The Summit Series (Part One): Prelude To The Summit

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Other parts of this Eight Part Series at end of this post.

Canada can be a divided country at times. We divide ourselves linguistically, geographically, politically and ideologically. There is one thing that tends to bring us together though, like nothing else, and that is hockey. There have been many times that Canada has been united.

In 2010, when Sidney Crosby scored The Golden Goal.

In 1987, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux created magic in the Canada Cup to win it for Canada.

But nothing compared to, nor will ever compare to, the goal to end all goals for Canada.

In this very special series on Canadian History Ehx, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Summit Series, I am looking at this legendary series. Eight episodes will release, on the anniversary of the games themselves.

Before we get to the Summit Series, we need to go back to the beginning of International Hockey and Canada’s dominance in the sport. In this episode, I am looking at the background of what led to the Summit Series and the negotiations that helped make it happen.

In 1920, the Summer Olympics were held and this is considered to be the first Ice Hockey World Championship. They were the Summer Olympics, because the Winter Olympics did not exist yet. Representing Canada were the Winnipeg Falcons. The Falcons had won the Allan Cup in 1920, and the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association chose the team to represent Canada, rather than putting together an all-star team of players to go to Belgium.

The team was managed by W.A. Hewitt, known as Billy Hewitt, and this creates a direct connection for us to the Summit Series. Hewitt was at the secretary of the Ontario Hockey Association, serving from 1903 to 1966, and was the sports editor of the Toronto Daily Star from 1900 to 1931. He was also a member of the Canadian Olympic Committee from 1920 to 1932, leading to his direct involvement in the selection of the teams that would represent Canada in hockey. His son was a man by the name of Foster Hewitt, the legendary CBC broadcaster and the man who would come out of retirement to call the Summit Series.

On the Falcons were three players who would play in the NHL eventually, including Frank Fredrickson, who would be inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958 and was called by the Victoria Daily Times, the Babe Ruth of Hockey.

On April 24, Canada took on Czechoslovakia, dominating the team 15-0 and moving on to play the United States. In the semi final game, Canada won 2-0 and moved on to play Sweden, which had not given up a goal in their games against Belgium and France. They would be no match for Canada though, who won 12-1 in the gold medal game.

This would be the start of Canadian domination in international hockey, lasting for the next three decades, during which time Canada won 15 of 20 Olympic or World Championships.

At the Olympics from 1920 to 1952, Canada won every gold medal except for 1936 when Great Britain won. That team was mostly made up of Canadians who were living in the United Kingdom.

At the individual Ice Hockey World Championships, held outside of Olympic years, Canada was typically the gold medal winner. From 1930 to 1955, Canada won 10 gold medals.

For those decades, it was felt that a Canadian team playing hockey in the world championships or Olympics was almost a guaranteed gold.

Things were beginning to change though. While Canada was the pinnacle of hockey success in the international world from the 1920s to 1940s, Europe was taking notice and beginning to catch up.

By 1953, Canada was so disinterested in international hockey due to its dominance, that the country didn’t even send a team in 1953 to the world championships.

In 1954, the Soviet Union entered the World Championships for the first time, and Canada sent the Toronto Senior B East York Lyndhurts to the tournament, who hadn’t even won the Allan Cup. The team played in the Ontario Hockey Association and had finished with a record of 29-9-2 in that season, in which they lost the league final. The team had been selected by George Dudley, the secretary-manager of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association. The 1953 Allan Cup champs declined and no senior A-level team accepted the offer. The senior-B level champions from Kingston also declined, as did their opponents in the final, Woodstock. The Lyndhurts were the first team to accept the invitation.

By this point, Canadians winning internationally was such a given that the announcement of the team taking part in the tournament received nearly no press coverage, and the team did not even see an increase in home game attendance. At one game, only 20 spectators showed up for the team. While there was criticism over how the team was selected, that faded away as Canada once again dominated on the ice, winning their first six games, outscoring their opponents 57 to 5.

The team bowled over all opponents and reached the final against the Soviet Union, making the Lyndhurts the first Canadian team to face the Soviets. The Soviets were not unprepared for the game, having researched the Lyndhurts in advance.

The Edmonton Journal reported quote:

“It is believed the Russians are getting here early so they can see the Canadians play an exhibition game against Sweden on the 19th.”

In the game, the Soviets played an aggressive and physical game, often beating the Canadians to the puck. By the end of the first period, Canada was losing 4-0, and then 7-1 after the second period. The game would finish with a 7-2 score for the Soviets, who had erupted onto the world stage of hockey, leaving Canadians shocked.

The Toronto Daily Star ran a headline stating quote:

“Reds give us a lesson in game we invented.”

The Winnipeg Free Press said that the defeat of Canada was the best thing that could have happened, while journalist Elmer Ferguson stated quote:

“it was a national calamity, a national humiliation, a mortifying experience.”

While the Lyndhursts had nearly no coverage leaving Canada, they received a lot coming back with reporters waiting in the airport for them, and even trying to talk to players in the bathroom. Reg Spragge, who played for the team said quote:

“You would have thought we lost World War Three, not a hockey game.”

The Ottawa Citizen reported that Soviet propagandists were feasting on the hockey triumph of the team, and Hockey Hall of Famer Lionel Conacher stated quote:

“We can’t weep about the Russians beating us 7-2, but we can do something about it in the future. We can send to Europe exactly what we’ve got and that’s the best hockey players in the world, or we can stay right out of these championships.”

The federal government would state it would not provide federal funds for future teams, which was a reason many teams did not go to the tournament. The cost was simply too much, leaving Canada to send teams that were far from the best we had.

While Canada tried to determine what went wrong, the Soviets began their era of dominance.

The Soviet Union would win its first Olympic gold medal in 1956, and won every year until the Summit Series was held, except for 1960 when the United States won.

From 1954 until 1972, the Soviets won eight gold medals, compared to four won by Canada. Canada would win the World Championship in 1961, and would not win again until 1994.

Macleans would write quote:

“A short skate down memory lane: ever since 1954, when the Russians showed up at the world hockey championships for the first time and walloped a less than-awesome Senior B club known as the East York Lyndhursts, Canada’s ventures in international hockey have been fraught with peril, confused by politics and highlighted by only intermittent triumph. Mostly, the Canadian public has grumbled—either over the calibre of the teams we sent to play the world at our game or at the rules and regulations the world enforced against us.”

In Canada, it was felt that the Soviet Union was dominating the sport because professionals could not play in these tournaments or at the Olympics. That prevented the best hockey players in Canada, those who were in the NHL, from being able to compete internationally. In contrast, the Soviet players were all considered amateurs, and even though there skill level was easily on par with the NHL, they could play against amateur players. These players, who came from the legendary teams of CSKA Moscow, Dynamo and Spartak, played hockey full-time, trained constantly and were paid by the government.

With Canada seeming to fall behind internationally when it came to hockey, the Government of Canada created Hockey Canada to co-ordinate Canadian international play with the various amateur organizations in the country, as well as the NHL. That same year, the IIHF allowed the for the inclusion of nine professional players for any event for one year. Canada entered a team with five professionals in the Izvestia Tournament and nearly won it.

In response, the IIHF held an emergency meeting in January 1970 and decided to no longer allow professionals.

As a result of this, Canada withdrew from IIHF play and the 1970 IIHF World Championships, which were to be held in Canada for the first time, were moved to Sweden.

This brings us to the first rumblings of a tournament between the two hockey powerhouses, featuring NHL players.

During the winter of 1971-72, Gary Smith, a diplomat in the Soviet Union who was responsible for sport and cultural exchanges with the country, heard that the Soviet Union was looking for new challenges when it came to hockey.

Smith, seeing an opportunity, met with the sports editor of a newspaper in Moscow, who was able to get him in touch with Andrei Starovoitov STAR-OV-EE-OT-OV, the hockey boss for the Soviets. He told Smith that the Soviets were ready to play against the professional players from Canada.

The idea began to move through the channels and eventually reached Ambassador Robert Ford, who brought it to Ottawa to work with Hockey Canada to begin planning out the possible tournament.

On April 18, 1972, after negotiations were held at the Hotel International Prague during the 1972 World Ice Hockey Championship, an agreement was signed between the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association and the Soviet Union Ice Hockey Federation.

A Soviet spokesman would say quote:

“We may count on Canada fielding her actual best players, regardless of whether they’re amateurs or professionals.”

Gordon Juckes, a spokesman for the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, stated that both the NHL and the NHL Players Association had pledged their support to field a strong Canadian team.

Through the negotiations, it was agreed four games would be held in Canada in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver, while four games would be held in the Soviet Union, all in Moscow. It was also agreed that the tournament would be played in September and with international rules. IIHF referees from America would be used in Canada, and European referees would be used in Moscow, using a two referee system, with two linesmen. Money from the television broadcasts for games in Canada would remain in the country, while money for games in Moscow would stay in Europe.

Initial expectations in Canada were that players such as Bobby Orr, Bobby Hull and Ken Dryden would be on the team. As early as April 20, news reached the papers that Orr would definitely be playing, with his agent Alan Eagleson saying quote:

“He has expressed interest to do so.”

Bruins president Weston Adams Jr. would say there was no way Orr, or Phil Esposito, could play for the Canadian team as training camp was going to be happening in September. Sid Abel, manager of the St. Louis Blues, said he would not allow his players to play in the team.

Eagleson would say quote:

“It is unfortunate that the vested interests of the owners and general managers are interfering in this matter. As for Adams, he’s an American and couldn’t care less about a player’s loyalty to his country. As for Abel, he couldn’t care less and has no interest in Canada. He’s forgotten where he came from.”

Sam Pollack, manager of the Montreal Canadiens took a different stance, stating that any player on the Canadiens who was selected for the team could play. He would say quote:

“I’m sure every player who is a Canadian citizen will be willing to play.”

The Toronto Maple Leafs would also agree.

As we will see in the coming episodes, neither Orr nor Gordie Howe nor Bobby Hull, would be on the team due to injuries and anger over a rival league. We are getting ahead of ourselves though, as I will be talking about building the team in the next episode.

As for the Canadians and the Soviets, they both believed that their team would dominate the tournament with little difficulty.

Hockey icon Jean Beliveau would say on April 20 quote:

“There is no doubt in my mind the NHL will win.”

Beliveau, Canada and the Russians would be wrong.

That would very much prove to be the case.

Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, Wikipedia, Edmonton Journal, Ottawa Citizen, Vancouver Sun, Calgary Albertan, Windsor Star, Saskatoon Star Phoenix,

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