A shrinking generation of Canadians who can remember the 1972 Summit Series, and fewer of those who played in it alive with each passing year, gave documentarians urgent reasons in addition to a 50th anniversary to retell an epic hockey story.
With archival footage never seen before, a four-part “Summit 72” series starting Wednesday on CBC and CBC Gem recounts the eight-game series between Canada and the Soviet Union transforming not only the sport, but Canada’s identity.
“I was 26 years old in 1972. The Canadian flag was only six years old,” Canadian team defenceman Serge Savard told The Canadian Press.
“It was questioned all over Canada, the Maple Leaf. As soon as we put the flag in front of our jerseys and millions watched us play, and we won, you never heard anything about the flag. It was our flag. Nobody made a bad comment about the flag after that.”
A half-century later, the Summit Series is in danger of fading from the Canadian hockey consciousness.
Gretzky-to-Lemieux to win the 1987 Canada Cup or Sidney Crosby’s golden overtime goal in the 2010 Winter Olympics are more recent and vivid hockey moments than the Summit Series.
“The burden of responsibility is, this is the last crack at it,” documentary series producer Nicholas de Pencier said. “If it is going to live on, become part of an ongoing patrimony, this 50th anniversary is the opportunity.”
It was important to de Pencier’s team to recount for posterity the personal relationships and Cold War geopolitics that made the Summit Series unique, as well as retell a riveting hockey story to people with widely different degrees of familiarity with it.
“The most challenging part was telling the story anew,” co-producer Ravi Baichwal said. “A lot of people of a certain generation know the story, but a lot of younger people don’t know the story.
“When you boil down the story sometimes, it gets too simplified, that Canada basically won at the last minute despite the fact that they were expected to win all the games. That is true, but there was so much more that went into it.
“The country went on this insane, high-intensity ride with the team and it became way more than just about hockey. I think it’s a great yarn that will continue to be told, but it will never be told in a fulsome way like this again.”
Even if they’re not old enough to have watched the Summit Series, Canadians of a certain vintage are at least familiar with the narrative that a bunch of their stars drawn from different NHL teams — many of whom did not like each other at the beginning — were expected to wipe the floor with the Soviets in 1972.
The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies turned the hockey showdown into a symbolic clash of cultural and political systems.
The nastiness and raw emotion on the ice — “you start doing things that you had no idea were in you,” Canadian goaltender Ken Dryden says in the documentary — and off-ice gamesmanship elevated the stakes far beyond winning and losing.
The Canadians nearly met their hockey comeuppance at the hands of the fitter Soviets, but pulled together to win the series on behalf of a young nation that had celebrated its centennial just five years earlier.
Televisions were rolled into schoolrooms and business halted across Canada on Sept. 28, 1972, for the decisive Game 8 victory capped by Paul Henderson’s winner with 34 seconds remaining in Moscow.
“I think it’s important for Canadians to realize there was a time when the whole country came together,” defenceman Brad Park said. “This is probably the biggest reason that it did at this time. It’s part of the history of Canada.
“What they tell me is they’ve been able to enhance the video from that time. I’m very anxious to see that.”
Surviving Canadian and Russian players — 22 have died in intervening years — and the voice of Summit Series play-by-play announcer Foster Hewitt provide much of the documentary’s narration over some new archival footage.
“We thought there were maybe around 30 reels of 16-millimetre film from the original documentary that never really got made, that have sort of been raided a few times over the decades for various projects, but most of which has never been seen,” de Pencier said.
“There were almost 100 reels. It’s this time capsule from 50 years ago and we were able to transfer it all over to 4k.”
After Wednesday’s premiere, the remaining three one-hour episodes will air every Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET.