It’s hard to believe in this technology-laden age of 24-Hour sports coverage, but 50 years ago when Canada faced off against Russia in their now famous Summit Series, the games were not initially scheduled to be broadcast in the United States.
None of the major networks were interested, including NBC, which was about to embark on their “Peter Puck” era of hockey coverage.
“The interest in hockey in the United States in two neutral teams was not enough to galvanize the networks or the fans as far as I could tell,” recalls retired New York Times sportswriter Gerald Eskenazi. “The only people in the US who saw it over regular television were those living near the Canadian border, where they could pick up the station. So that gave WNET-13, the public broadcasting system here in New York a chance to show it. It also helped that the president of the network was a hockey fan. They used it as a fund raiser and at the time it became the highest rated show in their history.”
Eskenazi, author of “A Year on Ice,” as well as many other books on hockey, football, and baseball, was in Toronto covering the series, when he was called back to New York to serve as in-studio host for the broadcasts. Despite the fact that 13 of the NHL’s 16 teams that season were based in the United States, Jerry thought that the league missed a great opportunity to continue to sell the sport in America.
“I think it would have been a great opportunity, but again this was not something that Americans could relate to if they weren’t hockey fans. We had no concept of what the series meant to Canadians.
I was one of the writers who predicted a sweep, and I think everyone in Canada did as well. But we had no idea that the Soviets had come of age and how good they were. The Canadians went from making fun of their equipment and training methods, to being in awe of them. They played like automatons and didn’t budge when you hit them. Frank Mahovlich told me that if you gave them a football, they would win the Super Bowl in two years.
I was shocked when the fans in the Montreal Forum began booing the Canadians. Everyone has an ego, even Canadians, and it took a hockey game for Canadians to show their emotions and their fears. When they started booing I thought how dare they do that to these guys.
The next day I was on the Turbo Train going to Toronto, seated next to Alan Eagleson and all of a sudden Ken Dryden’s father came down the aisle, spotted Eagleson and exploded, in the middle of the train. ‘YOU SUCKERED US!’ He shouted. And Eagleson got up and I thought the two of them were gonna come to blows. After all, Dryden’s son was embarrassed at that moment and he was the father of a goalie who had given up a whole bunch of goals and according to a lot of Canadians, let his team down. It was a really explosive situation. He was accusing Eagleson of purposely demeaning the Russians so that the Canadians would play them and not prepare very hard for them. And the two of them went head to head for a minute or two and then Eagleson sat back down. But to me that was a very memorable moment.
The Canadians were very naïve as far as the Russians were concerned. They didn’t know anything about how Anatoly Tarasov had started the Soviet hockey program from scratch and took these kids away from home and trained them.
Prior to the series, when I asked Emile Francis how the Soviets would do against Team Canada, he got angry at me and said ‘Don’t even mention them in the breath as the Canadians.’ Now if Emile Francis, one of the great hockey minds thought that, did they not want to believe it, did they think Canada was invulnerable, or was it their hatred of the Soviet’s system in general, or were they just naïve
I think it was all of the above.
I think that politics blinded them to what these guys were and that the Canadian system of democracy was superior and that extended to hockey and everything else.”
If Canada had swept the Soviets or won in a more convincing manner, the series may have gone unnoticed in the United States. But the drama, the struggle, Phil Esposito’s speech and Paul Henderson’s goal mad it a Good Guy vs Bad Guy scenario, with Americans becoming Canadians by extension, rooting for the Good Guys.
“When the series was over, The Times baseball writer Leonard Koppett asked me; ‘You knew all along who would win didn’t you? The emotions of the Canadians would eventually win over the non-emotion of the soviets. The team that it meant the most to won.’”