Team Canada ’72 gets a 50-year party

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All right Canada, time to party like it’s 1972.

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Later this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Canada-Russia summit series, significant in so many ways then; now prelude to a long list of commemorative video, books, coins, social media events and live speaking engagements. A mass of memorabilia is sure to surface amid the main event, likely the final full-scale reunion of surviving Team Canada stars from those eight games in 26 days that rocked the sport and united our country.

“Certainly 50 is important to us and it will probably be our last major opportunity for a celebration,” said winger Ron Ellis. “Unfortunately, we lost a couple of more players this past year (goalie Tony Esposito and forward Rod Gilbert) and looking back five years, a number aren’t with us any longer (Gary Bergman, Bill White, Pat Stapleton), which I can’t believe. That’s why it’s important we get together somehow.”

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A few years ago, the veterans of the series, both players and staff, incorporated a board to manage their affairs, much of it geared to the anniversary. Hopefully, COVID-19 will not be an issue and some of the Russian players can join events here or there.

“Possibly (Russian participation) is on the agenda,” Ellis said. “We’re not sure of all the activities yet. The board is working very hard on it.

“This is certainly a big deal to us, our generation and the people who watched it, whether live or on film. It’s an opportunity to have a feel-good moment about Canada and what we were able to accomplish as a team. We had to overcome adversity with a miracle comeback (three straight wins on Moscow ice) and a lot of folks might like to re-live that.

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“There are a number of life lessons from the series and our team is working with some school boards, with an opportunity to make it part of the history curriculum in some places. We’re hopeful our experience will be passed down.”

Such feel-good hockey stories are timely, especially coming out of the pandemic and the many off-ice issues in the game. Former Toronto Sun Sports Editor Scott Morrison interviewed most Canadian players and coach Harry Sinden for his new book about him, 1972: The Series That Changed Hockey Foreverhis second on the subject, with a June release.

“Their recollections of the events are amazingly sharp after so many years,” Morrison said. “What’s interesting and understandable is how their perspective and attitude towards the Soviets has changed so dramatically, even since I wrote the book leading up to the 20th anniversary. They’re even more forthcoming now about their emotions, the pressures and everything that was happening on and off the ice. There were also interviews with some of the Soviets, again with a new perspective, and even trainers and fans in Moscow.

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“We don’t have a lot of where-were-you moments in our history. But this was one. If you’re a certain age, you remember where you were and what you were doing throughout the series, but especially when Paul Henderson scored ‘The Goal’. Often, for countries, those moments involve wars or a president being assassinated. Not like this one. It was a series that somehow pulled a country together. There weren’t westerners and easterners, there were Canadians behind that team. It was the first series of its kind – and the best.”

If you thought every nugget from ’72 must surely have been mined by now, some devotees would argue we’ve only scratched the ice surface.

“So many things are going to be happening,” said Toronto-based film archivist Paul Patskou, himself helping with a four-part CBC mini-series, a book and frequent youtube Hockey Time Machine specials with series’ participants in both countries, such as Vladislav Tretiak.

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One of those Heritage Minutes shorts is coming to TV and rare footage of ‘Game 9′, the exhibition between Canada and Czechoslovakia, is being restored. The Hockey Hall Of Fame will update their series’ display in the fall, some players will be invited to the big annual spring sports card memorabilia show in Toronto and the Royal Canadian Mint is expected to soon reveal its special ’72 toonie. Goalie Ken Dryden is also writing a second series’ book and Patskou is helping research Sean Mitton’s second opus on ’72 that will read on the Russian experience to complement 2012’s, The Goal That United Canada.

“There are missing pieces and now we have a better understanding about Russians as people,” Mitton said. “The series becomes less about the Cold War or how Team Canada was treated in Moscow or the bad officiating. Yes, it happened that Paul scored a big goal or two, but there are a lot of nuances and I still find out things that give me the chills.

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“Many of us grew up with Hockey Night In Canada hockey cards and reading the ice hockey. But what was that like in Russia? How did they follow hockey and how did they digest the series?”

To Mitton, it’s also fascinating to compare how villainous the Soviets were perceived in ’72 to how wildly popular players such as Andrei Svechnikov is in Carolina, Artemi Panarin in New York or Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy in Tampa Bay.

“Now we treat them like one of our own. But kids don’t necessarily connect the dots to ’72, the stepping stone that made all this happen.”

Mitton is also getting assistance from Alex Braverman, a native of Moldova in the former USSR, who interviewed many Russians in their language. Sadly, Mitton notes the ravages of time have taken an even higher toll on Russian players, about half of them have now passed away. “We’ve been fortunate in getting both Russians who were on the team and those peripherally involved in the series; everybody from translators to the stick boy who was on their bench for the four (Moscow) games. He’s still involved in Russian hockey in their junior program. Not only does he have great memories because he was so young, he’s also somewhat an ambassador and wants the stories told.

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We apologize, but this video has failed to load.

“Back then, we knew nothing about the Russians, they knew a bit about us, but we hadn’t played best-on-best. We obviously learned from each other, but the question is, how did we apply that?”

A big part of the tale is the morale boost that 3,000 loud n’ proud Canadians provided at Luzhniki Arena in the NHLers’ darkest hour.

“One lady from Ontario was kind enough to share her diary of the series, a journal of every day she and her husband were over there,” Mitton said. “That was fascinating to go through.

“The older generation thinks it was about the Cold War, the (Capitalist/Communist) systems. but ultimately it’s about a way of life. Russians had wants and needs like we do and the people who went over there experienced that Russians were genuine and kind.

“But we both wanted to win that series.”

lhornby@postmedia.com

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