At the end of the first episode of the CBC documentary Summit 72, Team Canada has surprisingly lost the first game of the eight-game Summit Series against the Soviet Union, 7-3. Played out at the hockey shrine that was the old Montreal Forum, it was a decisive defeat, not only for the team of NHL all-stars but for the Canadian approach to the game overall. That the elite finesse of the Soviets just might be superior to the brawnier North American style was a shock consideration in 1972.
“It was a demonstration that you could not only play hockey in a different way, you could play it at the top level in a different way,” Team Canada goalie Ken Dryden explains in the four-part documentary, which premieres Wednesday (8 p.m.) on CBC and CBC Gem. “Game One was the most transformational game ever played in hockey’s history.”
Dryden’s tone is sombre and reflective, as is the music that follows. “Ah, the dreamers ride against the men of action,” Leonard Cohen sings on The Traitor. “Oh, see the men of action falling back.” The choice of the late Montrealer’s funereal song is an unusual one for a hockey documentary, and indicative of an atypical soundtrack that accompanies all four episodes.
“What we were trying to aspire to is that track from a known artist, but something you’ve never heard before,” says Dave Bidini, Summit 72′s music director. “When it came to The Traitor, I wanted to portray this poetic dominance by the Soviet Union in full view, in the most hallowed rink in the country, in the most pivotal sporting moment in our country’s history.”
Though the initial thought was to stick to songs from1972, the palette was broadened to include music from that decade and beyond. For example, Victory Lap by Winnipeg punk band Propagandhi is only five years old. Go-to hockey anthems such as Stompin’ Tom’s The Hockey Song and Tom Cochrane’s Big League were never seriously considered.
“We wanted to establish this as a different kind of Summit Series documentary,” says Bidini, a singer-guitarist with the folk-rock band the Rheostatics and the author of 13 books, including one on the Summit Series. “I mean, none of the other ‘72 films ever had a Belgian new-wave pop track out of the box.”
He’s referring to Ça plane pour moi by the excitable Plastic Bertrand. The song is used in the first episode to capture the strange combination of overconfidence and nervousness attached to a historic hockey match against an exotic opposition.
There are no songs from the subject of Bidini’s Writing Gordon Lightfoot, a book set in 1972. “I really did try to find a place for Lightfoot,” Bidini says. “Nothing seemed to fit, unfortunately.”
A spot was found for Triumph’s Fight the Good Fight from 1982. “The Canadian players were being asked to dig down deeper for character and identity, in a fight that they had never had to face before,” former Triumph singer-guitarist Rik Emmitt told The Globe and Mail. “That’s the common element between the song and the story of that hockey team.”
The use of Cohen’s The Traitor almost didn’t happen. After the troubadour’s estate denied permission to use the song, Bidini reached out to Merck Mercuriadis, the Canadian who heads up Britain-based Hipgnosis Song Management, which owns Cohen’s catalogue. He granted clearance for the track.
“I thought it was important for Leonard to be represented in the documentary,” says Mercuriadis. “This was not just a sporting moment, it was a cultural moment.”
Mercuriadis was a child in small-town Nova Scotia in 1972. He remembers his Greek grandmother, who didn’t speak a word of English, throwing a slipper at the television set when she heard the Soviet national anthem. Bidini, of Italian-Canadian heritage, recalls the fiery televised speech by Phil Esposito after Team Canada was booed off the ice after Game Four in Vancouver.
“Here’s this big Italian guy with dark hair and sideburns, sounding like my uncles,” says Bidini. “Gordon Sinclair and Pierre Berton were the kind of people on CBC back then, and, God bless them, but not many of them had names that ended in vowels.”
Not many CBC types had names that ended in the letter ‘q’ either. The song Bidini chose to play over Paul Henderson’s series-winning goal in Moscow is Uja, by Inuk throat singer and avant-garde composer Tanya Tagaq. In 1972, residents of Northern Canada didn’t receive a live televised transmission of the games. They heard the radio call and watched the game a day later.
“I wanted to honour the Indigenous relationship with hockey and also find a contemporary track by a brilliant Canadian performer,” says Bidini.
Mesmerizing enough on its own, Tagaq’s Uja is set against the frenzied action on the ice, Foster Hewitt’s breathless play-by-play – “Henderson made a wild stab for it and fell” – and clips of a transfixed former prime minister John Diefenbaker watching the broadcast from his couch. The moment in the documentary is near delirious.
“A generic rock track from the era just wouldn’t have worked,” says Bidini. “There’s so much tension in that track – it’s like holding and expelling one’s breath at the same time. And that’s how we felt in those moments as a nation.”
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