The greatest hockey game ever: Harry Sinden and the 1972 Canada-Russia series
With just 34 seconds on the clock, Canada’s Paul Henderson fired a shot past goaltender Vladislav Tretiak to capture the first Canada-Soviet Union hockey series. It is perhaps the most famous game in the history of hockey – the final match of an eight-game Cold War showdown between democracy and communism.
After seven games in Canada and Russia, the series was deadlocked at three wins each and a tie. The final game was in Moscow on Sept. 28, 1972. In the stands, Canadian fans chanted “Da, da Canada, nyet, nyet Soviet.” Back in Canada that afternoon, millions of hockey fans (and non-fans) were glued to their television sets, gathering in school gymnasiums, offices and homes. The entire nation went wild when Henderson scored to give Canada a 6-5 lead.
Behind the Canadian bench, coach Harry Sinden stood with a worried look on his face. “I knew that it was far from over,” he recalls from his home in Massachusetts. “I called the team over to the bench and told them not to let the Russians have an odd-man rush.”
Moments later, the Soviets did just that – roaring back with a three on two that was fortunately turned away by defencemen Pat Stapleton (a former Kingston Frontenacs star) and Bill White.
Sinden says the series was the biggest highlight of his career – even greater than coaching the Boston Bruins to a Stanley Cup victory in 1970. “That series became a political series between democracy and communism and was followed around the world. It got a lot of attention about which system was right and which one was wrong.”
Many of the Canadian skaters felt the same way. “Some of the players were as proud of that series as winning Stanley Cups,” Sinden says.
The first international hockey showdown, the summit featured an epic Canadian all-star team, including Ken Dryden, Phil Esposito, Guy Lapointe, Stan Mikita and Kingston’s Wayne Cashman.
In the summer of 1972, Canadians were so cocky about their hockey prowess that the pundits were predicting that Canada would sweep all eight games.
Harry Sinden was not one of them. He had seen the Russians play and was in awe of their superb conditioning. While the Canadian squad was cobbled together from various NHL teams, the Soviets had played as a team for years, perfecting their goal-scoring plays.
“I was concerned that we might be caught off guard, although I didn’t think they could beat us,” he recalls.
In those days, NHL players took the summer off to relax and play golf – there was no thought about staying in shape. In 1972, they gave up part of their vacation to head to Toronto in August for the Team Canada training camp at Maple Leaf Gardens. “It was probably the hottest summer on record in Toronto and the players really had tough workouts,” Sinden says. “It helped us in the end.”
Sinden was born in Toronto (not Kingston, as some sources say). He played for Oshawa in the OHA and then the Whitby Dunlops in the OHA senior league. In 1960, he came to Kingston to join the Kingston Frontenacs of the Eastern Professional Hockey League as a player-coach.
Even though the league only lasted four years, at the time it was the premier development venue for the NHL. The Kingston Frontenacs were a Boston farm team, adopting the Bruins’ black and gold colours.
In those days, teams often traveled by train. While that was definitely slow, it did provide opportunities for up-and-coming coaches to get to know the brass. On the train, Sinden would often dine with Boston general manager Lynn Patrick, chatting about hockey on the long journey. When the EPHL folded, Sinden headed to Minneapolis to coach in the Central Professional Hockey League.
With the Bruins struggling in the 1965-66 season, Patrick knew he was about to be fired. “In one of his last acts, he named me as the next coach of the Bruins,” Sinden says. At the age of 33, he was the youngest bench boss in the league – and was saddled with a team that hadn’t made the playoffs in seven years.
However, luck was on his side. At the same time, a young player named Bobby Orr was turning the defence position upside down by rushing down the ice and scoring buckets of goals.
In 1968, under Sinden’s guidance and with Orr’s scoring prowess, Boston finally made the playoffs. “It seems the better players you have, the better coach you are,” jokes Sinden.
However, Boston’s owner and managers knew that they couldn’t win the Stanley Cup with just a one-man show. In a blockbuster trade, the Bruins acquired star forward Phil Esposito from the Chicago Blackhawks. With Gerry Cheevers between the pipes, Boston had assembled a powerful team.
In 1970, the Bruins captured the Stanley Cup, easily beating the expansion St. Louis Blues in the final. Orr scored the winning goal, flying through the air in celebration. Kingston’s Rick Smith and Wayne Cashman played vital roles in the championship.
And then something strange happened. Stanley Cup champion coach Harry Sinden went to management and asked for a modest raise on his $16,000 a year salary. At the time, the average pay for an NHL coach was $25,000 and Sinden was seeking $22,000.
The Bruins said no. “I took it as they didn’t want me or didn’t need me,” he says.
Instead, he accepted a job in Rochester, working with a friend in the home-building business. The pay? More than double what he was making with the Bruins. He later turned down offers from other NHL teams. With a family to feed, he stuck with constructing houses.
The 1972 Canada-USSR series would prove to be his route back to the NHL. And it was very timely. He was on vacation in Cape Code when he got a call from the building company, asking him to return to Rochester – the firm was going bankrupt.
“I drove up to the office and there was a security guard there,” he recalls. “They took the keys to my company car and told me to get home as best as I could.”
Following the dramatic victory in Moscow, Sinden’s name was gold and he rejoined the Bruins as general manager. Under his watch, the team qualified for the playoffs for 29 straight seasons, making the finals five times (although they lost all five). He remains with the Bruins as an advisor to the owner. In 2011, his name was added to the Stanley Cup for the second time, 41 years after his coaching win.
Now 88, he still treasures his time in Kingston. “It was one of the best episodes of our lives. It’s a beautiful city and we made a lot of friends there.”
In the off-season in Kingston, he sold real estate and helped develop the suburb of Amherstview. Even after Sinden joined Boston, the family continued to live in Kingston for a couple of years.
Sinden is the godfather of the late The Tragically Hip singer Gord Downie.
He is part of the organizing team putting together a celebration next year to mark the 50th anniversary of the Canada-USSR series. He’s hoping that alumni from both Canada and Russia will be able to attend.
Some have called Sept. 28, 1972 the most important day in Canadian history – bigger than Confederation, D-Day or Vimy Ridge. While that’s debatable, Sinden recalls a Canada-Russia alumni golf tournament decades after the win. “There was a huge lineup of young people asking the players for autographs. Most of them weren’t even alive in 1972 but they knew about the game – that team made an indelible mark on Canada.”