And I was there to report it’
Like millions of Canadians I remember exactly where I was when Paul Henderson scored the goal that won the 1972 Summit Series for Canada against the Soviet Union: in the stands behind and to the right of the Canadian bench in Moscow’s Luzhniki Ice Palace. The date was September 28, 1972. I was reporting for Time magazine.
Truth to tell: I really didn’t see how Paul Henderson scored the historic goal. I mean, I could not have described it. I knew from the lusty roars from the 3,000 Canadians on the other side of the rink, and the red light behind Russian goaler Vladislav Tretiak, that Canada had taken a 6-5 lead in the deciding eighth game of the series. But my seat was at the opposite end of the rink from the Russian goal. The “Palace” was so ancient there was no gondola, no press box. Fans and other reporters, craning for a vantage point of the scramble at the Soviet net, obscured my view. I looked up at the clock: 34 seconds remained in the game. Improbably, Canada had come from behind again in an historic match that changed the face of hockey as Don Cherry knew it.
Memories are made of this. But there were so many more. This, after all, was still the “Cold War” and for the players it was “our way of life against theirs.” Chillingly, when it was all over, Esposito declared: “I would have killed them to win.” His teammate Bobby Clarke did a handsome imitation when he broke the left ankle of Soviet star Valeri Kharlamov with a two-hander in Game 6.
The same brutal hostility extended at times to the media. The Summit Series attracted many reporters like me who were not on the regular NHL beat. By the time the team left Canada down two games to one (with one tie), and with predictions of an eight-game sweep in tatters, reporters also joined the team’s enemy list. One night in Moscow, working alone in the media centre at the Rossiya Hotel, I looked up from my typewriter—yes, typewriter—to see burly assistant coach John Ferguson standing there with a scowl. Looking around the room and placing his right hand on his neck in a chocking motion, he announced: “You are doing a great job fellas.”
Not everyone was hostile. On the day of Game 8, I asked Ken Dryden if he and his wife, Lynda, would like to join me in some site seeing. In those days, Time bureaus were only a notch below U.S. embassies abroad in prestige and I was able to borrow the Time car and driver for a tour with the Dryden’s. Felix, the bureau fixer, spirited us to the little-known gravesite of the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev at Novodevichy cemetery south west of the city centre on the Moscow River. It was the resting place of Soviet war heroes, writers and statesmen—but fearing spontaneous memorials to Khrushchev, authorities in the Brezhnev era who deposed him had placed it off limits. The other site we visited that day, unknown to most Muscovites, was a shop on an obscure street that sold imported cigarettes and food—from Israeli orange juice to German sausage—in return for American currency. Dryden joked years later about my role in the outcome of the series—that the relaxing hours we spent touring Moscow’s back streets allowed him to take his mind off the game that night.
Actually I had arrived in Moscow to cover the series as a tourist. Because of a late assignment, I did not travel with Team Canada. Instead, I booked a tourist package and flew with a group on an Aeroflot Ilyushin jet. In those days, the Soviets did not have the capacity—or willingness—to handle individual or small groups. Instead, we were segregated into groups of 30 with a designation—ours was Beaver One as I recall. Beaver Ones stayed at the same hotel, in the same wing; Beaver Ones ate breakfast and dinner together; they went to the Bolshoi as a group; they took the bus to the games together, they sat together—and they were subjected to the same surly, Soviet oversight from officials, and the joyous, embracing warmth of Muscovites in the streets. After a couple of nights pounding on a typewriter in a shared room, I took pity on my Beaver One colleagues and moved to a suite occupied by the CTV crew.
My, how those Beaver Ones and others could cheer. Gazing across the ice at Luzhniki, there was a massive wall of grey-suited Soviet spectators, mostly favoured bureaucrats we suspected, surrounding a brawling, cheering oasis of red and white. “Da-da-CAN-A-DA, Nyet-Nyet-Soviet,” they chanted. The outpouring clearly lifted the Canadian team—they came from two goals back to tie the score at 5-5 in the last period of the last game. Fatefully, the Russians then passed word to the Canadian bench that, in the event of a tie, they would declare victory because they had scored more goals than Canada in the series, 32-30. With less than a minute left, the Canadians knew they had to score.
For the record, through the miracle of YouTube I can report the following five seconds of action:
Jean Cournoyer intercepts a Soviet clearing pass on the right side. He fires a shot wide of Soviet goalie Tretiak. Paul Henderson, falling to the ice, stabs at the puck trying to direct it to the net, but he crashes into the boards and the puck bounces to Tretiak’s right, at the feet of two Soviet defensemen. They both fail to clear it. Esposito grabs the lose puck and, his back to the net, fires a weak shot on Tretiak. Improbably, he fails to smother the soft shot and the puck bounces in front. By now, Henderson is back on his feet in front of the net. He slaps the puck. Tretiak stops it. But there is another rebound. This time, Henderson slides it under the sprawling net minder. Broadcaster Foster Hewett, in a call for the ages, tells millions back home watching on national TV: “Henderson has scored for Canada.”