Commentary

Super Series evokes memories of 1972

Updated: September 5, 2007, 12:56 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

During his tour of duty as coach of Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the Russian elite league, Dave King was approached one night by an aging, barrel-chested man.

The man, clearly a hockey player of some kind, extended his hand, not to shake King's hand, but to show the former NHL and Canadian national team coach the ring on his finger. It was a ring that identified the man, defenseman Yuri Lyapkin, as a member of the fabled Russian national team that took part in what has come to be known as the 1972 Summit Series.

Paul Henderson
Melchior DiGiacomo/Getty ImagesDespite the international flavor in today's game, Paul Henderson's historic goal from the 1972 Summit Series hasn't lost its significance.

That ring signifies membership in a rare club, a club whose members were responsible for one of the most significant hockey moments in the history of the game.

The series punctuated by Paul Henderson's seminal goal with 34 seconds left in the eighth and final game in Moscow changed the face of international hockey forever. It made icons of the men who played on both teams and created memories that continue to intrude on game's consciousness 35 years later.

"It's a badge of honor, a badge of pride," King said of those players who took part in the tournament. "It puts them all in a very special category over there."

Imagine throwing a great stone into a deep, still pond and watching the ripples continue to move toward the shore. In some ways, this is the effect the Summit Series has had on the game.

"In some ways, it is surprising [that the Summit Series has continued to endure]," King told ESPN.com this week, "because 35 years is a long, bloody time. This event [the '72 series] should be well into the history of the game."

Yet it's not. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

"'72 was just so, so special," Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson said. "I think after 50 years, it'll still have the same footprint on the game in our country."

Nothing will ever replicate the emotion that permeated the first Summit Series; to suggest anything might do so, including this current junior version, is pure fantasy.

But it is possible to draw a line from that historic event to the latest endeavor which begins Monday in Ufa, Russia -- an eight-game series between major junior all-star teams from Canada and Russia. As Canadians and Russians prepare for this new collision called the Super Series, it's intriguing to imagine what might have happened had the Russians been able to close out the 1972 series, managed to win or tie just one more game on home ice after taking what looked to be an insurmountable 3-1-1 lead through five games.

When Henderson scored to secure the series victory, legendary broadcaster Foster Hewitt signaled the goal as "the goal heard 'round the world." It brought with it tremendous relief, not just for the players, but for an entire nation.

Super Series -- Schedule

The complete schedule for the 2007 Super Series, an eight-game event between junior national teams from Canada and Russia:

• Monday
Canada 4, Russia 2 (at Ufa, Russia)

• Wednesday
Canada 3, Russia 0 (at Ufa, Russia)

• Friday
Canada 6, Russia 2 (at Omsk, Russia)

• Saturday, Sept. 1
Canada vs. Russia (at Omsk, Russia

• Tuesday, Sept. 4
Russia vs. Canada (at Winnepeg)

• Wednesday, Sept. 5
Russia vs. Canada (at Saskatoon, Saskatchewan)

• Friday, Sept. 7
Russia vs. Canada (at Red Deer, Alberta)

• Sunday, Sept. 9
Russia vs. Canada (at Vancouver, B.C.)

Canadians recall where they were when Henderson scored the goal in the same way Americans remember where they were when President John F. Kennedy was shot or when Apollo 11 landed on the moon.

King was teaching grade 11 biology in Saskatchewan when the goal was scored and recalled students and teachers spilling out of classrooms and embracing each other.

While the Russians would continue to dominate the Olympics and World Championships for years to come, the Canadian victory in the '72 series was both a benchmark and a talisman for the nation. No matter what happened at international competitions, "We could always point back to '72," King said.

In Russia, the feelings about the series were a bit more complex.

"A lot of those guys and people in Russia view the series very differently [than the Canadian players]," King said. There is, he said, a sense of satisfaction at having competed with the best players in the NHL in the first best-on-best competition. And yet, there is tremendous disappointment at losing.

"Those guys made history," longtime Russian and NHL star Igor Larionov told ESPN.com. "It was like the first man on the moon."

He recalled meeting Henderson a few years ago and described what the series was like for him, an 11-year-old boy watching all of the games in his hometown outside Moscow. Instead of feeling anger over the result, Larionov said he thought the Canadians had tremendous spirit to overcome the obstacles they did in winning the series.

At that time, Canadians viewed the Russians as the great unknown -- mysterious, more than a little sinister. The Russians viewed the Canadians and their rich lifestyle with the same curiosity and apprehension. Players on both sides recalled how the series was not only a clash of different hockey styles, but of lifestyles and political ideologies.

In the end, Henderson's goal represented a victory of emotion over execution. Had it not ended that way, the entire focus of Canadian hockey for the past three decades would perhaps have been dramatically altered.

The notion that Canada holds a special place in the hockey universe was, and has been, enhanced by the Summit Series victory. Even now, King sees T-shirts in Canada that read, "Hockey, It's Our Game."

" '72 helped us to maintain and hang on to that," King said.

Not surprisingly, the changes in hockey over the past 35 years have been wholesale.

North American players regularly dot the rosters of Russia's elite league and a handful of coaches, like King, have found themselves behind the benches of Russian teams. The flow of Russian talent to North America, along with players from other European nations, has made the NHL the most global of all professional leagues.

King, who has written a book, "The King of Russia," with highly regarded hockey columnist Eric Duhatschek about his experiences in Russia, took advantage of his time in Russia to watch how the nation is developing its young talent.

Unlike Canada, which has a broad-based, inclusive approach to youth hockey, the Russians still hold on to the old ways -- identifying top talent at an early age and committing resources and attaching expectation to that small group.

"The hockey program is still old-style Russian hockey. It's not Russian, really, it's Soviet hockey," King said. "If you're not a good player, they aren't going to waste time and money on you."

The Super Series is a curious blend of the nostalgic and the new.

Vladislav Tretiak, the first Russian national team member enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame and the first true Russian star thanks to his play in the '72 series, is now the head of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation. He originally hoped to mark the 35th anniversary of the Summit Series with Canadian and Russian NHL players facing off in an eight-game series, but logistics made it impossible. So, the juniors (players under 20) are thrust into the spotlight. At least in some quarters, there remains some heightened anticipation at the outset of this tournament, as though the ghosts of that long-ago series are somehow naturally evoked.

"The Russians feel 'the rivalry' in the game of hockey is Canada-Russia," Nicholson said.

For the past three years, Canada's junior national team has won gold at the World Junior Championship. Each time, the Canadians have beaten the Russians. The year before the streak began, Russia beat Canada in the gold-medal game in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Now, the two teams, icing powerful junior squads that include top NHL draft picks such as Alexei Cherepanov, Karl Alzner and Sam Gagner along with phenom John Tavares, will play not just once, but eight times over the course of 14 days from Monday through Sept. 9. The first four games will be in Russia, while the final four will be in Canada. All eight contests will be broadcast live on Canadian television.

"We've seen the intensity in one game, so it's going to be a really interesting story when you play eight games," Nicholson said.

No one knows what the outcome will be. The series could sputter and become a footnote at the bottom of the Canada/Russia hockey page, or it could turn into something special, another chapter that will further strengthen the bond with 1972. The Canadians are expected to win, as they are expected to win every international competition.

"It's always a barometer for the game in Canada," Nicholson said. "If they don't win, the game will be under the microscope again.

"That's just the way it goes in Canada."

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.