In the traditional month of September, the NHL revived World Cup will be played this year, the same month when the tournament that started it all, Canada-USSR was played 44 years ago in 1972. That tournament, won narrowly by Canada 4-3-1 revolutionized world and NHL hockey. Canada actually won it without its two best players at the time, Bobby Orr and Bobby Hull. Orr was rehabilitating from one his numerous famous knee operations that would ultimately end his career, and Hull had become a pariah to the NHL because he was the first big name to sign a WHA contract.
But the thrilling series is considered the ultimate in Canadian hockey though the 1976 Canada Cup won by Canada with Bobby Orr giving virtually his last great swan song by being named the tournament most valuable player, and the 1987 Canada victory in which Mario Lemieux got a chance to play regularly on the same line as Wayne Gretzky, with Lemieux scoring the winning goal against the USSR in the Final at the last minute in Hamilton (still shamefully excluded from having a team in the NHL), comes close.
But nothing will probably top the “Series Of The Century” in Canadian minds. School children were let out early to watch Game 8 from Moscow. There has been a commemorative postage stamp issued, books, and trinkets created. The two greatest Canadian players from the team most responsible for victory, Paul Henderson and Phil Esposito are now immortalized in Canada forever.
As noted above, the series revolutionized hockey. One of the things that made a lasting impression on Canadian fans was the great physical shape of the Soviet players. It was argued that one of the main reasons that the Soviet players were able to compete as “equals” to the famous NHL players was that they were in good condition physically and the Canadian players were not. From that time on under fitness guru Lloyd Percival’s guidance, woe to the NHL player who let himself get out of shape during the NHL off season. Now if he let himself drink beer and get fat, his very NHL career would be on the line. Better conditioning and fitness for every would-be NHL player was a permanent legacy from 1972.
The other lasting revolutionary change was the difference in attitude of most Canadians to European hockey. Before the 1972 series, most Canadians knew nothing about international hockey except the tiny few that played it and followed it. Canada used to win international hockey tournaments easily with amateur teams. The Trail Smoke Eaters were the last amateur team to win a World Championship in 1961.
But after 1961, the USSR and other European teams like Czechoslovakia and Sweden began to dominate international play and talk began to increase that Canada now needed to send its best players. But most Canadians including the majority of NHL players dismissed such an idea with contempt and laughter. They believed that they were so far ahead of everybody else that any competition would be a mismatched joke. No Europeans competed in the NHL and the majority of Canadians were content to remain ignorant about European hockey.
But as the defeats piled up and Canada no longer dominated international hockey, public pressure finally created the Canada-USSR series in 1972. So ignorant was Canada about the Soviets that there was even speculation in the Canadian media that a team of NHL “goons” would be sufficient to produce an 8 game sweep.
But a 7-3 humiliating thrashing in the first game in Montreal wiped out the ignorant Canadian attitude forever. Except for the game in Toronto, for the remaining games in Canada, the Soviets served up a course of humble pie. When the last of the Canadian section of games finished in Vancouver, Canada was being jeered and booed by their own fans, prompting Phil Esposito’s famous outburst that ultimately pulled Team Canada together.
Of course Canada went on to win the series on foreign ice in Moscow narrowly saving Canadian pride forever. But the closeness of the competition and the high standard of play changed Canada’s attitude to European hockey forever. Gone was contempt; respect took its place. Now every Canadian fan wanted to see frequent rematches, again and again. Soviet players particularly defeated goaltender Vladislav Tretiak became popular Canadian heroes. Canadians were faced with a choice and they gave an almost unanimous answer: They wanted to see the best hockey players no matter where they came from.
So within two years, the first European players Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom from Sweden crossed the Atlantic to join the Toronto Maple Leafs and the European penetration of the NHL began. Initially the invasion was from non-Iron Curtain countries. The first European who made a significant contribution to a Stanley Cup victory was probably Stefan Persson of the New York Islanders.
More frequent European competition against the NHL occurred. In 1976, the first Canada Cup was played. Russian club teams like Central Red Army made NHL tours. And still North Americans wanted to see more top European players. When the Quebec Nordiques joined the NHL after the WHA folded in 1980, one of their first moves to turn themselves into instant competitors was to arrange the escape of the first significant Czechoslovakian players to make an impact in the NHL, the Stastny brothers. And when the Iron Curtain ended in 1989, Russian players were finally free to make their fortunes in the NHL.
Today nobody blinks if an NHL team has a significant number of European and American players. And each NHL team is expected to have a large European scouting staff. At the junior level in the CHL, Europeans come to play and be developed. And when the World Cup is played this year, the players from the various countries will not be playing against strangers but against teammates and friends. Now the World Cup is simply a reshuffling of the NHL deck.
But there is still more integration to come. Europeans still have not really penetrated the NHL coaching, management, and executive levels yet though they do play significant roles in the NHL European scouting system. And will there one day be a European Conference of the NHL that competes for the Stanley Cup with Canadians and Americans now living and playing in Europe just like the Europeans do in North America?
It all dates back to the 1972 Canada-USSR series. The USSR may have lost that series, but in the long run, the Russians and the other Europeans were the big winners.