To the summit
The eight-game junior Super Series that began today in Ufa, Russia with Canada's 4-2 win marks the 35th anniversary of the seminal 1972 Canada-Soviet Union Summit Series. It's the brainchild of Vladislav Tretiak -- the legendary USSR goaltender who played in '72 --and a tremendous event between two proud hockey nations. Of course, this venture cannot come close to replicating the context of that original series, but the juniors who compete nation-versus-nation gives further evidence of what that original meeting spawned: an intense hockey rivalry between Canada and Russia.
In fact, the 1972 series was, in part, an answer to Canada's withdrawal from international amateur competition in protest of Eastern Bloc countries using "professional amateurs." Team Canada did not send a team to the '72 and '76 Winter Olympics -- both gold medal efforts by the USSR in which they didn't lose a single game. Different times, politics and systems meant differing views. The '72 Summit Series would prove once and for all that playing Canada's best professionals would be a much stiffer task for the Soviet team.
The Summit Series -- drama, intrigue and cultural relevance aside -- stands as the defining event for the transformation of a sport. Canadians cheered their heroes and were relieved that they prevailed -- barely -- in the final minute of the eighth game in hostile territory, thanks to a goal by Paul Henderson. Grudgingly, though, Canadians everywhere had to acknowledge that the Russians were good -- very good in fact -- and much better than any had imagined. That hard-to-admit respect led to an interest in understanding the different philosophies employed by the Soviets as it pertained to their version of the game.
From that moment on, NHL teams playing the Soviet Union, then the Russian Federation and now Russia, became commonplace. Players trained in Russia now star in the NHL -- think Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Evgeni Malkin -- while the Russian leagues routinely have North American players plying their trade in places like Omsk.
Not surprisingly, both styles of play morphed over the years to include elements of the other. In North America, the previously predominant linear attack added breadth and depth -- puck possession aspects that the Soviets employed so effectively. Russia now develops quick-strike scorers -- solo artists like Ovechkin and Kovalchuk who have followed Alexander Mogilny, Pavel Bure and that ilk -- when their history had almost shunned that type of play while forcing everyone to sublimate to a controlled team game that had the Soviets passing up glorious scoring chances to make unnecessary extra passes.
The one element of the Russia/Canada hockey dynamic that hasn't changed is the rivalry. Sure, now, there are few secrets. With the Olympics, World Championships, Junior World Championships, the Canada Cup Series of the 1980s and now the World Cup, competitive opportunities abound. Plus, other countries have had their shining moments over the years in international hockey events, including Sweden's gold medal in the 2006 Olympic Games. And, of course, the 1980 Team USA gold medal stands as an iconic moment in the sport.
Still, when it comes to hockey, head-to-head results define how Canada and Russia keep track. It's what matters most, even if each meeting doesn't have the same impact that it once did. But, to the kids who are representing their respective countries this time around, in hockey terms, nothing matters more.