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On This Date in Sports September 28, 1972: Canada's Miracle

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Canada defeats the Soviet Union 6-5 in the final game of the Summit Series on a goal by Paul Henderson with 34 seconds left. The eight-game series was tied 3-3-1 after seven games, with the Russians claiming they held the tiebreaker with a better aggregate score if the game had ended in a tie. Some regarded the goal as the greatest moment in Canadian sports history and made Henderson a national hero.

The Soviet Red Army hockey team was the best in the world, dominating the international stage. However, due to amateur rules, they never truly had to face the best teams in the world, as Canada always sent their amateurs to international competitions. Canada, however, felt they had the best team in the world and wanted a way to prove it. At the forefront leading the way to organize the Summit Series was NHL Players’ Association President Alan Eagleson, who was the league’s ultimate power mover at the time. Eagleson and representatives from the Soviet Union agreed on an eight-game series in September, with the first four games in Canada and the next four in Moscow. The games were played with international rules with referees from the International Hockey Federation.

There was some controversy before the games even began as Team Canada, coached by Harry Sinden, left off several big named players, including Bobby Hull, Derek Sanderson, Gerry Cheevers, and J.C. Tremblay were left off Team Canada’s roster. The reason for their exclusion was the startup World Hockey Association, which was beginning its first season as a rival to the NHL. Eagleson and the NHL wanted to send a message to any player defecting for the new league and made a rule that to play on Team Canada, you had to be in the National Hockey League.

The series began on September 2nd at the Montreal Forum. Canada got fans on their feet right away as Phil Esposito scored the first goal 30 seconds into the game. Paul Henderson later made it 2-0 in favor of Canada before the Soviets scored twice to close out the first period with a 2-2 tie. The Russians dominated the second period, with Valeri Kharlamov scoring a pair of goals. Bobby Clarke cut the Soviets’ lead to 4-3 in the third period, but that was as close as the game would get as the USSR scored three goals in the final ten minutes to win the game 7-3.

Game 2 was played two nights later at the Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. After a scoreless first period, Canada, Phil Esposito helped to support his brother Tony Esposito in goal Canada the lead. The Canadians would go on to win the game, 4-1, adding goals from Yvan Cournoyer and the Mahovlich brothers Peter and Frank.

Game 3 was on September 6th at the Winnipeg Arena. Special teams were a disaster area for Team Canada, as they allowed a pair of shorthanded goals. The game would end in a 4-4 tie, as no overtime was to be used during the Summit Series. Once again, Phil Esposito was among the goal scorers for Canada, as he was joined by J.P. Parise, Jean Ratelle, and Paul Henderson.

The final game in Canada was held at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver on September 8th. Ken Dryden, who started the opener in goal, once again was between the pipes for Canada and struggled from the start, allowing two first-period goals to Boris Mikhailov on the way to a 5-3 victory. The Soviets had a 2-1-1 lead in the series at the midway point, with the final four games in Moscow.

The Summit Series resumed two weeks later in Moscow. In between, Canada played a two-game series against Sweden, winning once and tying a game in Stockholm. With Tony Esposito manning the goal, Canada got off to a great start in Game 5, as they held a 3-0 lead at the end of two periods on goals by J.P. Parise, Bobby Clarke, and Paul Henderson. Henderson added a second goal in the third period after the Soviets got on the board on a goal by Yury Blinov. As the game came to a close, Canada appeared to be in firm control, but the Russian scored three goals in 2:36 to tie the game. The Soviet Union would go on to beat the stunned Canadians 5-4 as Vladimir Vikulov scored the game-winner with 5:15 left.

Canada would rebound in Game 6, winning 3-2 on goals by Dennis Hull, Yvan Cournoyer, and Paul Henderson. The game was the most controversial of the series as Bobby Clarke, battling Valeri Kharlamov all round, took his stick and slashed the Soviet star across the ankle, earning a ten-minute game misconduct.

In Game 7, Phil Esposito was the big man on the ice for Canada, scoring a pair of goals in the first period. However, the Soviets were up to the task, and the game was tied 2-2 at the end of two periods. In the third period, Rod Gilbert briefly gave Canada a lead, only to see Alexander Yakushev score his second goal of the game to tie it. With time winding down, Paul Henderson put on his Superman cape for the first time, scoring his sixth goal of the series with 2:06 left to win the game for Canada, 4-3.

Heading into the final game in Moscow, the series was tied 3-3-1. However, with the Soviets holding an edge in total goals scored, Team Canada had to win the game or lose the series. A tie would assure the Soviets victory in the eight-game battle between the East and the West. The game was on in Canada during the daytime. Throughout Canada, schools and businesses were closed for an early dismissal so students and employees could go home and watch what was seen as the most crucial game in the history of hockey.

By the time the final game was set to be played, ill feelings were boiling on both sides as the Soviets wanted referees of their choosing to work the game. After Canada threatened to pull out, a compromise was reached. This led to the Russians refusing the gift of a totem pole from Canada, which led coach Harry Sinden to proclaim they either accept it or play with it on the ice. The first period saw the two teams traded a pair of goals, with Phil Esposito scoring his sixth goal of the series along with Brad Park for Canada. In contrast, Alexander Yakushev scored his sixth for Russia, with Vladimir Lutchenko scoring the other Soviet goal. The Soviets took control of the game in the second period, as Yakushev scored his seventh goal, with Vladimir Shadrin and Valeri Vasiliev adding the other goals. Bill White, meanwhile, scored for Canada, who trailed 5-3 after two periods. Needing to win, with all of Canada watching, the rally started with Phil Esposito scoring his seventh goal of the series early in the third period. With 7:04 left, Yvan Cournoyer tied the game, turning the series into a sudden death situation. The Soviets were content to skate off the ice with a tie, but Canada needing a win, turned on the pressure. With time running out, Paul Henderson made a diving shot that was blocked aside. As the Soviets attempted to work the puck down the ice, Phil Esposito made a steal and passed to Henderson, who put the game-winner past Vladislav Tretiak.

The winning goal made Paul Henderson an instant hero across Canada. After playing Czechoslovakia to a 3-3 tie in Prague, the team returned home to a hero’s welcome as 10,000 fans greeted them at Montreal’s Dorval Airport, where they were met by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.