Robin’s Underrated Gems: Canada Russia ’72 (2006)

Last week, we recorded a Shouts from the Back Row podcast on our favourite miniseries and made-for-TV movies and I took the opportunity to analyze a homegrown Canadian production called Canada Russia ’72. If you’re a hockey fan who grew up in Canada, it’s a given that you’ve probably heard of the 1972 Summit Series. In September of that year, the top Canadian stars from the National Hockey League would be square off against the Soviet Union’s national team. The first four games would take place in Canada and the next four would take place in Russia. During this time period, the Soviet team were completely dominant in international hockey competitions and since Canada had not competed in any of those competitions for quite some time, the Summit Series seemed like a prime opportunity to determine whether the Canadians or the Soviets were the top dog in the world of hockey. Of course, even though some of the top stars in the National Hockey League during the past 25 years have been Russians, very few people in Canada had ever seen a Soviet team play in 1972. The country assumed that Canada would walk all over the Soviets in the eight-game series, but they couldn’t have been more wrong. The end result wound up being the most dramatic sporting event in the history of Canada. In April 2006, this story was chronicled in a CBC-produced mini-series entitled Canada Russia ’72, which does a masterful job at recreating that historical tension-filled month.

At the beginning of Canada Russia ’72, a deal is reached to organize the eight-game Summit Series between the Canadian and Soviet teams. Canada is represented by the director of the NHL Players Association, Alan Eagleson (Judah Katz), an arrogant, hot-tempered individual who would wind up serving time in prison for fraud and embezzlement many years later. From the outset, Eagleson has a major personality clash with officials from the Soviet side, so you know the series’ behind-the-scenes politics are going to be filled with conflict. Eagleson hires Harry Sinden (Booth Savage), who led the Boston Bruins to a Stanley Cup two years earlier, to coach Team Canada, and they assemble a team which consists of some of the NHL’s biggest stars, including Phil Esposito, Paul Henderson, Wayne Cashman and goaltender Ken Dryden. At training camp, Sinden instantly becomes concerned that Team Canada are not taking the Soviets seriously enough and are under the mistaken assumption that the series will be a cakewalk. The first game takes place in Montreal and Team Canada jumps out to quick 2-0 lead, but the entire country is stunned when the Soviets dominate the rest of the game and wind up winning by the score of 7-3. Canada recovers to win the next game in Toronto and the two teams play to a tie in the third game in Winnipeg. However, disaster strikes when the Soviets win the fourth game in Vancouver and Team Canada is so outplayed that their home country fans end up booing them.

The entire Summit Series seems destined to become an embarrassment to Canada once they lose the fifth game in Moscow. However, if you’re familiar with hockey history, you probably know that Canada recovered to win the next three games on Soviet ice, each them by a one-goal margin. Canada would definitively win the series after a 6-5 victory in Game#8 when Paul Henderson scored the winning the goal with only 34 seconds remaining. If you weren’t around in 1972, you cannot comprehend just how huge an event this series became for Canada. My mother worked as a teacher and says that all the classes at her school came to a screeching halt, so that the students could gather in the auditorium to watch Game#8 on television, something which probably wouldn’t fly today. The Summit Series also changed the way the world looked at international hockey and paved the way for players from numerous European countries to become stars in the NHL. Canada Russia ’72 does a very effective job at recapturing the atmosphere of that time period, as the whole thing is shot in a handheld documentary-style format. The behind-the-scenes politicking which took place during the Summit Series is almost as dramatic as the games themselves. The public had no idea just how close the series came to being cancelled because of disputes between Canadian and Soviet officials. During the games in Russia, Team Canada nearly pulled out and went home because of questionable biased officiating from the European referees. Canada Russia ’72 provides an intimate, fly-on-the wall perspective of the intense backroom dealing which went on to ensure this series could actually be completed.

While the mini-series does an effective job at showcasing the behind-the-scenes drama of the Summit Series, they also do an astonishingly convincing job at re-creating the actual games. The production obviously had their work cut out for it, as the Summit Series is the most iconic sporting event in Canadian history and footage of the games have been viewed and analyzed to death over the past 40 years. But instead of merely using stock footage, the filmmakers re-create the games as authentically as possible, so it often does feel like you’re watching footage of the real thing. There are no big-name stars in Canada Russia ’72, but the casting of the real-life figures from this story is pretty dead-on. The filmmakers somehow managed to find actors who resemble the actual members of Team Canada and still look like convincing hockey players on the ice. To the mini-series’ credit, even though it’s a Canadian production, it does not shy away from showcasing the country’s arrogance. It’s firmly established that the reason the four games in Canada did not go well was because the team massively underestimated the Soviets. Things get so bad behind-the-scenes that some of the Canadian players decide to walk out on the team and head home before the series is completed. In the funniest scene, some of the Canadian players start believing that their hotel room has been bugged by the Soviets and wind up causing a disastrous accident when they attempt to tear the room apart. But in the end, the early setbacks only wound up uniting the team and country closer together. It’s easy for non-fans to look at sporting events like the Summit Series and say: “It’s only a game”. However, Canada Russia ’72 is such a good piece of filmmaking that you come away with a better understanding of just how important sports can be for many people.

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