The Summit Series: Hockey historian Liam Maguire remembers one of Canada’s defining moments

Liam Maguire is a noted hockey historian, a published author, radio host, and TV personality. He is regarded as the foremost historian on the NHL and Canadian hockey in general. When asked recently which moment he considers to be the most impactful in the history of the sport, Liam has been unequivocal in his response: the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union.

“I was born in 1959,” Liam says, reliving his rise to becoming Canada’s preeminent hockey historian. “I grew up as a young boy in the 60s. I played hockey, everybody did. We were hockey fanatics. We bought the hockey cards, and in those days the anecdotes on the back of the cards were neat. There was a lot of really neat little significant type of factoids. I started just memorizing them.”

Liam was blessed with a great memory, and this rite of passage for young Canadian boys in the 60s and 70s soon became something he was able to harness and turn into a career. His ability to remember statistics and player names helped the love of hockey factoids grow into something more significant.

“I attended an exhibition game in Ottawa,” Liam says. “In 1974, I went to a game with five High School friends to see the Montreal Canadiens play the Chicago Blackhawks. To see who was going to be in the line-up you had to buy a program. I went home that night and I couldn’t sleep, I was so excited. I read the program cover-to-cover.”

Liam spent the night studying the Canadiens’ roster, learning about players he had previously never heard of, realizing how little he knew about the team. The next day he held a contest with the friends he had been at the game with to see who could remember the most trivia from the previous night.

“For whatever reason, I did. When I think of it now, it was so innocuous, but I got this instantaneous reputation as a hockey expert, and I knew nothing. So I said, I’d better bone up. I’d better start knowing these things if I call myself a Habs fan. So then I started studying up on the Montreal Canadiens.”

Liam Maguire is regarded as the foremost historian on the NHL and Canadian hockey

 

The real turning point came a year later when the visiting cousin of a boy at Liam’s school, who had heard of his newly-formed reputation as an expert, asked him who had won the Stanley Cup in 1933. Liam didn’t know, although he did correctly answer that it was an American team.

“I went home that night and I said, I don’t even know who won the Stanley Cup every year. So I sat down that night and I memorized who won the cup every year, the team they beat, how many games, and who scored the cup winner. That’s how I roll, and it became an insane passion for me to become the absolute king of NHL trivia and statistics.”

Liam is often asked what he considers to be the most impactful moment in the history of hockey. There’s no doubt in his mind that nothing even comes close to the Summit Series of 1972 between Canada and the Soviet Union. The event has been commemorated on the country’s coins and is considered a defining moment in Canadian history.

“We have to be respective of history, regardless of what the topic is. In this case, it’s a sport, and we don’t hold in in the same regard as we would a wartime effort, and nor should we. From a sporting perspective, especially hockey, and especially in terms of professional hockey at the highest level, nothing was more impactful than the Summit Series in 1972.”

Despite the fact that these were only exhibition matches, it was the first time in history that Canadian players had been pitted against the world’s best, having withdrawn from international competitions after a dispute with the IIHF some years earlier. Team Canada were coming to play seriously.

“It was a month-long competition. There was a two-week break in between the four games in Canada and the four in the Soviet Union. Canada travelled overseas before they went to the Soviet Union, they played two games against the Swedish national team, then they continued the series against the Soviet national team, then they wrapped it up by playing a game against the actual world champions at the time, the Czech national team.”

The majority of Canada’s top players from the NHL were available to compete, with the intention being to create a true best of the best hockey event. At the time, the Soviets had been the dominant team in international competition, and the prospect of them taking on NHL professionals was mouthwatering. These would be, without doubt, meaningful matches.

The Summit Series of 1972 is considered a defining moment in Canadian history

 

“The entire Soviet Union shut down to watch the games in Russia,” Liam explains. “The entire hockey world, such as it was available to them at that time in 1972, were watching and waiting for the results of the Summit Series, to hear how the Canadian pros were doing against these Soviet ‘amateurs’.”

The result of the series are now well known in Canadian history, and represent a huge feat of strength from the Canadian team. After losing games one and four, and tying once on home soil, Team Canada lost the first game in the Soviet Union. Against all the odds, Canada roared back to win the remaining three games and take the series.

“Not only that,” Liam says, “but winning game six, game seven, and game eight, all by one goal. Not only that, winning game six, game seven, and game eight with the same man getting the game-winning goal in all three games, Paul Henderson. He gets the series and game winner in the most impactful moment, month, in the history of the sport of hockey, with 34 seconds to play in game eight, culminating 27 days in September of 1972.”

One of the knock on effects of the series was the influx of European players joining the WHA and the NHL soon after, players scouted during those games, especially from Sweden, most notably Börje Salming, Hans Inge Hammarström, Lars-Erik Sjöberg and Thommie Bergman. It opened up the NHL to a new global audience.

As Liam passionately describes it, the most striking moment in the series came in the third period of game eight. Team Canada were down 5-3, needing a big finish to come through and win the series. After pulling the game back to 5-4, Canada scored the tying goal through Yvan Cournoyer. At first, the goal light did not go on.

“You know why it didn’t go on?” Liam asks. “Because the goal judges were paid by the Soviets. They didn’t want Canada to win. Alan Eagleson stood up to complain, and as he was racing over to try and confront the goal judge, he was intercepted by the Soviet military, who circled the arena. They were carrying machine guns. They were trying to cart off Alan Eagleson, the executive director of Team Canada.”

Hockey historian Liam Maguire with Summit Series legend Paul Henderson

 

The response from Team Canada was to clear the bench and cross the ice. Players Gary Bergman and Peter Mahovlich climbed over the boards, swinging their sticks at the Soviet military, trying to stop Eagleson being dragged out of the arena. It’s all on tape, and it’s quite something to watch.

“They rescued Alan Eagleson. They bring him back across the ice, and then with three minutes to go, in a 5-5 game, in game eight, the Russians send down a message to the Canadian bench that they’re going to declare victory, because they had scored one more goal than us.”

The defining moment of the series was about to play out. Alternate captain, Phil Esposito, huddled his team together to give a rousing speech, refusing to leave the ice until Team Canada had won. Paul Henderson jumped off the bench and found himself with one last shot to win the game.

“The puck is there. He takes a shot, and Tretiak saves it, and the puck comes right back on Paul’s stick, then he buries it, with 34 seconds to go. At 2.30pm Eastern Standard Time, Thursday September 28th 1972. And the country went wild. Nothing ever in the history of mankind will rival the Summit Series in 1972 for impact, drama, and how it ended.”

As Canada’s preeminent hockey historian, Liam Maguire is unequivocal about the importance and impact of the Summit Series. It’s hard to imagine anything like it ever happening again, being a product of its era and a truly defining moment in Canada’s history.

Theoren Fleury: Phoenix rising

Theoron Fleury

Former professional hockey player Theoren Fleury is best known in Canada for his role with the Calgary Flames, for whom he played between 1989 and 1999. He went on to play for numerous other teams in the NHL, as well as stints in Finland and Northern Ireland. Fleury still holds mythological status in the city of Calgary.

After being told in the juniors that he was too small for the NHL, Fleury learned quickly to ignore his detractors, working even harder in training and on the mental side of the game to succeed. He figured out early on that he would need to develop a certain style of play to have success in the game, and made it his mission to do that.

At the time of his trade from the Flames, Fleury spoke out about what he considered to be his mistreatment by the organisation. During a routine meeting to discuss a potential contract extension, Fleury turned down the money that was on offer. The next day the newspapers were plastered with lies, and he realised it was time to leave.

Fleury’s time in the game ultimately came to an end due to a long-term dependence on drugs and alcohol, and he eventually retired from the game in 2009 after an unsuccessful comeback with the Flames. Being able to retire as a Flames player was important to Fleury, and only strengthened his status as a legend in the city.

Theo Fleury remains one of the most popular players to have played for the Calgary Flames

Since Fleury’s time in the game, the sport of hockey has changed drastically, with much of the game’s previous creativity and aggression being phased out over the years. A big change according to Fleury is that the coaches have become more prominent, many now commanding wages on a par with the players.

With the rise in analytics and video, technology seems to have taken the creativity out of the game, with most teams now playing with the same style. However, changes in the players’ athleticism and speed have helped the game evolve, with new thinking about fitness, exercise and diet helping it become more competitive.

In his 2009 autobiography, Playing with Fire, Fleury revealed that as a child he had been sexually abused by former coach Graham James. Similar accusations were made by former teammate Sheldon Kennedy, and although Fleury has since gone on to use this abuse to help others, he admits that there was a time when he was not ready to face it.

Fleury and Kennedy played together for a season at the Flames in ‘94-’95, and Fleury admits they were aware of what they shared. Over the years, Kennedy has done an incredible job of creating awareness for survivors of sexual abuse and implementing systems for children’s organisations. His revelations had a huge effect on Fleury’s life.

Throughout his later career, Fleury was not able to entirely escape the presence of his abuser. In 1994, James convinced him to be involved in a group that formed the expansion team the Calgary Hitmen of the Western Hockey League. The group included professional wrestler Bret Hart, along with James, Fleury and a number of others from the game.

Theo Fleury has dedicated his post-hockey life to public speaking and education on the subject of abuse

When Fleury talks about his inability to escape James’ influence, he talks of the power of Stockholm Syndrome, and how it convinced him to remain loyal to his abuser. In 1997, Fleury sold his stake in the Calgary Hitmen after James was convicted of sexually abusing Kennedy and another player.

Having thought he’d buried his experiences with James and would never have to deal with them again, Kennedy’s revelations opened up old wounds for Fleury. It was around this time that his addictions began to get worse, and can be seen as something like the beginning of the end for his career as a professional hockey player.

Fleury admits that he had used drugs and alcohol from the age of 15, mostly as a coping mechanism for what he experienced as a child. In 2005, Fleury finally quit drugs and alcohol, in the most part due to the influence of his second wife. Nowadays, Fleury admits he is done with drugs and alcohol completely, intending never to return to that life.

More than just an ex-professional hockey player, he has dedicated his post-hockey life to public speaking and education on the subject of sexual abuse, determined to use his own harrowing experiences to make sure others like him do not have to experience anything similar.

Find out more about Theo’s work through Fleury Enterprises by visiting www.theofleury.life.

Sorel-Tracy Éperviers of Quebec’s LNAH: where to from here?

Quebec-hockey-LNAH-Sorel-Tracy Éperviers

Dan Archambault is Assistant Coach of the Sorel-Tracy Éperviers, the current champions of the Ligue Nord-Américaine de Hockey (LNAH), a Quebec-based league comprised of six teams.

As a regional, semi-professional league, the LNAH has historically attracted crowds by encouraging on-ice fighting, a long-held hockey tradition which has significantly declined over the last decade.

“I’ve been around for fifteen years, played in the league, and now I’m coaching,” Mr Archambault says. “Back then, when I started, fighting was part of everything. The tougher you could get, the better your team would be.”

The successful teams in the league had a core of aggressive players filling the role of enforcers, throwing their weight around to make space for the technical players to shine and win matches. Teams without this core could be easily intimidated by opponents.

“It was the toughest league in the world, for sure. All the tough guys from around the world, were coming here to make money. The tougher you were, the more money you made.”

The reality was that technical players would often be too afraid to play without the backing of tough enforcers, who were in high demand. This meant that more aggressive players from the NHL were switching to the LNAH to play for bigger wages.

In the past few years, however, the league has had a dramatic change in character. The fighting that once made it so popular is becoming scarce, an outcome that Mr Archambault is in no doubt about.

Sorel-Tracy Éperviers-dan-archambault
Dan Archambault is Assistant Coach of the Sorel-Tracy Éperviers, part of Quebec’s
Ligue Nord-Américaine de Hockey (LNAH)

 

“There’s no more tough guys,” he says. “From the junior majors, the fights went down, so where do we get the tough guys? Even if we wanted to stay the toughest league, there’s no young guys that are coming to our league and being tough.”

This doesn’t mean that the fighting has disappeared altogether. Mr Archambault admits that a number of the older players are keeping the tradition alive, but the fact is that the make-up of teams has had to fundamentally change.

“For the owners, if you have four tough guys, and fifteen good players, it will cost a lot more than if you only have two tough guys. The salary cap used to be much higher, so if you didn’t have many people in the stand, you couldn’t pay the guys.”

With a decline in the entertainment provided by regular fights, the league has had to work hard to stay sustainable. The LNAH has already seen the downside of this, with a number of teams setting up and then folding over the years.

“We’re only six teams around Quebec,” Mr Archambault says. “For me, it’s not normal. It’s a good level of hockey, and there should be at least 8 or 10 teams around the league. I think it’s because of the [way the league was] before.”

Without the level of entertainment that used to be on offer, crowds are dwindling. Teams are now less inclined to spend a lot of money with the expectation of coming out with no profit, meaning many aren’t able to sustain their place in the league.

One of the league’s more successful teams are the Sorel-Tracy Éperviers, a long-standing league member with regular success over the years. The team is the current league champion, and works particularly hard to be financially sustainable.

“We’re not into paying a lot of money for [players]. Our best player is not making $500 [a game]. A lot of people around the league make more than $500, but then you see at the end of the season those teams lose a lot of money.”

Having lost a number of players since the success of last season, the team is already feeling the strain on the roster. For all the teams in the league, replacing players of the same standard for the same cost can be a headache.

“Losing a couple of players in our team has made some empty spots that right now we’re not able to fill. Right now there are not many players on the team that can play, so the players that are there need to play.”

Once the world's most violent hockey league, Quebec's Ligue Nord-Américaine de Hockey (LNAH) is having to reinvent itself as the role of the enforcer fades away
Once the world’s most violent hockey league, Quebec’s Ligue Nord-Américaine de Hockey (LNAH) is having to reinvent itself as the role of the enforcer fades away

 

With the risk of fatigue and injuries always a concern, this lack of bodies can be make or break for a team such as Sorel-Tracy. It will need to make the most of any opportunities it gets to bring in new faces.

“Every year there is a draft, to draft players from Europe. When guys are done with junior, sometimes they go to the NHL, or they go East Coast League, they go Europe, and when they’re done they finish their hockey career here.”

The hope is that these European drafts will help fill the hole left by the enforcers of yesteryear. One thing that seems likely is that the quality of the league will only go up, with less focus on the physical side of the game and more on faster, technical players.

With the decline in tougher players joining the league, the LNAH has had to adapt. As is always the case in sports, this comes down to money. The league hopes there will be enough talent on show to keep bringing in crowds, even without the promise of a fight.

Find out more about Les Éperviers de Sorel-Tracy by visiting https://sorel.lnah.com.