Listen in, Michigan

Episode 53: The Greatest Comeback, Featuring John U. Bacon, BA '86/MA '94

Episode Summary

How Team Canada fought back, took the Summit Series, and reinvented hockey When prolific author and Michigan Today contributor John U. Bacon, BA '86/MA '94, pitched me on his new book about the 1972 Summit Series, I had no idea what he was talking about. But after a few sentences, delivered with Bacon's characteristic ebullience, I was in. This episode is just a little morsel that teases Bacon's latest sports tale, "The Greatest Comeback" (Harper Collins, 2022), a chronicle of the "most unforgettable matchup in hockey history." It was September 1972, and Cold War tensions were off the charts. What better time for an unprecedented eight-game hockey series between Canada and the national team of the Soviet Union? Team Canada, flush with its country’s best players — all NHL stars, half of them future Hall of Famers -- was expected to sweep the series. But five games in, the team had mustered only one win. With just three games left, Team Canada had to win the last three in Moscow. (Spoiler alert: They did.) The Summit players asked Bacon to tell their story and he spoke to almost every living member of the team. He says the series was an experience so unforgettable that each player considers those eight games to be the highlight of their storied careers. And, as with all unforgettable stories, the University of Michigan had a part to play. Red Berenson, BBA ’62/MBA ’66, U-M hockey coach for 33 seasons, not only played on the team, he's naturally one of Bacon's best sources.

Episode Notes

John U. Bacon at

Episode Transcription

Episode 53: The Greatest Comeback, Featuring John U. Bacon, BA '86/MA '94

Deborah Holdship: Hi, I’m Deborah Holdship, editor of Michigan Today. In this mini episode of “Listen in, Michigan,” I chat with John Bacon about his new book, The Greatest Comeback, and his top five highlights from the 100 years of the Michigan Hockey program. The 85% of the Canadians tuned into this game, so it's so crazy. 

John U. Bacon: Every Canadian knows about the Summit Series in 1972 and almost no Americans do.

It is the most important sporting event by far in Canada. I have argued, I think persuasively, that is the single most unifying month in Canadian history, more than Confederation when they become a country in 1867, because that took until 1982 until they were finally fully independent. Believe it or not, it's 115 years. World War One, World War Two: Obviously they were very important, both those wars, including D-Day, because of our shared sacrifices, shared triumphs. But this is Canada alone. 

It's an eight-game series. Oddly, it's supposed to be just an exhibition. Four in Canada, four in Moscow. And the reason for it is the Canadians, like our basketball team, the Dream team in ‘92 with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, they were sick of losing to the college kids. So they say, OK, screw it, we're getting our best guys together. You're going to get the full, full load. It's NHL All Stars, 16 of them are Hall of Famers, including, by the way, Red Berenson, who is on this team. And he plays a few games for them and plays an important role as well. 

Everyone predicts Canada will win. Everybody, all the writers, you name it. But they lose the first game, 7-3 in Montreal. And the headlines are atomic bomb headlines. “Hockey myth dies.” Harry Sinden, the coach of the team, gave me a great quote. He said, “Canada is known for two things: wheat and hockey. And nobody watches wheat.”

So there whole national identity is wrapped up in this. You know, hockey is their first, second, and third sport. It's not like us. We have, you know, basketball, football, baseball. 

So they're in Moscow. They've lost three of the first five games, tied one. So you've got three games left. You've got to win them all, in Moscow. You haven't won a game there yet. Guards with AK47s are lining the rink. Brezhnev is there for every game. It's a big global event for them, for Europe, and so on, [Canada] winning them all. And they do win them all, all by a goal, all. In the third period, Red Berenson had a great assist in the sixth game. They won 3-2, so obviously a crucial assist, and then they pulled the thing off. 

Game 8 is around 8:30 at night in Moscow and that's 2:30 or so in Toronto. And then what? 11:30 or so out West and Vancouver. 85 percent of the country watches that game. No one did anything in Canada that week. Not the companies, not the schools. At one point they wheeled TVs into the classrooms for students to watch. Then Wayne Gretzky complained to his dad that -- he's 11 at the time -- that they’re wheeling in this old black and white TV, “I can't see it…” So his dad said, “OK, fine.” 

So he allows him to skip school and go to the nextdoor neighbor’s because they had a color TV, which in 1972 is a big deal. So Gretzky watched all four games there. And I say, “Well, did they accuse you of skipping?” And he goes, “They knew where I was.” I explained to him that more Canadians saw Game 8, than saw the moon landing three years earlier, and they watched the moon landing. Like I said, 85% watched the Summit Series. 

Alan Eagleson, the guy who organized this whole thing said, “My question is, what the heck were the other 15 percent doing?” And I told Gretzky about the moon landing and he shrugged and looked at me as though I had two heads and he said: “Yeah, it's more important.” His great teammate Mark Messier was another. He wrote the foreward ffor the book. God bless him, and I explained the same thing to him. He said, “If the moon had better ice, maybe we'd go, right? We had no reason to go.”

So this is the most important event in Canadian sporting history and it's one of the two or three events, according to their surveys in their history. It changed hockey forever. The hybrid style that University of Michigan now plays, which is hard hitting NHL plus fast skating and passing European style, that was all born month. And this month in 1972 was the same month as the Boris Spassky/Fischer chess match. It’s the same month as the Munich Olympics, with Mark Spitz, the USA Basketball team losing the gold medal for the first time with a crazy triple finish. They got screwed out of the gold medal. And of course, the the PLO and the Israeli athletes. Mark Mulvoy, the longtime editor in chief of Sports Illustrated who covered this series, said that this is the most important month in sports as far as all things that happened all at once. And the chess match was on the cover of Time magazine, which is pretty crazy. And Ted Turner, of course, who founded CNN, said, “Look, you don't care about kayaking, but if one of those guys is a Soviet and the other guy isn’t, you're gonna watch.” Because back then you would. So, this is the throwback to this amazing tension that we felt. 

Every guy on this team -- and some of them have won ten Stanley Cups -- every guy on this team says this is the highlight of their career and, in many cases, their lives. I love it. 

DH: So, you must had so much fun talking to all these guys. 

JUB: There are 35 players crazily and I talked about 25, 26 of them, all the ones who were left. I got to do this because Ross Child, who played goalie at Michigan, that’s his photo when you walked down the steps of the new Pretzel Bell. He’s the goalie with no mask and his son was my best friend and he was a teammate of Red’s. So we're the only kids in the U.S., in our school at least, that were running home after school to watch this on Channel 9, CKLW, CBC. This is one of my very first sports memories. I got to meet all my heroes in the process,s and they usually tell us, Deborah, in my line of work, don't meet your heroes. You're going to be disappointed. 

These guys were fantastic, including Red Berenson. He plays a central role not only in the series, but also in this story for a lot of reasons. 

DH: So, so talk a little bit about that Red's role. 

JUB: Well, there’s a few things. One, as we know, he was the first player to wear a helmet in the NHL. He didn't have to because he didn't already have a steel plate in his head. The first guy to go straight from college to the NHL. One day after his last game at Michigan, he's playing for the Canadians in Boston. First guy to do that. So, he had a lot of respect for these guys on the team and he played two games. But after the fifth game might have been his biggest moment when he was not on the ice, but in the stands. The Canadians had a 4-1 lead, and in the third period they blew it and they lost five to four and it's devastating. And on the way off the ice, the Canadian fans who had booed them in Vancouver after going down 1-2-1 sang “O, Canada.” Serenaded them. And to this day, these players get choked up and grab napkins and start crying. This turned Canada into a country. Their flag was only six years old when this happened, 1972. And the flag sales during that month were about triple the sales the previous six years. 

It's like our Olympic team: USA, USA -- that same thing during the “Miracle on Ice.” So that was big. Berenson comes out of the stands and goes in the lockerroom. The guys are pretty dejected of course. And he says, “Hey look. We're playing the best hockey we’ve played so far. We outplayed them most of the game. We've got this. We got to focus on your ABC's.” He was already a coach at age 32 basically. And one of the guys said, “Look, if a guy in the stands comes in the locker room and starts telling you how you're playing, ypu usually tell him to go to heck or something else altogether. But not Red. We listened. We listened because we knew how smart he was. We put the team first.” And that, they say. is when they turned it around and then won three games. So Red’s role in this is important on and off the ice. 

DH: I think hockey players are definitely a rare breed. 

JUB: I wrote about that in Blue Ice, which is my first book on the story of Michigan Hockey. There’s a few reasons: One, these guys tend to grow up in rural areas, skating on ponds, and you don't get a big head there. Two, the game itself is very humbling. Wayne Gretzky never won a Stanley Cup after he left the Oilers. One player can't do it. LeBron James and four of us could probably gonna win. One player can’t make a huge difference in hockey. You have three lines, so one player can only impact it so much. You need teammates. I think it's part of it. Third, they're Canadian. We all know that. My joke about that is they needed an American to tell their story, to brag about them, because they will not brag about it. 

DH: That’s great. So the book is out now, right? 

JUB: It's called The greatest comeback. How Team Canada fought back, took the summit series and reinvented hockey. And they asked me to write it, and that was very flattering. And they said, OK, we'll grant you complete access without any interference. So I got. I got Ken Dryden, for two or three hours I got everyone you can basically name for 2, 3, 4 hours, plus repeated interviews, and they're all just wonderful about it and just funny guys. Also, when  you’re talking to older athletes, guys in their 60s, 70s, they don't care anymore about public opinion and they just let it fly. They know what they think. And their egos are in check. It makes for very interesting and funny interviews. 

But Red plays a central role. He asked me to scale back his quotes because he said he only played two games out of eight. “You can't give me that many quotes!” So at his request, I scaled back his quotes. But still a lot of them are in there and his teammates again, love that guy. So that was impressive. 

Here's a fun fact for you. Before West Quad, East Quad or the Law Quad or Charles Lindbergh flew across the ocean … before New York, Boston, Chicago, or Detroit had NHL teams … before hockey games were broadcast on the radio or movies had sound … before all that, the University of Michigan was playing hockey. 

Michigan Hockey survived the Depression and World War II. So that’s our most important moment. 

First you asked me for the five highlights of  Michigan Hockey. I did have to boil the list down from 10 or 12. 

The first one is in fact the first game: Jan. 12, 1923. They had a three-sided building, Weinberg Coliseum, where the gymnastics team now works out right there by Elbel Field. It was three-sided so the wind came in and all that natural ice. So, no coils, no zambonis, and none of that. The Michigan Daily exhorted everyone to come on down to watch the game, to basically fan the flames of this little flicker of a program. 

“Hockey is a game that 9/10 of the students have never seen and could not be persuaded to attend,” the Michigan Daily wrote. “But there are many others, however, who will turn out for the first game. Above all, the attributes of the game itself, the greatest reason the Colosseum should be packed to the doors tomorrow night and Saturday night, is Michigan spirit, the quality for which the maize and blue is known throughout the country. It is up to you. The players cannot do it alone. Be there.”

In 1927 Joseph Barrs was a medical student and also the coach. It’s his last year and he's finishing up medical school. Amazingly, there were only 2 and 3 and they won all 5 games to win the league. This is vital. Fielding Yost said. “OK, this is a program worth betting on. It's only four or five years old.” And that's how he put the coils in and made it permanent. Ice. And installed a fourth wall in the coliseum. And he did it right before the Great Depression. Afterwards, you're dead. So Michigan State, Michigan Tech, Wisconsin, all great programs now. And for a long time they all dropped hockey. They didn't have the the indoor ice and the support that Michigan Had. 

So number 3: It’s 1948, the first NCAA tournament which Vic Heyliger, Michigan coach, set up. So for 10 years, they held it at Colorado Springs. Only four teams. 3 games, you know, two semis and the final. That's the whole thing. Michigan won the first one, beating Boston College 6-4 and Dartmouth 8-4. So that one's big. 

The 4th one, I had a little fun. The fourth one I picked was. Feb. 5th, 1960. It's the middle of the season. How can that be a great moment? Because it was Red Berenson's first game at Michigan back then. You had to sit out the first semester, first semester and a half, actually, a year and a half. So he’s finally playing his first game. He's the first player Michigan actually recruited in a real sense from Regina, Saskatchewan. He went to his first football game that fall and said, “There are more people in the stadium than live in my city.” And that city is the capital of the province. So it's a country boy getting an education. But Al Renfrew, the old coach, his coach, says that 90 seconds into his first game, he takes it all the way down the ice and he scores. And John Mariucci, the coach of Minnesota, a great player himself, said, “Man, at this rate, we're going to lose 60 to nothing.” Almost! Berenson assisted on another goal 5 minutes later and scored a third later in the game. When Red gets here, I mean, is there Michigan hockey without Red Berenson? It would exist, but it would not be what it is. Not even close. And 33 years of coaching of course is three years of playing. That was vital for Michigan and for college hockey. Really 

My last one: March 30th, 1996. Michigan wins its eighth NCAA title overtime versus Colorado College in Cincinnati, and that kind of reestablished the program where basically is now on to the comeback trail. 

There you go, there's your list, and you're listening very patiently. 


Alright, there you have it, Bacon's new book and his top five highlights from 100 years in Michigan hockey. Take it easy, stay warm, and as always, go blue.