40 years ago in the heat of August, two world-class teams were on the ice preparing for what turned out to be the greatest hockey series of all time.
Things were different then. While the best players from the Soviet Union trained hard all summer, the top Canadian talent from the NHL went through the motions, since Canada was heavily favoured to win the series.
In the end, the NHL stars just scraped through to win the showdown on a last-minute goal by Paul Henderson. The series proved that the Soviets could compete with Canada’s best.
To mark the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union, the national junior teams of Canada and Russia will play a four-game Canada-Russia Challenge Series in August. It also will be a preview of the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship, set to take place in Ufa, Russia, starting on December 26.
The teams will meet in Yaroslavl, Russia, August 9 and 10, and then fly to Halifax for the final two games on August 13 and 14.
Canada also is using the series as a replacement for its traditional national junior team summer development camp.
Canadian coach Steve Spott said the best 28 players in Canada were selected, regardless of whether they were born in 1993 or after that.
“For us as a staff it will be a chance to evaluate these players in a meaningful environment, not just a ‘red and white’ game,” he said. “This will be the first time any of these guys have been to Russia, so it’s nice we can go over in August, before going back for the World Juniors in December. They’ll be familiar with it.”
Meanwhile, former Soviet national team winger Mikhail Varnakov has named a preliminary roster of 29 players for the Russian training camp, which opens on July 31. It’s expected he will use the same team system employed by rookie national team coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov to win a gold medal at the World Championship in May.
Varnakov said it’s no secret he has been an associate coach with Bilyaletdinov.
“I worked with him for six years in Dynamo Moscow and two more with Ak Bars Kazan,” he said. “This will be an excellent schooling for our guys. Canadians always give us a big welcome. The style of the Canadians and Russians helps the growth of hockey.”
Although Russia defeated Canada 5-3 in the gold medal game of the 2011 World Juniors and eliminated the Canadians 6-5 in the semi-final of the 2012 World Juniors, Canada is likely to have a stronger team in August than it will for the 2013 tournament in Ufa.
Defenceman Ryan Murray, who played for Canada at the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Finland, could make the Columbus Blue Jackets in the fall, while Jonathan Huberdeau is given a good chance to win a job with the Florida Panthers and Dougie Hamilton could crack the roster of the Boston Bruins.
Mark Scheifele played seven games with the Winnipeg Jets last season and Ryan Strome will be given a very close look by the New York Islanders. It’s possible some or all of these players will make their final appearance as juniors in August.
Hamilton, who already has signed a contract with the Bruins, said he’s confident Canada can avenge the 6-5 loss in Calgary.
“We didn’t get the bounces at the start of that game,” he said. “They got some weird goals with pucks going in off players’ legs. They got the lead and we weren’t used to being behind.
“This time we have to be physical and take away their time and space.”
For the Hamilton family it will be a special time. The player’s parents, Doug Sr. and Lynn, will take in the two games in Halifax, which occur after the Summer Olympics. But when the London Games are on they’ll be in front of their TV sets every day. Doug Sr. represented Canada in rowing at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics and Lynn played basketball for Canada at the 1984 Games.
Winger Nail Yakupov, the first-round pick overall in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft by Edmonton, leads the Russian junior team, which also includes first rounders Mikhail Grigorenko, of the Buffalo Sabres, and goalie Andrei Vasilievski, who was drafted by Tampa Bay. Both Yakupov and Grigorenko have signed NHL contracts.
Three defencemen – Artyom Sergeyev, Nikita Nesterov and Mikhail Naumenko – who won silver medals in Calgary, add experience to the Russian roster.
Varnakov also has invited 17-year-old Pavel Buchnevich, who starred in his country’s gold medal win at the 2012 World Under-17 Challenge in Canada. Buchnevich is eligible for the 2013 draft.
The Russians will have to play without two of their best players Alexander Khokhlachev and Nikita Kucherov, who were drafted by Boston and Tampa Bay, respectively, in 2011. Both have injuries.
In August and September of 2007 the two countries participated in the Super Series, eight games between their national junior teams to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the Summit Series. Canada won that series handily with seven wins and a tie.
However, partly because of the launching of a new junior league in their country, the Russians have been steadily improving over the last five years, winning bronze medals at the 2008 and 2009 World Junior Championships, a gold in 2011 and a silver in 2012.
Canada has not won a gold medal since 2009, but Spott was an assistant coach with Canada’s national junior team at the 2010 IIHF World Junior Championship, winning a silver medal. He won gold as head coach of Canada’s national summer Under-18 team at the 2011 Memorial of Ivan Hlinka tournament.
In fact, besides a 32-team league for clubs in large cities, Russia now has a 19-team junior league for smaller cities. The age limit is higher, but only players of the required IIHF age will play in the series against Canada.
Varnakov was a bit too you young to play in the Summit Series, but he did star in the 1979 Challenge Cup between the Soviets and NHL All-Stars in New York and won a World Championship gold medal with the Soviet Union in Moscow in 1986.
He played on a famous Soviet national team line with Alexander Skvortsov and Vladimir Kovin. The trio also played together with Torpedo Gorki (now Nizhni Novgorod) of the old Soviet Elite League.
Some fans purchased tickets for the games in Canada, hoping to get a glimpse of 16-year-old Halifax native Nathan MacKinnon, whom scouts say could become the next Sidney Crosby.
However, Hockey Canada has a rule stating that players 17 and younger, who have not been a part of Canada's summer Under-18 program, are not eligible to participate in the Under-20 development camp.
MacKinnon, instead, will play for Canada in the Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament for Under-18 national teams in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, August 13-18.
The Maritimes sensation averaged better than a point per game as a rookie with Halifax and could be the first overall pick in the 2013 NHL draft.
Yaroslavl was selected to host the Russian half of the Challenge Series as a sort of a fresh new start for hockey in that city, which lost its entire KHL team in a tragic plane crash last September. Halifax fans are being rewarded for their tremendous support of the 2003 World Junior Championship.
Ticket packages for the two games in Halifax are selling for $86 (includes both games). In Yaroslavl, where the average income is a lot lower, the price range for tickets for each game is between $7.50 and $12.
5,000 ticket packages have been sold so far for the two games in Canada. Single game tickets go on sale this week.