Vancouver after going down 1-2-1 sang “O, Canada.” Serenaded them. And to this day, these players get choked up and grab napkins and start crying. This turned Canada into a country. Their flag was only six years old when this happened, 1972. And the flag sales during that month were about triple the sales the previous six years.

It’s like our Olympic team: USA, USA — that same thing during the “Miracle on Ice.” So that was big. Berenson comes out of the stands and goes in the lockerroom. The guys are pretty dejected of course. And he says, “Hey look. We’re playing the best hockey we’ve played so far. We outplayed them most of the game. We’ve got this. We got to focus on your ABC’s.” He was already a coach at age 32 basically. And one of the guys said, “Look, if a guy in the stands comes in the locker room and starts telling you how you’re playing, ypu usually tell him to go to heck or something else altogether. But not Red. We listened. We listened because we knew how smart he was. We put the team first.” And that, they say. is when they turned it around and then won three games. So Red’s role in this is important on and off the ice.

DH: I think hockey players are definitely a rare breed.

JUB: I wrote about that in Blue Ice, which is my first book on the story of Michigan Hockey. There’s a few reasons: One, these guys tend to grow up in rural areas, skating on ponds, and you don’t get a big head there. Two, the game itself is very humbling. Wayne Gretzky never won a Stanley Cup after he left the Oilers. One player can’t do it. LeBron James and four of us could probably gonna win. One player can’t make a huge difference in hockey. You have three lines, so one player can only impact it so much. You need teammates. I think it’s part of it. Third, they’re Canadian. We all know that. My joke about that is they needed an American to tell their story, to brag about them, because they will not brag about it.

DH: That’s great. So the book is out now, right?

JUB: It’s called The greatest comeback. How Team Canada fought back, took the summit series and reinvented hockey. And they asked me to write it, and that was very flattering. And they said, OK, we’ll grant you complete access without any interference. So I got. I got Ken Dryden, for two or three hours I got everyone you can basically name for 2, 3, 4 hours, plus repeated interviews, and they’re all just wonderful about it and just funny guys. Also, when you’re talking to older athletes, guys in their 60s, 70s, they don’t care anymore about public opinion and they just let it fly. They know what they think. And their egos are in check. It makes for very interesting and funny interviews.

But Red plays a central role. He asked me to scale back his quotes because he said he only played two games out of eight. “You can’t give me that many quotes!” So at his request, I scaled back his quotes. But still a lot of them are in there and his teammates again, love that guy. So that was impressive.

Here’s a fun fact for you. Before West Quad, East Quad or the Law Quad or Charles Lindbergh flew across the ocean … before New York, Boston, Chicago, or Detroit had NHL teams … before hockey games were broadcast on the radio or movies had sound … before all that, the University of Michigan was playing hockey.

Michigan Hockey survived the Depression and World War II. So that’s our most important moment.

First you asked me for the five highlights of Michigan Hockey. I did have to boil the list down from 10 or 12.

The first one is in fact the first game: Jan. 12, 1923. They had a three-sided building, Weinberg Coliseum, where the gymnastics team now works out right there by Elbel Field. It was three-sided so the wind came in and all that natural ice. So, no coils, no zambonis, and none of that. The Michigan Daily exhorted everyone to come on down to watch the game, to basically fan the flames of this little flicker of a program.

“Hockey is a game that 9/10 of the students have never seen and could not be persuaded to attend,” the Michigan Daily wrote. “But there are many others, however, who will turn out for the first game. Above all, the attributes of the game itself, the greatest reason the Colosseum should be packed to the doors tomorrow night and Saturday night, is Michigan spirit, the quality for which the maize and blue is known throughout the country. It is up to you. The players cannot do it alone. Be there.”

In 1927 Joseph Barrs was a medical student and also the coach. It’s his last year and he’s finishing up medical school. Amazingly, there were only 2 and 3 and they won all 5 games to win the league. This is vital. Fielding Yost said. “OK, this is a program worth betting on. It’s only four or five years old.” And that’s how he put the coils in and made it permanent. Ice. And installed a fourth wall in the coliseum. And he did it right before the Great Depression. Afterwards, you’re dead. So Michigan State, Michigan Tech, Wisconsin, all great programs now. And for a long time they all dropped hockey. They didn’t have the the indoor ice and the support that Michigan Had.

So number 3: It’s 1948, the first NCAA tournament which Vic Heyliger, Michigan coach, set up. So for 10 years, they held it at Colorado Springs. Only four teams. 3 games, you know, two semis and the final. That’s the whole thing. Michigan won the first one, beating Boston College 6-4 and Dartmouth 8-4. So that one’s big.

The 4th one, I had a little fun. The fourth one I picked was. Feb. 5th, 1960. It’s the middle of the season. How can that be a great moment? Because it was Red Berenson’s first game at Michigan back then. You had to sit out the first semester, first semester and a half, actually, a year and a half. So he’s finally playing his first game. He’s the first player Michigan actually recruited in a real sense from Regina, Saskatchewan. He went to his first football game that fall and said, “There are more people in the stadium than live in my city.” And that city is the capital of the province. So it’s a country boy getting an education. But Al Renfrew, the old coach, his coach, says that 90 seconds into his first game, he takes it all the way down the ice and he scores. And John Mariucci, the coach of Minnesota, a great player himself, said, “Man, at this rate, we’re going to lose 60 to nothing.” Almost! Berenson assisted on another goal 5 minutes later and scored a third later in the game. When Red gets here, I mean, is there Michigan hockey without Red Berenson? It would exist, but it would not be what it is. Not even close. And 33 years of coaching of course is three years of playing. That was vital for Michigan and for college hockey. Really

My last one: March 30th, 1996. Michigan wins its eighth NCAA title overtime versus Colorado College in Cincinnati, and that kind of reestablished the program where basically is now on to the comeback trail.

There you go, there’s your list, and you’re listening very patiently.

DH:
Alright, there you have it, Bacon’s new book and his top five highlights from 100 years in Michigan hockey. Take it easy, stay warm, and as always, go blue.

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

ICYMI: Just in case you missed this episode last month due to its undercover placement in the feature well, I have resurfaced it here in the podcast section for December.

To that end, I encourage you to scan all 53 episodes of “Listen in, Michigan.” You’re bound to find something fun, from Hemingway and Shakespeare to squirrels and the FBI. This episode is short, sweet, and has two parts. 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.”

— by John U. Bacon

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