According to Canadian “experts” it was a series that wasn’t going to be much of a series. Despite the Soviet Union having won nine consecutive world championships between 19, those had come against amateur competition – the Soviets would have no chance against Canada’s best NHLers in the 1972 Summit Series.
And when Phil Esposito and Paul Henderson scored in the first six minutes of Game 1 at the Montreal Forum, it appeared as if the Canadians were off and running towards the expected eight-game sweep.
But the Soviets tied the game before the end of the first period, and scored the only two goals of the second to take a 4-2 lead through 40 minutes. Bobby Clarke pulled Canada to within one early in the third period, but three unanswered goals from the Soviets put the finishing touches on a 7-3 win, stunning Canadian hockey fans from coast to coast.
Canada evened the series with a 4-1 Game 2 win in Toronto, but a 4-4 tie in Winnipeg and a 5-3 loss in Vancouver left the Canadians in a 2-1-1 hole, with the series heading to Moscow for the final four contests.
After Team Canada was booed off the ice in Vancouver, Esposito responded with an emotional outburst on national television, seen as one of the pivotal turning points of the series:
“To the people across Canada, we tried, we gave it our best, and to the people that boo us, geez, I'm really, all of us guys are really disheartened and we're disillusioned, and we're disappointed at some of the people. We cannot believe the bad press we've got, the booing we've gotten in our own buildings … I'm really, really... I'm really disappointed. I am completely disappointed. I cannot believe it. Some of our guys are really, really down in the dumps, we know, we're trying like hell. I mean, we're doing the best we can, and they got a good team, and let's face facts. But it doesn't mean that we're not giving it our 150%, because we certainly are … And I don't think it's fair that we should be booed.”
A 5-4 loss in Game 5 – a game which Canada led 3-0 after two periods and 4-1 midway through the third – left the Canadians needing three victories in three games to avoid an unexpected defeat in the series.
The comeback started with a 3-2 win in Game 6, capped off by Henderson’s game-winner 6:36 into the second period, and the Canadians even the series with a 4-3 Game 7 victory, finished off by another Henderson winner, this time with just 2:06 remaining.
The back-to-back wins set the stage for Game 8 – Sept.. With the game being played in the middle of the day in Canada, much of the country shut down to watch. Schools and offices came to a stand-still; on that day, hockey was all that mattered.
A back-and-forth first period saw the Soviets take a pair of one-goal leads, only to see the Canadians battle back twice to tie it, on goals from Esposito and Brad Park. An early second period goal from the Soviets was cancelled out thanks to a Bill White marker, but Soviet goals five minutes apart late in the middle frame sent the Canadians to the dressing room facing a 5-3 deficit with 20 minutes to go.
Esposito’s second goal of the game kick-started the Team Canada comeback at 2:27, and Yvan Cournoyer tied it at 12:56, setting the stage for a wild finish.
The Soviets claimed that if the game, and series, ended in a tie, they would be proclaimed the winners thanks to a 32-31 edge in goals. But Henderson made sure that wouldn’t be necessary, scoring one of the greatest goals in Canadian hockey history with just 34 seconds to go, his third game-winner in as many games.
“Here’s a shot! Henderson made a wild stab for it and fell. Here’s another shot, right in front. They score! Henderson has scored for Canada!” was Foster Hewitt’s memorable call, accompanying arguably the No. 1 where-were-you-when moment in Canadian sports, capping off a series for the ages and starting what remains today, 40 years later, the greatest rivalry in international hockey.