The Greatest Goal – 50th Anniversary

Math was never my favorite subject at school.  I barely scraped by with a passing grade and to this day I am still very intimidated by anything that is more complex than adding or subtracting numbers.  However, when it came to hockey stats in the early 70’s, it was like I had an eidetic memory.  I could rattle off the jersey numbers of every player in the NHL (National Hockey League) and I knew the stats of every single player on my favorite team.   

I was in Grade Nine, growing up in the small logging community of Sooke, British Columbia.  My two best friends and I were avid hockey fans and femme fatales, all in the throes of the feminist revolution.  While the other girls at school fretted over their hair and makeup, we took a shop class and played on an all-girls floor-hockey team at our high school.  Our favorite NHL team was the Montreal Canadiens and my idol was the up and coming superstar, Guy Lafleur.  I took great interest in every game and I followed his career with a statistician’s preciseness.  I was abysmally disappointed when my idol was not selected to play on a team that saw NHL stars pitted against a selection of Russian players in a friendly eight game exhibition that would be called the Canada – USSR Summit Series.

The series was played at a time when Cold War tensions were running high.  I wasn’t interested in the overall politics of the games, but I knew our nation’s prowess in hockey and so I was convinced that our guys would dominate the series knowing that hockey was, after all, Canada’s game!  When Russia beat Canada soundly 7 – 3 in the first game in Montreal, my friends and I were as much in shock as the rest of the country.  We talked of little else during the next few weeks.  School work assigned was mostly forgotten or at least put on hold.  The only math homework I did was trying to comprehend the bewildering stats of our national team: 1 win, 1 tie and two losses on Canadian ice. It just didn’t add up!

When the fifth game shifted to Moscow, my friends and I were riding the roller coaster of nationalistic furor.  No longer were the games just about playing hockey, it was about securing our dominance of the game and declaring our national pride!  We sported the Team Canada colours by purchasing too-large jerseys for our tiny girlish frames.  Canadian flags were put up in our bedroom windows…but there was just one thing we hadn’t calculated…the time difference. 

While we had been able to watch the first four games on television because those games had been played in Canadian cities, the final four games were in Moscow so those games would be telecast early in the mornings in our time zone, the exact same time as we were supposed to be in Mr. Ruxton’s math class!

A black and white T.V. was set up in the school library for students with spares so they could watch the fifth game.  We could hear their cheering while we were in agony trying to concentrate on integers and fractions.  When an audible groan rose up from down the hall we learned that Russia had won 5-4.  I all but blamed Mr. Ruxton for the loss.

My friends and I had a sleepover so we could watch the Sunday morning game six.  Team Canada was up against the formidable stickhandling of Yakushev and Kharlamov as well as the brilliant goaltending of Vladislav Tretiak once again.  We breathed a collective sigh of relief, when Team Canada won the hard-fought game 3-2.  Later, my friends and I huddled together to figure out how we could see the last two games at school the following week.  We hit on the idea to bring our transistor radios and using headphones we could listen to the play-by-play during math class.  (This was long before iPods or iPhones and students were never allowed to be “plugged in” during class.)  We knew we would be taking a huge risk if we were caught, but it was a chance worth taking!

I hid my transistor radio under my jean jacket and camouflaged the earbuds under my long hair. Game seven had already started when I put my head down and tried to look as studious as possible while at the same time concentrating on the game that was statically broadcast on the radio.  With the score tied 3-3 close to the end of the third period, my friends and I exchanged forlorn glances.  I felt like crying.  Then with less than three minutes to play, Paul Henderson deked out the Russian defenseman, Tsygankov and scored on Tretiak!  My two friends and I reacted instantaneously and sprang from our seats screeching, “Yahooooo!” in unison.  It was like a nuclear bomb had exploded in the class.

Mr. Ruxton jumped from his desk and glared menacingly at me, “What is the meaning of this outburst?”

 Without hesitation I said, “I just LOVE math!!”  

He shook his head while the rest of the class giggled “busted!” and then he motioned for us to show him our radios.  We sheepishly obliged and then he asked, “What was the final score?”  He had been on to us from the very beginning!

On Thursday, September 28th, 1972 in an unprecedented move, Mr. Ruxton dismissed our math class early so we could join the rest of the school in watching the eighth and final game of the Summit Series on T.V.  My statistician brain was adding up the facts.  Heading into that final game each team had three wins and three losses and one tie but the Soviets were ahead in goal differential by two goals.  It didn’t take a math genius to figure out that Team Canada had to win this crucial, last game in order to win the series.  With the Soviet team ahead 5-3 at the end of the second period, I remember looking over at Mr. Ruxton who looked as subdued and depressed as I did.  Surely even going back to math class was better than watching Canada go down to defeat. Then Phil Esposito scored midway through the third period to put the Canadians within one goal.  When Yvan Cournoyer scored soon after to tie the game, everyone around me went wild!  All our eyes were fixed on the time clock maddeningly counting down to the last minute of play.  In those last few seconds I held my breath.  No one moved, no one blinked. 

It all looked like it happened in slow motion.  With only 34 seconds left to play, Esposito shot the puck at Tretiak only to have Paul Henderson pick up the rebound.  Tretiak went down, Henderson lifted the puck and then Foster Hewitt yelled, “They score!  Henderson scored for Canada!” 

I remember the cheering around me was deafening as I grabbed my two best friends and we twirled in a circle, holding each other in a frenzied display of unabashed joy.  We were crying, we were laughing, teachers and students alike.  Mr. Ruxton, looked over at me and winked.  I hated math but I loved Mr. Ruxton at that moment!  While the players shook hands there in Moscow, we all burst into the spontaneous singing of “O’Canada”, and I knew that I had just witnessed a moment in history that would never again be repeated. 

(Used by permission. My story, “The Greatest Goal” was originally published in the Chicken Soup for the Soul book: The Spirit of Canada – June 6, 2017.)

Paul Henderson scores the winning goal – Canada-Russia 1972 Summit Series
This entry was posted in Canadiana, Proverbs 16:9 - Journey Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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