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The Summit Series Was Years in the Making

[From Ottawa to Moscow, and a few stops in between, a legion of bureaucrats and hockey executives set the table for what became one of the great sporting spectacles of the era.]

But nowhere was the intrigue more sophisticated, than in the international arena of world hockey. Not long after Hockey Canada was formed in 1969, a Canadian delegation travelled to an International Ice Hockey Federation meeting in Cranz in June. Hockey Canada proposed an “open” competition between the best of Europe and a Canadian team using 12 pros. In the end, Canada had to settle for nine non-NHL players among the pros. The Winnipeg-based national team thus entered a tournament in Leningrad, bolstered by pros and became the first Canadian squad to win against the Russians since the Trail Smoke Eaters won the World Championship in 1961. A couple of months later, Canada took second place in the Izvestia tournament.

In January 1970, however, Bunny Ahearne’s antipathy to Canada’s hockey policy prevailed at an IIHF meeting in Geneva. The league decided that five European clubs scheduled to play in the world championships in Canada in 1970 would not participate because of the new ground rules allowing Canadian pros. Canada replied that unless it could play some professionals, it would not participate either. But Canada did offer to stage an exhibition tournament, using some professionals. When that was rejected, Canada felt it had no course but to withdraw from international play. The Canadian delegation, in fact, had already agreed before leaving for the Geneva meeting that if the IIHF proposed to ban the use of pros by Canada, Canada would quit.

Despite the withdrawal, oil man and Hockey Canada President Charles Hay was back in Stockholm in March for the IIHF meeting. “I was just there sticking my nose in,” he smiles. But he also had a firm proposal: an “unrestricted“ series of exhibition games involving Canada, Sweden, Finland and others. The IIHF rejected the offer.

Back home in the summer of 1970, Hockey Canada took what proved to be an historic and important step: it formed an IIHF negotiating committee, chaired by Doug Fisher and including the CAHA, which was really the only official link that Canada had to the world hockey body. The Canadian committee, as it eventually turned out, provided the respectability the Russians needed before they could agree to the current series. They did not, in short, want to bypass Ahearne and his IIHF. It was then-Toronto Leaf president Stafford Smythe who suggested that Canada challenge members of the IIHF ‘A Pool’ of top teams in a round-robin tournament in Canada. There was a positive reaction to that suggestion, but the Europeans expressed confusion about which teams they could send to play.

In December 1970, with the impasse continuing, Hay and Gordon Jukes of the CAHA went to Moscow for the Izvestia tournament in which the Canadian national team placed second. They pursued their challenge to Russia, Sweden and Czechoslovakia to come to Canada for a round robin tournament. By that time some important groundwork had already been laid in Canada for the series: the Hockey Canada board, NHL President Clarence Campbell and Allan Eagleson agreed that if Hockey Canada could produce an open, international round robin, the players’ association of the NHL would cooperate.

Bunny Ahearne

In March 1971, the Canadian proposal went before an IIHF meeting in Geneva. Only Sweden and Russia were interested in the exhibition, it became clear. But the IIHF, which was by now in the thick of negotiating the Canadian proposal, countered with a three-pronged response. Because the IIHF wanted to avoid a single round robin with Canadian pros, they proposed a return trip to Russia by the Canadian pros; a Canadian entry in the ‘B Pool’ of the IIHF championships — a division normally reserved for such hockey powers as Japan, the Sudan and New Zealand; and a tour of Russia by a Canadian amateur team.

Clearly Canada could not accept such an affront. Never before had Canada been relegated to the ‘B Pool’. But as Charlie Hay notes about Ahearne’s gambit: “He wanted to bring us to our knees. Our scheme was an erosion of his position.” Canada rejected the counter offer.

Later in May 1970, Ahearne visited Canada, trotting out his ‘Olympic purity’ bugaboo and being generally unpleasant about Canada’s role in hockey. Despite his public displays of uncouth, Hay stoically entertained Ahearne. One veteran hockey insider quipped: “If there is one thing that Ahearne admires, it is money.“ And here, dealing with the former president of Gulf Oil in Canada, Ahearne must have realized he had found a worthy opponent in Hay, the father of former Chicago star Red Hay.

Next came the winter Olympics and, as Hay puts it, “another political labyrinth.” The IIHF ruled that unless Canada entered the world hockey tournament in Berne, it could not play in Olympic hockey in Japan in 1972. Canada refused to bite. But the Japanese wanted Canadian hockey players at the Olympic games. An invitation was extended and Ahearne, apparently realizing he was about to be had, said he could approve the invitation. Again, however, Canada said no. “It wouldn’t really have settled our objective to get a top team to play the Russians,” Hay explains. Naturally the decision not to send a hockey team to the 1972 Olympics produced anger in Canada. But for Canada to have entered either the 1972 world championships or the Sapporo games would have amounted to a negation of its earlier posture — withdrawal until we can play our best.

Canada then formed a select committee which included Hay, Lou Lafaivre, head of Sport Canada, and Joe Kryczka, a Russian-speaking lawyer who was president of the CAHA [Canada’s formal connection to the IIHF]. That is an important connection to the Russians since they are firmly committed to retaining their standing in international hockey and the CAHA’s links to the IIHF enable them to accomplish that. At the same time there was full and close contact between Hockey Canada and Canada’s External Affairs department.

Canada’s Ambassador Robert Ford in Moscow, and other emissaries in Europe, beat the drums on behalf of the round robin tournament Canada wanted to host. Ford, or his agents, also leaked word that a one-on-one series with the Soviets was a possibility. The Soviet response was one of enthusiasm. [A key man in the mix was Canadian diplomat Gary Smith who first learned of the Soviet interests while reading a sports column in Izvestia. That story forms part of the book he published in spring 2020 called Ice War Diplomat. Smith travelled with the Soviet team in Canada and was an indispensable link here and in Moscow between Canadian and Russian players, officials and press, including this reporter].

In March 1972 in Prague the culmination of months of negotiations produced an inconspicuous-looking agreement, single-spaced over a page-and-a-half with no letterhead. The headline: “Unrestricted tournament.” The document described four games here and four games there. The final talks had taken only ten days.

Robert Lewis

Twelve years in the Parliamentary Press Gallery, former Editor-in-Chief at Maclean's, author "Power, Prime Ministers and the Press" (2018, Dundurn; available as audiobook).


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