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What does it mean to represent Canada?

By Ontario Minor Hockey Association, 08/19/16, 9:30AM EDT


Few have had the honour of putting on the Canada jersey

There’s something special about playing for your country.

Countless players have spoken about what an honour it is to be chosen to represent your homeland in international competition. In hockey circles, the debate always rages about what is more meaningful: winning the Stanley Cup or a gold medal in the Olympics.

Perhaps it’s the infrequency of the Winter Games that makes them special. The best of the best from across the world compete against each other just once every four years. Every team is filled with all-star players that create near once in a lifetime moments. The gold medal games are contests that you remember exactly where you were when watching them.

It’s these memories that unite a country from coast to coast. During the NHL season, Canada is divided into seven clear cut fanbases but come together to root for Team Canada in the Olympics.

But one event can be pinpointed in creating this national pride for the country’s unofficial national sport. The 1972 Summit Series was one of the instrumental causes of the growth of the sport worldwide. It pitted two countries against each other in a series that turned out to be about much more than hockey.

The players on the team quickly learned that. The OMHA sat down with two members of that team, defenceman Serge Savard and goalie Ken Dryden, for an exclusive interview about being a part of Team Canada.

“We were aware of it. If you grew up during the time of the Cold War, you would be aware of it. The kind of international confrontations at the time were either in words, and nobody really believed words, that’s just propaganda on both sides,” said Dryden. “The really two big areas of competition were science, particularly the space race, and sports. Both of those are unfinessable, you can’t pretend that you are doing something when you’re not. You can see whether the rockets are going up or they’re not. In terms of sports, it’s the same thing.”

The amount of bragging rights on the line was quickly established. For generations, Canadians had been the best in the world at hockey but now faced a serious threat to that claim.

“Here you had the Soviet Union that had started playing hockey in 1946, not that long before, and we had been playing since 1875. By 1954, eight years after the Soviets started, they won the World Championships and they went on and won Olympic games… How could the Soviets play as well as they did in this case only 26 years after they began playing hockey?”

For someone who has experienced both lifting the Stanley Cup and representing Canada, the answer of which means more is clear to Savard.

“I don’t think as an athlete you can elevate yourself emotionally as high as we did in 1972,” said Savard. “This thing was more than hockey… Emotionally, I can’t compare any Stanley Cup to this because the emotion was not the same at all.”

At the time, the battle for hockey supremacy was strictly between the two nations. There were very few Americans or Europeans playing professionally and certainly not enough to put together a team that could challenge either Canada or the USSR.

Millions of people across the world tuned into the eight-game series, which ended in a 4-3-1 Canadian victory. The players were aware of what was at stake. Wearing the maple leaf of your chest meant that you were playing for Team Canada and the weight of the nation was on your shoulders.

Ken Dryden with the Montreal Canadiens. He posted a 2-2 record for Team Canada.

Dryden looks at it a bit differently.

“The pulling on the jersey to me is figurative, it’s not the literal act of it. It’s the fact that you’re playing and thousands and millions of people care what you’re doing,” said the Hall of Fame netminder. “You come to know that it matters what you’re doing. There is nothing that is better than to do something that seems to matter. It brings out the best in anybody.”

It brought out the best in the Canadian fans too. Dryden remembers all of the telegrams sent from across the ocean lining down the corridor near the team’s dressing room in the Luzhniki Palace of Sports in Moscow. Reading the names of the towns from everywhere in the country moved Dryden.

Still, the margin for error was very slim. The USSR actually scored one more goal the Canada in the series and the final four games were all decided by a single score. If the series had ended in a tie, Canada would have lost.

Savard wonders what hockey would be like had the Russians been victorious.

“It would have been a little bit different. We were named the Team of the Century, we’re still talking about that,” said Savard, who had two assists in five games. “We don’t talk about Team WHA 1974 that went to Russia and lost. They had pretty good players on that team too – Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe, Pat Stapleton, Paul Henderson. You had good players playing in ‘74 but nobody talks about that. We talk about ‘72.”

Just like Sidney Crosby’s golden goal at the 2010 Olympics is forever etched into Canadian lore, the series remains a positive hockey memory for Savard.

“I got my sweater framed, I’d never sell that sweater. For us that played that series in 1972, I don’t think you could write a script like that, even in Hollywood, the way it happened. For us, I would say even the guys who’ve won Stanley Cups, it’s the highlight of our careers.”

This September, eight members of Canada's fabled hockey team will tour the four Canadian cities that hosted the Series in 1972 and share, first-hand, their memories - stories from the dressing room and away from the rink; untold stories of how personal rivalries were resolved and how a team was forged in the crucible of competition - stories that will make you laugh and bring tears to your eyes. Check for more information.

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