by Richard Vanduyvendyk
Fifty years ago this month, the best hockey players from Canada and the USSR met for the first time during The Cold War. Almost all of us over 60 have our memories of this historic event.
Ice Breaker is a new movie about the Canada/USSR series that changed hockey forever. The film premiered in Perth on Tuesday, September 6, at the Studio Theatre. Gary Smith, a resident of Perth and author of the book Ice War Diplomat, was a Russian-speaking Canadian diplomat in the Soviet Union during the hockey series. He helped to set up the hockey series with Russia. His book was the inspiration for many parts of the movie. His book, reviewed by Edith Cody-Rice in the Millstone News, led to The Millstone’s invitation to the premiere. “Ice War Diplomat is an engrossing book and an effective vehicle to showcase Canada’s diplomatic service.” —Edith Cody-Rice, Millstone News.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of this historic event, two award-winning filmmakers, Robbie Hart of Adobe Productions International in Montreal and Peter Raymont of White Pine Pictures in Toronto, teamed up to produce a groundbreaking feature documentary, ICE-BREAKER – The ’72 Summit Series. The film builds suspense by chronologically reviewing each game and the reactions of the press, key players, the Soviets and the general public. I felt like I was there again, reliving the highs and lows as the series unfolded.
The film captures the feelings of the times by combining archival footage of the games, interviews with hockey notables including Gretzky, Esposito, and Eagleson, and interviews with several Russian hockey players, including the famous goalie Vladislav Tretiak. The recollections of ordinary Canadians bring the memories into the homes of most of us who lived to witness this historic hockey series, giving the film a personal touch. The film reminds millions of us of televisions set up in school gyms across the country, people at work watching the final game, and a nation mesmerized by hockey. Gretzky called the series” The greatest hockey ever played.”
Ice Breaker is an excellent title on many levels. The best of the USSR and Canada played for the first time on ice, and our perceptions of each other changed, breaking down stereotypes on both sides. The film outlines that many believed Canada would win all the games and the Soviets would be sent back “to the cabbage fields.” There was a war on ice between the communist east and the free individualist west. The propaganda mills were spinning at full speed. Our arrogant, superior feelings had to adjust to the fact that we weren’t the only ones who could play hockey. By the end of the first game, hockey had changed forever. We were not entitled to win. As Tretiak said,” Hockey was a Canadian and a Russian game.” At the end of the games, we would shake hands and recognize each other as human beings.
Ice Breaker brings out that the concept of a “Team Canada” was in its infancy. Many Canadians played for rival teams and hated each other. To beat the Russians, it took several games to bond as one team with one goal. Several players left because they felt underplayed. Fans in Vancouver openly booed the Canadians. Canadians cheated by sitting on the Russian goalie and slashing and breaking the ankle of the Soviet’s top player, who had to leave the final three games. Doubts began to fill the minds of Canadians. Could we beat the Soviets in a fair game? After the 72 series, Team Canada became embraced as a concept. Children playing on the ice began to dream of playing for Montreal, Toronto, and Team Canada.
There will be tons of press focused on the Canadians’ persistence/never say die aspect of the games. The incredible Canadian fans in Moscow, the “come from behind” during the final three games and how the miracle of Paul Henderson’s last-second goals won the tournament. Still, the humanity and emotions of the Russians revealed in the film really struck me.
The Soviet players said it was a magical fairy tale to have won the first game, which left them emotionally unprepared to win the second game. One hundred fifty million fans watched the game across 11 time zones while Soviet government and military officials filled the stands in Moscow. The contrasts between the loud and boisterous Canadian fans and the quiet Soviet fans were apparent to all.
The Canadian team was invited to see a ballet and stayed for the first half to be polite. Esposito made an elegant bow toward the prima ballerina as the group left. During the final game, the prima ballerina came to encourage Esposito. He noticed her and went on to get a goal and two assists. The Soviet media(jokingly) blamed her for Canada winning the game! The Soviet players interviewed, Igor Larionov, Boris Mikhailov, and Alexander Yakushev spoke in glowing terms about the games and the Canadians. Tretiak said that the winner was really” the game of hockey.” Based on the Tarasov model, the Soviet hockey style has lived on to improve hockey. Tretiak is in the hockey hall of fame; sadly, Henderson is not. Politics is still involved in hockey.
This year, a big celebration involving Canada and Russia was planned to commemorate the 72 series. The war in Ukraine has quashed all plans for mutual recognition of the importance of the 72 games and how they changed hockey.
I don’t know how the war will end, but I know war kills people and relationships. We are back in a cold war.
Ice Breaker reveals the humanity of the Russian people, not their leaders. The détente fueled by hockey may once again be called upon to start a meaningful dialogue. The film might have a message for the future. When we see each other as human beings, the conversation begins.