The impact of a 50-year-old hockey series

The reminiscing is underway. It will continue until the 28th of this month, at least. It’s the 50th anniversary of the historic Canada-Russia hockey series, an event that altered the game’s history forever. There will be flashbacks in newspapers and on television across the country — CBC has launched a four-part series on the series. Newly written books are for sale at prices that may exceed the cost of a game ticket 50 years ago.

The shocking 7-3 defeat to Russia in Game One is being re-visited. So is Phil Esposito’s passionate speech in the aftermath of losing Game Four in Vancouver. And Alan Eagleson’s defiant middle-finger salute in Moscow. And more than anything, Paul Henderson’s three consecutive winning goals, especially the series winner, 34 seconds from the final whistle.

What history now calls the Summit Series was, for many Canadians, simply unforgettable. The diminishing number of fans who witnessed it live, either in Russia or on TV, remember where they were when Henderson scored. If it wasn’t life-defining, it was life-changing for many people.

Including me.

I was a sports writer in Vancouver, the back-up on the Canucks’ beat. Because I had been the Canadian National Team beat writer for its last two seasons, in Winnipeg, I had the audacity to think it was logical that I’d cover Canada vs Russia. And I did. Sort of.

For Game Four in Vancouver, I was assigned to write an advance story, which had me sitting in an emergency ward with Serge Savard to see if his ankle was broken, to write about it. The next night, I wrote the Vancouver Sun’s game story, built around the prolonged booing that accompanied Canada’s 5-3 loss. Said Bill Goldsworthy: “I’m ashamed to be a Canadian.” Said Esposito: “To be ridiculed like this blows my dignity.” Said Brad Park: “I’ll be glad to get out of Canada.”

For me, covering the series ended that night. It was probably the right decision but being passed over for the other seven games triggered my life-changing decision.

A year earlier, I’d been offered a job at the Montreal Star. Newly married, I turned it down. After my Canada-Russia “rejection” I called sports editor Red Fisher to see if he’d resurrect his offer. He said we’d talk about it when he got to Vancouver for Game Four. That was good enough for me: on the eve of Game Four, I gave my notice at the Sun.

By the time Henderson scored his legendary goal, my new bride and I had driven across the country to a city she’d never seen and I’d seen once. We’d driven all night on the final leg so that we could get a hotel room in time to watch Game Eight, which started around noon. Alas, we were still asleep. Foster Hewitt’s frantic, historic call: “Henderson has scored for Canada!” was the alarm clock.

So, yes, we do remember where we were.

The 11 years that followed were life-changing. Stanley Cups. World Series. Grey Cups. The Challenge Cup.The Kentucky Derby.

Without the Canada-Russia series, all that may have never happened.