Summit Series: Ancient history revisited

Summit Series: Ancient history revisited
CBC has latest take on an event that `has faded into the background,' by Garth Woolsey
Apr. 8, 2006. 08:40 AM
GARTH WOOLSEY

"Where were you in '72?"

It is a question that has been asked, and answered, repeatedly ever since that seminal hockey Summit Series in 1972, when Canada won the historic showdown with the Soviet Union.

Ask that question today, though, and you're seriously dating yourself. Ask it of someone like Mike Miceli and the answer is: "I wasn't alive in 1972."

Pause.

"But," adds Miceli, "I know what you're talking about."

Miceli is 20, a student at George Brown College who works part-time in the pro shop at Ted Reeve Arena in Toronto's east end. He didn't start playing hockey until he was 13 but says he probably became aware of the iconic series and the folklore surrounding it when he was about 10.

"I was a Leaf fan and somewhere along the line I heard on TV about Paul Henderson and the Russia-Canada rivalry," he says as kids and parents come and go on one of the final weekends of the hockey season. "Me and my friends watched the DVD box set. When Canada finally won the gold at the Olympics (in 2002) we all realized what a big deal it must have been to be a Canadian back in '72."

It really is hard to be born and raised in Canada and not know something about the Summit Series. The CBC's new docudrama Canada Russia '72, to air tomorrow and Monday, starting both nights at 8 p.m., is only the latest major reminder. When the Dominion Institute listed the greatest events in Canadian history, the Henderson goal to defeat the Soviets in our national game ranked No. 5. The only more "historic" events: Confederation (1867), completing the Canadian Pacific Railway (1885), the War of 1812 and Vimy Ridge (1917).

"Who says nothing lasts forever?" Canadian defenceman Guy Lapointe said at the time. "This series will."

Still, there is the suspicion that at least half of us may be getting tired of being told we should care passionately about something we did not ourselves live through. Canada's population in 1972 was about 22 million. Today it has grown to approximately 33 million, with the median age at a little over 38. Meaning more than half of us are too young to have any immediate memories of anything that happened 34 years ago, in 1972. And that estimate does not take into account immigrants.

Baby boomers, representing the largest bubble running through the population stream, have had a proportionately or even greater effect upon our culture than any other group, whether it be in music, business, government or sport. Is this another case of navel-gazing? Foisting cherished memories upon a generation that would prefer to form its own?

"My sense is that the event has faded into the background," says Peter Donnelly, who teaches a "Hockey in Canadian culture" course at the University of Toronto. "Students are aware that something `important' happened, but do not really get it now unless the whole Cold War/non-NHL Canadians getting their asses kicked at worlds and Olympics context is explained. They know their grandparents (even parents) are conscious of the importance (if they were in Canada at the time)."

Donnelly is 62 and arrived in Canada, via the U.K. and the United States, in 1976. He feels he has been able to bring an outsider's perspective to a uniquely Canadian history he has been studying, and teaching, for many years. Living history is different that studying it, he adds.

"Of course, in the final analysis, it was a sports event as such, it is difficult to see or imagine anything other than the symbolic impact of the event," says Donnelly. "This type of symbolic (and obviously emotional) impact is unlikely to have staying power for those who did not experience it."

Still, the stories that have been passed down father to son are something special. Maclean's magazine has said of the series: "It was to Canadians what Neil Armstrong's walking on the moon was to Americans."

"I definitely care," 22-year-old forward Kyle Wellwood of the Maple Leafs tells the Star's Paul. Hunter. "Those were great games. I've seen the whole series. I had the DVDs. I've watched the whole thing. It's definitely interesting just in hearing from my dad that they brought TVs into the classrooms in the schools just so everyone could watch those final games. I know how much it meant to Canada."

Adds sometime Leaf and Toronto Marlies defenceman Brendan Bell, 23: "I've got the boxed set of all eight games on tape. I've watched them all. I could probably name off every member of that team. That was kind of the watershed moment for Canadian hockey, to beat the Russians. It's a big part of our hockey history, even for young kids that weren't around."

Playing hockey for a living, having grown up in the culture of the rink, helps keep the stories alive. Not every young Canadian has had such immersion.

E.L. Doctrow, the author and historian, has said: "History is the present. That's why every generation writes it anew. But what most people think of as history is its end product, myth."

Well, some myths are better than others.

It will always be easier for those who lived through it to understand the paranoia that reigned, on both sides, during the Cold War than for those who have only seen it depicted on the History Channel.

Linda Bott was in Grade 5 in '72. She remembers the national hoo-haw and says her daughter 13-year-old Jessica, playing at Ted Reeve for a Leaside house league team has heard about the Summit Series in part because her father, Frank, is a big hockey fan and an assistant coach with her team. "But most girls her age maybe wouldn't know exactly what went on, maybe not even the year," says Bott. "What most of them would know, though, is about the Canadian women winning the Olympic gold medal."

Boys, too, have more recent frames of reference. Ian MacInnis, 13, a house league player in the Don Mills organization that his father Peter helps run, plays a little game of uncoached Q&A:

Q: Does "1972" mean anything to you?

A: No.

Q: Summit Series?

A: No.

Q: Paul Henderson?

A: No.

Q: Canada-Russia hockey?

A: Yeah. Olympics. Turin.

Recent history: 1. Ancient history: 0.

Relatively few girls even played hockey in 1972 (the year the Soviet men won their third successive Olympic hockey gold, at Sapporo, Japan) or even dreamed of a women's team wearing the maple leaf. Much has changed in 3 1/2 decades. For reference: That same month, in September of '72, two iconic, but now very dated, TV series debuted M*A*S*H and The Waltons. They, too, keep cropping up in reruns.

Another mother watching her daughter play at Ted Reeve admits that while she was 9 in 1972 she doesn't recall watching the series. Not interested. Still not a big hockey fan (she asks to remain nameless as "I don't want to sound ignorant about sports"), she says she wants her own kids to know about '72 "it's our responsibility to educate them."

Bringing history alive, educating entertainingly, is a CBC speciality. Whether it is Tommy Douglas winning the Greatest Canadian runoff or flashback footage on Hockey Night In Canada.

Foster Hewitt's voice clip, as Henderson beat Vladislav Tretiak for the 6-5 goal at 19:26 of the final period of Game 8 in Moscow, has been aired countless times. Hear it now and it sounds distant, scratchy, dated. Hewitt himself has been dead since 1985, but in some imaginations his words sound as if they were spoken yesterday:

"Here's a shot. Henderson makes a wild stab for it and falls. Here's another shot. Right in front. They score! Henderson has scored for Canada!"

A call for the ages. Or, at least, for two nights of entertaining TV.