The Summit Series (Part Two): The Roster Is Chosen

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With the negotiations done and everything agreed upon, it was time to form the team. At the time, Canada had some of the greatest players in the history of the game playing in the NHL. There was of course Bobby Orr, along with his teammate Phil Esposito. Ken Dryden was a the hotshot goalie for the Canadiens, while other players such as Bobby Clarke, Brad Park, Gilbert Perreault and Frank Mahovlich.

In order to make the team roster possible, it fell to a man who was heralded as a visionary at the time, but who would fall from grace in a few decades time, Alan Eagleson.

Eagleson, who was the president of the NHL Players’ Union and the director of Hockey Canada, would now emerge as a central figure despite not taking part in the negotiations. With a large network of connections to players, owners, Hockey Canada executives and businesses around Canada, he would begin to bring the pieces together. In order to get the NHL owners on board, it was agreed some of the proceeds from the series would go to the NHL player’s pension fund, which reduced payments for the owners. As the agent for several players, including Bobby Orr, he also told them his clients would play without their approval, forcing the owners to get on board.

Before we go further, who exactly was Eagleson?

A prominent lawyer in Toronto, he became involved in hockey through Bob Pulford, a player with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Eagleson quickly began to realize that he would be able to create a players’ union and he began to sign Leafs’ players as clients, including Andy Bathgate, one of the most prominent players in the NHL at the time. When Bathgate was traded to Detroit, this allowed Eagleson to pursue Red Wing players as clients.

He would take on young phenom Bobby Orr as a client, which would allow him to eventually become the most powerful man in the NHL by the end of the 1970s with clients such as Lanny McDonald, Darryl Sittler and several others.

There is a lot more to the Eagleson story, especially in terms of FBI charges for racketeering and embezzlement, but I am not getting into that here. This is the story of the Summit Series, not the fall from grace of Eagleson.

When it came to the Summit Series, the Globe and Mail described Eagleson as the quote:

“manager and motivator, travel agent and godfather, firebrand and peacemaker.”

Throughout the year, Eagleson travelled on a regular basis to work with owners and players to get players for the first Team Canada.

Now to building this legendary team.

To coach the team, Harry Sinden was brought on, having coached the Bruins to the Stanley Cup in 1970 before he retired only days after due to his rocky relationship with Bruins management. Sinden was willing to take on the position and Hockey Canada approved the position. John Ferguson would be brought on to serve as the assistant coach to Sinden.

On July 12, 35 Canadian players were announced for the team by Sinden.

The Montreal Canadiens were well-represented with six players from the team, five of whom would wind up in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

The Boston Bruins, despite being the best team in hockey, had only three players on the team in Esposito, Don Awrey and Wayne Cashman would all play.

The Vancouver Canucks, the third Canadian team, would have no players on the team, but the Toronto Maple Leafs would have only two, Paul Henderson and Ron Ellis.

Of the top 10 players in regards to points from the 1971-72 season, only Bobby Hull and Johnny Bucyk were not included on the team. Three players on the team had scored 50 or more goals in a season, while five had scored over 40 more goals, while six had 30 or more goals in a season. The total goal output of the players on the team was 752 in the 1971-72 season.

Sinden would say of the team quote:

“We were looking for balance, between youth and experience, and defence and finess and aggressiveness.”

As the team would later find out, goals was not all that mattered when it came to beating the Soviets.

One very noticeable absence from Toronto on Team Canada was Dave Keon, the legendary Maple Leaf who had not signed a contract with the Maple Leafs by the cutoff day for Team Canada. Some questioned why Tremblay and others were added to the team then, and Keon left off, even though they had not signed contracts yet.

Other criticisms for those left off were Garry Unger, who played for St. Louis and had 70 points the previous season. There was also the question of why Jacques Plante, the legendary veteran goalie was not included, at least for his experience.

Sinden would refuse to discuss any players who were not invited to be part of the team, stating quote:

“I think it would be very unethical for me to discuss them.”

From the American teams, other than Boston, there would be representatives from the Flyers, Rangers, Black Hawks, North Stars, Sabres and Red Wings. Of the American teams, The New York Rangers and Chicago Black Hawks each had five players on the roster once all the shuffling was done. Interestingly, the roster included two sets of brothers with Frank and Pete Mahovlich, and Phil and Tony Esposito.

Despite some players not playing, the roster was still stacked. Of the 28 players who actually took to the ice in at least one game, 13 would go on to be in the Hockey Hall of Fame, while 11 would be selected in 2017 as one of the 100 greatest NHL players ever.

Only seven players would play in every game for Team Canada in the series.

As could be expected, several players were just happy to be called up to the team, including the young Bobby Clarke, who was still a year removed from his first of three Hart trophies, and two years away from winning his first of two Stanley Cups. He would say quote:

“I’ve played the Swedes and Czechs while I was a junior and never the Russians. How did I do? Well, I was only 17 so I didn’t get on the ice much.”

Pete Mahovlich was also surprised to be selected and would say of the Russians quote:

“I don’t think you can intimidate them. No, in the end it will have to be superior talent that wins out and we’ve got that. And if you try to run at them over there, the crowd will be calling penalties. Our advantage will be the ice surface. Some people think we’ll be put off by the bigger surface but man, that’ll make us click.”

Harold Ballard, owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs and no fan of the WHA, even felt it was too much stating quote:

“This is the unofficial world series of hockey and we want to win.”

Phil Reimer, who was the Governor of Hockey Canada, would resign over the issue out of protest. Even Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau made a personal appeal but Doug Fisher, who was the chair of Hockey Canada, refused to re-open the agreement.

Trudeau would say quote:

“I don’t think it’s a final proposition, that we will be playing without Hull. I am not sure but I understand that negotiations are going on and I hope we will manage to have Bobby Hull in the lineup.”

Trudeau would send out several telegrams over the matter to the president of the NHL, the president of the Player’s Union and the president of Hockey Canada.

He stated in the telegrams quote:

“You are aware of the intense concern, which I share with millions of Canadians in all parts of our country, that Canada should be represented by its hockey players, including Bobby Hull, and all those named by Team Canada, in the forthcoming series with the Soviet Union. On behalf of these Canadians, I urge Hockey Canada, the National Hockey League and the National Hockey League Players Association to take whatever steps may be necessary to make this possible.”

Despite his attempts, Trudeau was unsure beyond that how the federal government could intervene in the matter. He would say quote:

“I don’t know in what sense you want the weight of the federal government to be placed. If we put pressure on Hockey Canada and we end up without an agreement, it wouldn’t be a very useful thing for us to have done.”

Some even thought that the exclusion of Hull could be an election issue in the upcoming election. Steve Paproski, a Progressive Conservative MP, would say quote:

“I thought this was going to be Canada’s team and then Clarence Campbell says it will be an NHL team with no exceptions and then Hockey Canada, cabinet ministers and the prime minister say they aren’t going to contradict Campbell. I wouldn’t believe it if I didn’t hear the prime minister say it over the radio.”

He would predict that it would become an election issue, especially if Team Canada lost to the Russians just prior to the October election. He added quote:

“Trudeau blew it again. He didn’t realize how important this was to the country, especially Western Canada. It is another example of discrimination against the West.”

The matter would be brought up in the House of Commons, and a lengthy debate among cabinet ministers was held but beyond pushing for something to be done, there was nothing else that the government did over the matter.

Fisher would say quote:

“No consideration was given to the possibility that players would be chosen from other leagues, amateur or professional.”

As could be expected, many sports writers were quick to criticize the entire matter. Jack Koffman with the Ottawa Citizen wrote quote:

“What would you think of an All-Star major league baseball team today without Johnny Bench, the best catcher in the game? Giving Bobby Hull the thumb is like saying Babe Ruth shouldn’t be in Baseball’s Hall of Fame despite all his home runs because he started as a pitcher.”

Manitoba Tourism Minister Larry Desjardins would send a telegram to Health Minister Munro to protest the exclusion of Hull on Team Canada, stating it was a blow to Winnipeg hockey fans.

At the time, Hull was the second highest scorer in the history of the NHL behind Gordie Howe, and the only man at the time to ever score 50 goals or more in a season five different times.

Hull would state about the matter quote:

“Well then, it is the NHL against the Russians, not Canada. That is what it amounts to. This is supposed to be Hockey Canada, that’s the name of the game. The name of the team is Team Canada isn’t it? They’ll have to change the name to Hockey NHL.”

Ben Hatskin, owner of the Winnipeg Jets, with whom Hull signed, stated quote:

“Is this a Canadian team or an NHL team? I think Canada is bigger than both the NHL and WHA.”

Hull would add regarding his own talks with Sinden quote:

“Harry Sinden and I talked about it before and I asked him about this. I’m picking the team and I’ll have the players that I want on my team. So I guess they’ve changed his mind too but I think Harry Sinden has got more guts than that.”

There would be several adjustments made to the roster prior to training camp taking place. Dennis Hull, brother of Bobby Hull, was going to choose not to play over the issue with his brother being excluded. Bobby Hull would convince his brother to play for the team. Cheevers, after signing with the WHA, was replaced with Eddie Johnston, a teammate of Cheevers with Boston. Sanderson was replaced by hockey legend Stan Mikita, while Rick Martin replaced Bobby Hull.

Bobby Orr, the best player in the league, could not play due to being injured but he would remain with the team and practice with the team.

Seven other players were also part of Team Canada and did not play any games. There was the aforementioned Orr, as well as Brian Glennie, Jocelyn Guevremont, Dale Tallon, Marcel Dionne, Rick Martin and Eddie Johnston. Of those players, Orr and Dionne would wind up in the Hall of Fame, and on the list of the 100 greatest players in NHL history.

Three junior age players were also invited to training camp, all clients of Eagleson, but they would play no games and were drafted into the NHL five weeks before the Team Canada roster was selected.

It was decided that everyone who agreed to report for the team would be guaranteed a spot and no one would have to compete for a position. This would lead to several players having much more time on the ice than others during the series.

The Montreal Star would state quote:

“Coach Sinden said from the start that when he gathers his players on August 13 in Toronto for the start of training, he won’t regard it as a tryout camp. In other words, those named are part of the team and will go wherever the team goes.”

Esposito, Mikita, Mahovolich and Jean Ratelle were named co-captains for the team.

The team would be called, of course, Team Canada, which was questioned by some. Rod Coldham out of Ottawa would send a letter to the editor at the Ottawa Citizen, stating quote:

“Now we have Team Canada as the name for our national hockey team. I find the title not only puzzling, but ridiculous. Before we know it, the Canadian flag will become Flag Canada. The CNR should have evolved into Rail Canada long ago. And why is there so much fuss about selecting a new name for Dominion Day? Day Canada is the obvious choice.”

Training camp would begin on Aug. 13, and Canada would prepare for a series for the ages. I will look at that in the next episode.

Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Hockey Hall of Fame, CBC, Macleans, Wikipedia, Montreal Star, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Ottawa Journal, Windsor Star, Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, Edmonton Journal.

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