Canada's Cold War On Ice


As a baby boomer growing up in Canada, I can remember only vaguely today the televised coverage of the John F. Kennedy assassination or the Apollo moon landing.

The 1972 Canada-Soviet Summit Series, however, is as fresh and vivid in my memory as if it happened yesterday.

Those eight hockey games in September remain forever etched in my mind. Although 34 years have passed, I recall exactly where I was, who I was with and the roller-coaster ride of emotions churning in my stomach while watching the games.

And why the heck not? The series not only changed world hockey, it climaxed in Canada's great sports victory of all time.

Even for many non-hockey fans, the series is arguably the most iconic Canadian story in 40 years. Indeed, the event was recently voted one of Canada's 10 most important news stories.

It was far more than just a hockey contest. It was a dramatic Cold War confrontation that jumped the Iron Curtain to pit the East against the West, communism against capitalism. And even much more than that - it was all about hockey being our game - and nobody was going to steal it away from us.

During the series, kids and adults skipped school studies and workplace duties to amass around radios or TVs. Far from a friendly exhibition - the games exploded into war on ice. The sheer intensity galvanized Canadians of all creed, colour and both official languages. And omigod when Paul Henderson scored the series-winning goal with seconds left, we leapt screaming to our feet collectively as a nation.

Now there's a two-part, four-hour CBC miniseries recreating these exciting games and times, airing tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m. on Cable 4. The show stars Booth Savage as Harry Sinden, Judah Katz as Alan Eagleson, David Berni as Phil Esposito and Gabriel Hogan as Ken Dryden

Shot in documentary style, Canada Russia '72 takes us behind the scenes for a look at the intrigue and political jockeying that went on during the international showdown on ice.

Canada Russia '72 is written by Barrie Dunn and Malcolm MacRury, from a story by Dunn. The miniseries was produced by Dunn and Mike Volpe of Summit Films in Halifax and Timothy M. Hogan and Rick LeGuerrier of Dream Street Pictures in Moncton in association with the CBC.

The show is directed by former Edmontonian T.W. Peacocke, a lifelong hockey player (junior varsity at Yale) and fan.

Peacocke, contacted by telephone in Toronto, was aware of the challenges faced in filming this particular subject, and the reasons no one else had attempted to make the movie before.

"It was just really a tall order. You had to recreate all this period stuff - an expensive endeavour - and Canadian miniseries just don't have that kind of budget. I think that scared a lot of people off. I also think a certain time had to pass as well."

Ultimately, you need someone willing to produce it - and that was Barrie Dunn (creator of Trailer Park Boys; he also plays Ricky's wheelchair-bound dad), added Peacocke.

Because so many people know the story, getting the movie right was the biggest challenge, especially on a budget of $7.8 million and a gruelling 39-day shooting schedule.

"Details were really important to us, like who had their NHL numbers on their skates if they were wearing a different number. Bobby Clarke had 16 on his skates, even though he wore 28 on his Team Canada jersey," said Peacocke.

Old tube-blade skates were found; other equipment had to be made. "We had to have the helmets made because we couldn't find those kind. We had blank sticks and arted them up to put the then-logos on to look vintage," said Peacocke.

"Every guy, even down to the knob on his stick, had to have his stick tapped the right way," explained Peacocke.

Actors portraying players learned to skate like their character, and fire the puck from the proper side. The miniseries demanded not only actors who could play hockey - but also that they look like someone from the '72 series.

Despite those restrictions, more than 1,000 actors applied.

"The casting was probably the single most time-consuming thing in pre-production. For the most part, we did really well. Some of these guys are dead ringers," said Peacocke.

"The actors that got parts were so committed, so into their roles, it was almost a religious experience. All the actors worked for scale - and we had some guys who don't do that normally. Everybody wanted to be a part of this," said Peacock.

Even certain celebrities. Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie auditioned for the role of Ken Dryden. Trailer Park Boys Bubbles and Julian also tried out.

"Yeah," Peacocke laughed. "Those guys came to check it out. Mike Smith, the guy who plays Bubbles, is a very good hockey player, but just didn't look like anybody. We went for the guys who were right for the part."

Shot entirely in New Brunswick, the crew wore hockey jerseys to work every day and during lunchbreaks played shinny. The movie was filmed like a semi-documentary.

"Our conceit was that someone had privileged access to the Canadians in the dressing rooms and hotel rooms, and had followed them around, and that this footage had been found, and we've come back and made a film out of it," said Peacocke.

"We don't do any Hollywood stuff on the ice, we shoot from the stands and from the penalty box and from the players box. We had to do that to generate that feeling where anything could happen, and the cameraman was always a little bit behind. It lends it a real energy," explained Peacocke.

"The overriding notion that everybody has is that the Soviets kick Canada's butt in Game 1, and Canada came back and Henderson scored the winner. But how it all got there, I think, is in the details - the dynamics of what really went on between the players and the moment-to-moment responses.

"We tried to be very truthful with that stuff, always drawing on things that people had written or said, first-hand accounts. I think the movie contains plenty of little surprises and things that people may not remember," said Peacocke.

The show screened last week at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto for several original Team Canada members, including Paul Henderson, Harry Sinden, Serge Savard, Yvan Cournoyer and Bill White.

"I don't get particularly nervous about my work, but driving to the Hall that day I almost threw up in the car," he laughed. "But we've had a really good response. I sat beside Paul Henderson and he was grinning the whole time. He came up to me after, and said, 'You guys really got it right,' and that was huge. Harry Sinden really liked it and appreciated the accuracy. Savard shook my hand and said we did a really great job."

Peacocke even managed to suit up for the movie.

"We were working on the script and had player pictures up and Dunn says, 'Hey, here's a guy you can play.' It was the oldest player on the Russian team. Barry says, 'He kind of looks like you. He's a defenceman so he's probably slow, too.' So I was Victor Kuzkin. Any time you see No. 4, that's me," he laughed.

Peacocke was only 12 years old at the time of the series, watching it in Edmonton. "I have the same memories as everyone, you know, watching it on the TV in the gym at school ...

"When Game 8 came around, I told my mom and dad (noted actor and director, and former U of A drama professor, Tom Peacocke) I wanted to watch the game, so they let me stay home and I watched it with them," he said.

"When it was 5-3 in the third period, I remember saying to my dad, 'They lost, it's over, right?' And he goes, 'Don't be so sure,' and I'll never forget that, because he was my hockey coach, too. And then Canada scored and scored, and it was incredibly unreal," said Peacocke.

"It was a defining moment for the country. It was part of that five- or six-year-period when we got a new flag, had this hip new prime minister (Pierre Trudeau), there was the FLQ crisis and Expo 67. I really feel that's when Canada really became Canada, what it is now, you know? And the Canada-Russia series was a huge part of it."

The series also offered an opportunity for reflection.

"Everybody knew why we weren't winning, and how we were winning when we started winning. There were a lot of questions about what price victory? Those Russians guys could really play, but they played a different game we hadn't seen before," he said.

"The response was to seize back our identity, seize back our game. That's what those players felt they had to do. Esposito said it was war. I think that's what people in the country felt, too. Like this is our best and brightest going to battle in the name of a flag," said Peacocke.

"It was a much bigger than just a hockey series, it became something important to the country. It's part of our history."