Canada is still haunted by the legacy of the 1972 Summit Series

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1972 Summit Series. This ice hockey series, played between Canada and the former Soviet Union, has become the subject of Canadian cultural myth-making since Paul Henderson’s winning goal for Canada in the final.

The 1972 Summit Series — also known as the Canada-USSR Series — was an eight-game ice hockey series played half in Canada and half in the Soviet Union. Despite falling three games to one, Canada won the last three games in Moscow to win the series four games to three. (One game ended in a draw.)

The streak ended in a dramatic win, with Canada overcoming a two-goal deficit and winning the game with a last-minute Paul Henderson goal – a moment many Canadians caught live on TV and radio at the time.

More than almost any other international sporting competition, despite the 50 years that have passed since then, the Summit Series continues to play an important role in Canadian cultural consciousness.

A lasting legacy

In their book about ice hockey in all its forms, former National Hockey League goaltender Ken Dryden and journalist Roy MacGregor identified the Summit Series as a unique “Canadian memory” and marked 1972 as a “coming of age” for Canada as a nation.

As Dryden and MacGregor further explained, “the specifics of the memory don’t deliver the resonance of the feeling that lingers” when it comes to the Summit series. This “feeling that lingers” helps describe the magnetic impact these hockey games have had on our collective memory for half a century.

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Now, more than thirty years after Dryden and MacGregor wrote this description, the Summit Series continues to permeate the broader sporting and cultural discourse in Canada. Although younger generations now experience the series as part of cultural heritage, many efforts continue to commemorate it.

The Making of a Myth

For many, the Summit series immediately entered the realm of national mythology, resulting in its key moments and characters becoming larger than life, while other details and harsh truths were lost over time.

The return of the Summit Series and associated figures in Canadian sports history can be seen as a form of collective cultural haunting. Deliberate efforts to revitalize the series and its characters for future generations have given the event an eerie afterlife.

The Summit series isn’t unique in this regard; Commemorating the past and commemorating important historical events is a shared passion of many individuals, public historians, and others.

A man standing on a stage with several other men in matching Canadian maple leaf sweaters speaks from behind a podium
Paul Henderson, center, speaks with his Summit Series teammates as Canada’s Summit Team is inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame in Toronto, September 2012.

But while it may seem stereotypical to say that a hockey tournament is essential to Canada’s identity, the Summit Series is undoubtedly a turning point in Canadian cultural history.

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What sets the Summit Series apart are several key characteristics: the tournament’s outsized cultural impact, the reliance on ego memory, the perceived cultural and historical importance of the series, its impact on internal and external concepts of Canadian identity, efforts, the legacy of the tournament for generations to come and of course the series as a show of Canadian hockey excellence.

Taken together, it should come as no surprise that this nation is still haunted by the Summit Series, but what is perhaps unusual is how readily we are plagued by this sporting specter.

(Mis)remembering the Summit Series

In Canada, the Summit Series has been remembered and misremembered so many times that the lived realities of the tournament have been expanded and altered beyond recognition.

Recalling the series today, the “real” versions of Bobby Clarke, Harry Sinden, Vsevolod Bobrov, Josef Kompalla, or any other character are quickly overshadowed by their ghostly doubles.

Theater and English professor Joseph Roach uses the term “surrogation” in his book on cross-cultural exchange to describe this impulse to fill in gaps in our cultural memory with our individual and collective memories.

A black and white photo of a Canadian hockey player about to score a goal for a USSR goalie while his teammate tries to stop it with his hockey stick
Team Canada’s Phil Esposito moves in to score against Team Russia’s Vladislav Tretiak in Toronto to secure game two of the 1972 Summit Series. Behind Esposito is Viktor Kuzkin, who plays for the USSR

Surrogacy, Roach suggests, occurs when “survivors try to fit satisfying alternatives into the voids left by loss through death or other forms of departure.” Unfortunately, the fit can never be exact because “the intended replacement either fails to meet expectations, creating a deficit, or even exceeds them, creating a surplus”.

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Such is the case with the Summit Series, where the documentary has been altered beyond recognition through hearsay and the ruse of time and memory. The result is a literal shadow list of key players and moments that repeat and repeat over time: the Summit Series and its ghostly double.

Haunted by the past

A white and red Canadian hockey jersey with the number 19 on the back is on display in a clear display case
Paul Henderson’s game-winning Summit Series jersey is on display in Toronto.

The 2022 Summit Series is haunting Canada like a ghost. It tracks our actions and behavior, including our international reputation. It is behind how hockey is played and who is allowed to participate.

It’s always lurking around the corner, influencing both our perceived supremacy in hockey and our notions and performances of masculinity. This ghostly vision of the Summit Series even haunts our eternal discussions of what it means to be Canadian.

Since 1972, these notions have been codified by a nostalgic return to the Summit series, not as it was, but as each of us remembers it. This has led to the creation of many different Summit series, each unique to the person who has returned to their memories through repeated memories.

However, the presence of this sports specter points to a mistake that has been admitted: a story that is misunderstood or even deliberately misremembered. In the case of Canada and the 1972 Summit Series, it’s up to each of us to choose whether to just give up and live with them, or work to exorcise those spirits through a new vision of Canada’s future of hockey.

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