Everyone remembers the moment Paul Henderson scored the Summit Series-winning goal over the U.S.S.R. in 1972. It was a pivotal moment in Canadian sports history.
But could it also have affected the politics of our world? It might sound like a Canadian fantasy but a visiting research chair at Carleton is making that claim.
“At that time, there were ample reasons for the Canadian government and Canadian people to be concerned,” says John Soares, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame, penning a book on hockey and its impact on Cold War international relations.
Hockey was a way for Canadians to show “we are here, we are a serious society,” he says.
Making the connection between hockey and history was only natural for Soares, who grew up in a passionate hockey home in the U.S. northeast. His father was a former minor league player turned NHL scout.
But his far-fetched theory seems to hold frozen water.
Cold War historians have merely “ignored” hockey’s role in the struggle between communism and capitalism, he says.
“The ’70s were a tough decade,” says Soares. “It’s easy to forget how difficult things looked . . . but a lot of things appeared to be going wrong.”
The U.S. – still reeling from the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal – was having serious economic problems. To make matters worse, communists were taking power in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Soares says people started asking the question, “Did we really have a chance to actually prevail (over communism)?”
This struggle was also apparent in Europe. No one can deny the impact of Team Czechoslovakia’s victory over the Soviet Union during the world hockey championship in 1969. Celebrations among hockey fans helped bring about change in government, says Soares, pushing reformer Alexander Dubcek out of power once and for all.
“Kremlin leaders (and Czechoslovak hardliners) thought his reforms would permit counter-revolutionaries to undermine communist control,” says Soares.
Hockey also helped cement Canada’s status as a nation with its own identity, unafraid to deliver a body check on the ice or the political stage.
During the Cold War, Canada was perceived to be a democratic society with a long tradition of civilized international relations and respect for human rights.
Hockey was one of the big ways Canada was able to build closer ties with the Soviet Union and demonstrate its independence and distinctiveness from the U.S., says Soares.
The famous Summit Series did just that, with Canada coming from behind in Game 8 to eke out a win over the Soviets.