Legends of Hockey - Spotlight - Harry Sinden - The Pinnacle
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Harry Sinden was named head coach of Team Canada for the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union. (Graphic Artists/HHOF)
Although an excellent defenceman, Harry Sinden was labelled too slow-footed for the ‘Original Six’ National Hockey League. But he parlayed his skills and determination into a highly successful coaching and management career, the pinnacle of which was the Summit Series of 1972, that led him to his spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Sinden had been out of hockey for two seasons and desperately missed the game that had monopolized a large part of his adult life. No NHL coach at the time was willing to surrender training camp in order to coach the team of elite Canadian professionals that would face off against the finest players the Soviet Union had to put forward. Sinden lobbied for the coaching role, and with a portfolio that included NHL as well as international success, he was a shoo-in for the position. ‘Team Canada’ was, in fact, a term coined by Sinden.

The Summit Series was an eight-game exhibition series – four games in Canada followed by four in Moscow. As Sinden was hired in the summer for the September tournament, there was little time to prepare. Harry named the just-retired John Ferguson as his assistant.

Harry was concerned about the conditioning of his team, knowing that the Soviets would be in top-notch shape. Erroneous scouting reports indicated that Team Canada should be able to roll over their opponents, but Sinden showed cautious optimism. He was correct – the Soviets astonished Team Canada with a 7-2 victory in Game One, played in Montreal. While Canada won Game Two in Toronto 4-1 and tied the third game, played in Winnipeg, 4-4, the series was not going anywhere near the prognostications. When the Soviet Union won Game Four 5-3 in Vancouver, the spectators booed Canada off the ice.

Phil Esposito, the de facto captain of Team Canada, chastised the Canadian fans for their lack of support. A week later, as the series moved to Moscow, 2,700 fans arrived in the Soviet capital to support their boys.

Team Canada narrowly defeated the Soviets (4 games to 3)
in the 1972 Summit Series. (HHOF)
Sinden was faced with a number of challenges that threatened to tear apart Team Canada. Not only did he need to swing popular opinion back in his team’s favour, but there was an internal struggle that needed to be addressed. Several players, including Vic Hadfield and Gilbert Perreault, chose to leave the team to head back to their respective training camps because having grown disillusioned with their playing time. Sinden rallied the team together and, in two exhibition games in Sweden, the team pulled together.

While Team Canada lost 5-4 in Game Five, there was clearly a different spirit to the team. Receiving boxloads of telegrams from Canadian supporters certainly didn’t hurt, either.

Canada took Game Six with a 3-2 win and followed with a 4-3 victory in Game Seven.

Heading into Game Eight, only a win would deliver victory as each team had three wins, three losses and a tie. The entire country shut down in order to watch the game. Team Canada took a number of questionable penalties early in the game. A marginal call against J.P. Parise caused emotions to boil over. Parise was assessed a match penalty, resulting in Sinden throwing a chair onto the ice. After the first period, the score was 2-2, but by the end of the second, the Soviet Union was ahead by 5-3. But Team Canada had a quiet confidence, and roared back in the third. Phil Esposito and Yvan Cournoyer scored to tie the game.

In the final minute of play, with Phil Esposito, Yvan Cournoyer and Peter Mahovlich on the ice, Paul Henderson hollered for Mahovlich to come off. With just 34 seconds remaining, Henderson hurried into the play, missed jamming the puck past Soviet netminder Vladislav Tretiak but circled back and tucked the rebound past the prone goalie, scoring the most famous goal in Canadian hockey history. Canada held on for the final 34 seconds to win the game ... and the series.

Sinden had accomplished the near-Impossible, swinging momentum back in favour of his squad to take the Summit Series. The legacy of the tournament has grown through the decades to make it not just an important hockey series but one of the most significant cultural events in Canadian history.

The series cemented Sinden’s reputation as an outstanding leader, and within days, he had settled his differences with the management of the Boston Bruins and signed a five-year deal to become general manager of the team he left in 1970.

Harry Sinden recorded a diary throughout the Summit Series, which was later published as 'Hockey Showdown.'

Kevin Shea is the Editor of Publications and On-Line Features for the Hockey Hall of Fame.