If you were to list the great shows of force in Canadian history, you would probably end up with Vimy Ridge, Dieppe and Bobby Clarke on Valeri Kharlamov. In terms of their impact on our national self-image, not in that order.
Clarke’s ankle-cracking cheap shot on Kharlamov in Game 6 of the Summit Series may or may not have changed the result. But it certainly changed the way Canada thought of itself.
Up until that moment, we were a geopolitical best buddy. We showed up whenever asked, but we didn’t start things. We were a reliable supporter of the cause, but a background actor when it was time to soak up the glory. We were nice enough, back when nice enough didn’t get you far.
The Summit Series was the opportunity to change that reputation. If not for everyone everywhere (I mean, what does the rest of the world care about hockey?) then at least for ourselves.
Fifty years after the fact, why else would we be so stuck on this victory? We aren’t England, obsessing over our one major 20th-century triumph at a game we invented. We’ve won more and we’ve certainly won better.
But there is something about the Summit Series that makes Canadians of a certain age sit up a little straighter when they’re talking about it.
Was it the quality of the hockey? Looking back at clips on YouTube from the distance of half-a-century, you’d have to say ‘not any more’. The game has changed too much. Those eight games helped catalyze that change.
Was it great theatre? Absolutely, but not the sort that’d pull you up out of your seat calling for an encore. The NHLers expected to steamroll the amateurs of the Red Army. Instead, the Soviets treated the Canadian lineup like red-and-white practice cones.
If it was a triumph over adversity, that’s only because Canada created the adverse conditions. We were the hare who realized he was going to lose the race, but just in time.
What makes the Summit Series special to Canadians is its violence – physical and ethical. Nowadays, you might call Canada the anti-hero of this story. Back then, if you took the politics and history out of it and confined yourself to what happened inside the rink for most of a month, we were the bad guys.
Think Phil Esposito, sitting in the penalty box, drawing his finger across his throat and then jabbing that same finger at Boris Mikhailov. This wasn’t a subtle distinction.
Were the Soviet players spear-happy rats? Did they deserve what they got? It was the 1970s. Nobody cared what the Soviets had to say in their own defence, or whether there was any.
Let’s face it – sometimes it feels good to wear the black hat. Canada, noted international do-gooder, agreed to give itself a one-time mulligan. Celebrating the Summit Series is in part celebrating how much fun it is to surprise yourself every once in a while.
We did have our reasons. Doesn’t every villain?
Years after the fact, the other hero of that encounter, Paul Henderson, tried to explain how it felt then versus how it felt later.
Speaking in particular of Clarke on Kharlamov, Henderson said he had regrets, “but we looked at it as war.” He said of all the Team Canada members, only Clarke would have thought to do it – “that was the way Bobby played the game.”
I don’t recall Clarke taking great, big baseball swings at other guys’ feet right in front of the ref while he was playing for the greater glory of Philadelphia, but sure.
You know who gets the luxury of regrets? Winners.
Ron Ellis, another stalwart, got closer to the meat of it: “I think we all did things in that series that we never would have done.”
Another thing you notice when you rewatch some of those games – Canada’s antics. There are moments where the team collectively pulls a Slap Shot – surrounding the officials, slapping opponents around after the whistle, chasing people up and down the ice. Once they realized they could not beat the Soviets in an ice-dancing competition, Canada went full-on roller derby.
This was all done in service to a higher calling, and that calling wasn’t war. It was pride.
Until September, 1972, Canada had no style of its own. At anything. This country was a pastiche of British manners, American tastes and frontier daydreams.
The Summit Series gave us an international style – ‘Canadian’. This was a new way for us to be in the world.
‘Canadian’ means you put one of ours in the hospital, we put one of yours in the morgue, and then we show up the next morning with flowers. ‘Canadian’ is the stand-up fight, followed if necessary by the righteous sucker punch. Because ‘Canadian’ means you never give up.
Even after Canada had out-skilled the Soviets in multiple tournaments in the eighties, we were still talking about the ‘Canadian’ approach to international hockey as though it had not changed since ‘72. The game had moved on, but the country could not.
At this point, the Summit Series has about as much to do with hockey results as D-Day remembrances have to do with landings by sea. It isn’t the real history we remember. It’s a vision of ourselves reflected through the actions of a few active combatants.
When you think of it that way, the Summit Series isn’t a historic sports moment. It’s the only war this country has ever won by itself.
In keeping with ‘Canadian’ style, it was nearly bloodless, we were completely right in everything we did, even the wrong things, and after enough time had passed, everyone became friends.