It was perhaps the most important hockey series of all time.
In the 1960s, the Soviet Union hockey teams were dominant. While only amateur hockey players were allowed to compete in world competition, the USSR gave its players positions in the military while allowing them to play hockey full-time.
This change allowed them to unseat the previous top country: Canada. The Canadians’ best players mostly competed professionally, so they were no match for the quasi-professional Soviets.
So when the USSR was looking for a new challenge, Canada was eager to put together a team of its professionals to take on the Soviets. It would be the first time the best players from the USSR would play the best professionals from somewhere else.
Michigan coach Red Berenson was one of those professionals.
At the time, Berenson was about to start his 13th season in the NHL and his first full season with the Detroit Red Wings. In the summer of 1972, he was among nearly 40 players chosen to play for Canada, and Berenson admits he didn’t know what to expect from the USSR.
“We knew they were really good amateurs, but we didn’t think they were as good as the pros,” Berenson said. “Nobody really had a really good scouting report on them. So we had our training camp, and we were fired up. It was just a matter of how bad we were going to beat them. Nobody gave them a chance to win a game.”
The two sides decided to play an eight-game series, later dubbed the “Summit Series”: four games would be played in Canada and the other four in the USSR.
It didn’t take long before it seemed the Canadians’ confidence was well-founded. Legendary forward Phil Esposito — who played 19 seasons in the NHL — scored just 30 seconds into the game before Paul Henderson — a 13-year player in the NHL — added another to give Canada a two-goal lead.
The Soviets rebounded in a big way, though. They scored four straight goals en route to a 7-3 victory.
“By the end of the second period, we were on our heels, and they were flying,” Berenson said. “Then, the country was in shock. ‘Holy Christ, what’s wrong with our team, our players, our system?’ So we had a day off — a day to practice and try to regroup — and then we played in Toronto.”
And in the second game of the series, the Canadians responded. They dominated their way to a 4-1 victory, tying up the series.
From there, it seemed Canada was outmatched. The teams played to a tie in game three, before the USSR regained the series lead with a 5-3 win in game four.
The displeasure from Canadian hockey fans increased, too. Prior to game four, the crowd booed Canada and cheered for the Soviets instead. To them, the home product they were seeing was simply not good enough.
“I didn’t blame them, really,” Berenson said. “I don’t know that they were blaming individual players, but they were blaming Canadian hockey. Like, ‘We’ve got to be better than this. This is the best in the NHL?’ ”
Esposito took notice, too. In a post-game interview, he gave an impassioned speech to his country, assuring them that the Canadians were trying their best, but that the USSR was simply a very good team.
Either way, things looked bleak for Canada. It had blown any semblance of home-ice advantage it may have had, and now faced the daunting task of needing to win three of four games in the Soviet Union to win the series.
Things got even worse when the Soviets overcame a three-goal deficit in the third period to win again in game five. Not only did the loss create a bigger challenge for the Canadians on the ice, but upon arrival in the USSR, the players began to realize the experience transcended hockey.
“It was becoming a national, political challenge,” Berenson said. “This was the free world against communism, and it was our way of life against their way of life. It was amazing. It took on a life of its own.”
Canada began to mount a comeback in game six. Berenson tallied an assist — his only point of the series — to help his team to a 3-2 win, before the Canadians earned another victory, 4-3, in game seven to tie up the series, 3-3-1.
And as the series grew tighter, the play on the ice became more contentious as well. Though there weren’t any fights allowed in European hockey, Berenson says the Soviets still knew how to get even.
“It was nasty,” Berenson said. “They played with a lot of sportsmanship, but they played with an edge, too. They knew how to spear you, and they knew how to kick you, and they played rough differently than we did. And I don’t think our players handled it well, and I don’t think their players handled it well either. So the games got just about out of control. But the hockey still took over, and the hockey benefitted from them, and the games turned out to be great games.
“Like the whole rink was circled with soldiers — the whole outside of the boards. So Paul Henderson, one of our best players, got hurt and slid into the boards, and they tried to get the doctor out. They wouldn’t let the doctor out onto the ice. … So they had all kinds of little issues.”
All of this led to great anticipation for the deciding game. Canadian schools gave their students a half-day off school so they could watch the game. As a result, game eight was the most-watched sporting event in Canadian television history until 2010.
It ended up being worth it. With less than a minute left, and the score tied at five, Henderson collected a rebound in front of the net and scored what would is now known as ‘The Goal of the Century’ to give Canada a victory in the Summit Series.
Despite the win, Berenson recalls that he couldn’t wait to get out of the country.
“You just felt like you were in a large, not necessarily a prison, but you were in a confinement of some kind,” Berenson said. “Even when you left your hotel room, you had to turn your key in, and then we found out all of our stuff had been gone through and so on.”
Berenson wasn’t the only one who wanted to leave quickly. After the series ended, most of the team went on to play an exhibition game against the Czechoslovak national team. Berenson, on the other hand, wanted to join the Red Wings in training camp.
So, he boarded a plane with many of the Canadian fans who travelled to the USSR. They shared his feeling of homesickness.
“The minute that plane took off, the whole plane started to cheer,” Berenson said. “There were people crying, cheering. It was like they’d escaped. And then the pilot said, ‘We are now crossing the Iron Curtain,’ and they cheered again. … I mean that’s how we were feeling.”
Ultimately, the Summit Series will be remembered for showing the world exactly what the Soviets were capable of in hockey, and for providing a glimpse into their daily lives.
The victory was celebrated greatly in Canada, and in both countries, the importance of the game is still prevalent today.
“We didn’t know that it had become what it had become,” Berenson said. “It was a national event, and we didn’t realize it was that big. We were just playing a game, but that was a big game for us. … I’m sure they still talk about it over there. But it was good for us to go over there and win it over there.”