The 1972 Summit Series was actually about hockey


If you watched any games of the recent World Junior Hockey Championship over the holidays you were probably treated to an aggressive advertising campaign. The subject matter was the 1972 Summit Series, an eight-game series played by an NHL all-star squad against an all-star squad from the Soviet Union which ended with Paul Henderson scoring the decisive goal in game eight in Moscow.
These commercials urged you to watch the re-telling of one of Canada’s most over-told and over-analyzed hockey stories, promoting a documentary that blurred the line between “sports” and “history”.
The ads read: “Come hear what ex-professional hockey player Bobby Clarke said about the Russians!” (Spoiler: he hated them.) How scandalous! “Come hear what ex-professional hockey player Paul Henderson thought was the only situation analogous to the Summit Series! “(Spoiler: “A war.”) How intense!
HBO provided the most recent account of the games with the first episode in their series of sub-30 minute documentaries, “Sports on Fire” which, according to the information provided on HBO’s website, aims to dig for the untold story and engage in “full-on myth-busting.” This episode is titled “A Cold War”, which represents the standard interpretation of this series.
The format of the show is familiar: testimonials from players, journalists, and authors, complemented by footage of the eight games. However, the visuals provided also include footage of the Second World War, bombing raids, and nuclear bomb testing, all to reinforce the fact that yes, we insist, this game symbolized the Cold War for Canadians.
This is certainly not the first instance of intermixing Cold War politics with the 1972 Summit Series, but it has become the only way in which we understand the games themselves: through the context of war. The hockey becomes a mere plot device within the grand political narrative played out by brave Canadians against an ultra-talented, mechanized, and mysterious Soviet opponent.
This is the way that the Summit Series is retold to Canadians over and over again, without any critical examination of whether this narrative is useful in understanding the series now that the Cold War has subsided. Certainly, there is no divorcing the Summit Series from its historical context and it is true that Canada and the Soviet Union had two vastly different societies in the 1970s.
However, this context has warped the way Canadians remember the games themselves. Any and all behaviour in this context is now excused—and in some cases glorified—no matter how violent or grotesque, because the players were simply pawns in a greater societal struggle against Communism.
The interviews of the players themselves in “A Cold War” contradict the way in which the documentary was marketed to Canadians. Bobby Clarke, the perpetrator of a vicious slash on Russian superstar Valeri Kharlamov, is earnest and believable when he says to the camera that he had no interest in politics or the Cold War because his frame of reference was much different growing up in a small Canadian town.
Ken Dryden makes many salient points about the series’ effect on the game of hockey in the 1970s, but his qualified analysis is consistently undercut by dewy-eyed recollections of Bobby Clarke’s sociopathy during the games themselves. What is forgotten is that the violence that came out in the Summit Series was still rooted in a hockey context. Clarke, for example, was certainly unhinged during the eight-game Summit Series, but would have been just as volatile if those games were against the Boston Bruins.
Documentaries like “A Cold War”—and countless others before it—remove the games from an athletic context and instead place them in the service of political allegory. Time and again, we look to the professional athletes of the Summit Series to fill in a sort of Cold War mad-lib, lauding their actions as if they were freedom fighters rather than simply hockey players.