There’s been much celebration on both sides of the Atlantic this week commemorating the 40th Anniversary of the historic Summit Series between Team Canada and the Soviet National Team. But when the names of Canada’s biggest heroes get listed, the usual suspects have usually been Paul Henderson, Phil Esposito and a few others. With the exception of Ken Dryden, however, the contributions of members of the Canadiens often get overlooked.
Not by Todd Denault, however.
One of the bright new hockey historians on the scene, the Cobourg, Ontario, resident is the author of two excellent hockey history books, one an acclaimed 2009 biography of Jacques Plante, the other the story of the Habs legendary 1975 New Year’s Eve game against CSKA, the Soviet Red Army team ( and has a third on the way, A Season In Time, which chronicles the unforgettable 1992-93 NHL season, the last in which the Habs won the Stanley Cup).
It’s in his 2010 book, The Greatest Game, which details both the history of Soviet hockey and that of the Canadiens leading up to the 1975 New Year’s Eve contest, where Denault pays particular attention to the Summit Series and he calls the Montreal contingent within Harry Sinden’s club “The team within the team.”
Six Habs were on the squad, more than any other NHL club, three forward, two defencemen and a goaler. And five of the six — Pete Mahovlich, Yvan Cournoyer, Guy Lapointe, Serge Savard and Dryden –played crucial roles in the triumph, coming up with significant performances when it mattered most. Only Frank Mahovlich, a Hall of Famer, played below his usual form. Denault explores the possibility that the Big M, who later in life acknowledged emotional struggles, became mentally unglued as the series moved on.
Denault writes, “In the media, most of the credit will be given to the scoring exploits of Paul Henderson and the dogged tenacity of Phil Esposito. But without the contributions of the Montreal contingent, it’s quite possible Team Canada would not have grasped the ultimate victory.”
Denault traces each of their stories and their roles in the series, providing great insight into each. He talks of Dryden’s bouts with self-doubt; of Pete Mahovlich’s transformation into an aggressive player a few years prior the series following a discussion with teammate John Ferguson (who would be Sinden’s assistant coach and undoubtably aided in the club selection); of Savard’s battles with injury, which transformed him from a rushing defenceman who many compared favorably to Bobby Orr into more of an exceptional force in his own end; of Lapointe’s belief that he wasn’t really good enough for the NHL, much less an elite team like the one who faced the Soviets; of young Cournoyer’s tutelage under Habs coach Toe Blake, making him more of a complete player; and of reports that Frank Mahovlich grew so paranoid in Moscow that he discovered a metal object under the rug and, fearing it was a listening device planted by the KGB, unscrewed it, only to release a chandelier from its ceiling moorings on the floor below.
Their timely big plays propelled Team Canada, starting with Pete Mahovlich’s shorthanded Game 2 tally in Toronto 2 as they clung to a 2-1 lead, having dropped Game 1 at the Forum, a national disaster. Sinden called it, “a goal I’ll never forget, an uplifting moment for the team in a game we urgently needed to win.”
It was in Game 5 that the Montreal group began to assert themselves. After the Game 1 defeat, Dryden was replaced by Tony Esposito. He’d go back in for Game 4 in Vancouver and lost there as well. He’d surrendered 12 goals in those six periods. A Game 1 scratch, Savard was injured in Game 3 in Winnipeg. Thought to be a bone bruise, it turned out to be a hairline fracture of his ankle and figured to be out a month. But he somehow managed to make it to Moscow for the second part of the series. Having already dropped three of the five games played, Sinden desperately inserted both in the lineup for Game 6. The speedy Cournoyer scored a key goal which gave Canada a lead they’d never surrender.
Dryden was named one of the contest’s top stars. Savard and Lapointe stabilized the back end and set up offensive chances. The Toronto Star’s Jim Proudfoot noted after Canada’s Game 7 win that it was no coincidence that Canada had won three of the four games in which Savard played. In that contest, the work of Lapointe and especially Savard to lug the puck out of zone and get it to Henderson, who made a magnificent rush for the late third period winner, had much to do with Proudfoot’s sentiment.
The historic Game 8 was climaxed by Henderson’s last-minute game winner, but this time it was Cournoyer who made the unsung play and helped make Henderson the hero. The Road Runner had scored the goal that tied the game at 5-5 midway through the third, but at the end he found himself in the neutral zone along the far boards and the puck on his stick.
He shot it into the Soviet zone and tiring, he recalled Blake’s advice that if the score is tied late in the third period, the puck is in the offensive zone and you are tired in the neutral zone, get off the ice. But Cournoyer hesitated because of the width of the international-sized ice surface at Luzhniki Ice Palace in Moscow. He didn’t know if he could get off and not jeopardize his team. So he moved into the zone instead.
Soviet defenseman Valeri Vasiliev cleared it up the boards in the direction it had come from and it went right back to Number 12. A surprised Cournoyer, just inside the blue line, saw Henderson coming off the bench and flying goalward. He fired it toward Henderson to start the play that led to what some call “The goal of the century” by Henderson to give Canada the series win.
Here’s video — not the best quality — but it has both Cournoyer’s goal and his shot from the boards that led to Henderson’s famous tally.
“I often think,” Cournoyer later told hockey historian Brian McFarlane, “if I hadn’t changed my mind on that final shift what would have happened? If I hadn’t stayed on the ice, there wouldn’t have been a Paul Henderson goal. Who would have been over by the boards to intercept the puck? Who would have kept the puck in the zone?”
Could be the Forum Ghosts traveled with Team Canada to the Luzhniki Ice Palace.