‘1st time I felt Canadian’: Newfoundlander among few who travelled to Russia for 1972 Summit Series

It was the road trip of a lifetime.

Five decades ago, about three thousand Canadians travelled where few westerners had ever ventured before: Russia. They boarded planes fuelled by their love of country and their passion for hockey, and in hopes of witnessing sports history.

Jim Herder was 26 when he travelled from Newfoundland to Moscow for the final four games of the 1972 Summit Series. He was in the crowd at the Luzhniki Palace of Sports when Paul Henderson scored one of the most important goals in hockey history.

50 years later, he sat down with CBC Sports senior reporter Jamie Strashin to recount his journey.

Jamie Strashin: We are here marking the 50th anniversary of the ’72 series. Does it seem like 50 years ago to you?

Jim Herder: No. I watched the milestones come and go and always wondered whether I’d be here for the 50th, but now that it’s here, I’m really enjoying all the memories and the interest.

JS: How did you first find out that travelling to Russia was even possible?

JH: My friends heard about it two weeks earlier than I did and they were on the first group of 2,000 that went with Air Canada. When I heard about the extra Aeroflot flights and picking up another thousand seats, I said to my wife — we had a one year old at home — this is a chance of a lifetime to see Russia. And so I went.

Encased in glass is Herder’s ticket stub from September 28’s Game 8 of the 1972 Summit Series. (Submitted by Jim Herder)

JS: Describe the journey from St. John’s to Moscow?

JH: We flew to Montreal first, and I guess there was a regular Aeroflot flight that went [from] Montreal to Paris to Moscow. We had a long layover in Paris. When I got on the plane with everybody, I was a stranger — but I met people that I still am in touch with today.

JS: Russia was a very mysterious, unknown place in 1972. What do you remember about your arrival there? Were you scared at all?

JH: I think I would have been concerned if I was on my own, but really [I] wasn’t concerned about my personal safety because of the numbers of people who were going. I had no idea what was going on in the background and diplomatically between the two countries, and it’s fascinating to read [about] it now.

JS: What were your initial impressions?

JH: When we landed in Moscow you might as well have put us on the moon. The weather was cold and it was in the middle of the night and we’re all tired. They met us with what I call customs on steroids. Their military is not something that you can kid with. Every one of us had our bags gone through. We were there for two hours waiting until everybody was cleared. It was so unnecessary but it was sending a message, I guess, in retrospect. Then driving into Moscow, on the buses, there’s just acres of apartment buildings, all dark and all alike.

JS: Where did you stay?

JH: All of the downtown hotels were taken up by the Air Canada travellers and they had to scramble to find places for us. We stayed at Moscow University and were put up in rooms like university [dorms], and I had a roommate.

JS: Did you feel like you were being watched all of the time?

JH: I remember the day before going to the first game, we went for a walk around the university and a young man approached me and said ‘I speak English’ and ‘welcome to Russia,’ and so on. ‘Would you like to see the observation deck?’ That’s great, we thought, so a group of us went with them and we went up. I think it was eight stories, and the elevator opened and there were two military people. There was a heated discussion, and I said we don’t want to get you in any trouble, so we got out of that building. To this day, I regret not saying to him why don’t you come with us for lunch or a beer somewhere and let’s talk more.

JS: Let’s get to the hockey. Tell me what you remember about Game 5, your first game in Russia?

JH: We were bussed to the arena. When the bus pulled up to the gate we were cheering and happy, and everybody was screaming ‘go Canada, go. Go Canada, go.’ We looked out [of the bus] and standing shoulder-to-shoulder were Russian soldiers all the way up one side and the other side of the driveway.

It was half a mile or so to the rink, and then once we got into the arena and went to our seats, the seats were all bench seating — they had numbers on the back. At the end of every row, there was another military person. It was overwhelming. Let’s say that seat No. 40 was the end of the row. When the owner of seat No. 40 came, there’d be a military guy sitting in his seat. So we signalled, ‘come in, come in,’ and then we just pushed and since there were no individual seats, [the Russian military person] fell off the end at some point.

JS: What was the atmosphere in the arena like?

JH: We were of course cheering for Canada and I remember one of the guys — he was about 6 rows below where I was sitting — starting to play trumpet, and that was the ’70s. That’s what you did. [The Russian] military guys were wading into the crowd to try and get that trumpet to confiscate it. And so, being Canadians, we just handed it around every time it started to look like it was in danger. It started a bond as we started to realize it’s us against them. Every time we cheered, they’d whistle, and every time one of our players hit a Russian, they’d whistle.

WATCH | Summit Series hero Henderson remembers famous victory: 

Canadian hockey legend Paul Henderson reflects on Summit Series victory

“If I am out in public, even 50 years later, people come up to me and they want to tell me where they were and what they were doing at that time,” said Paul Henderson, who scored the 1972 Summit Series winning goal against the Soviet Union. “It just hasn’t gone away.”

JS: I’m sure the Canadian players heard you but was there any kind of connection with the players that let you know they knew you were there?

JH: I think there’s no doubt about that. When [Canadian hockey official] Alan Eagleson was frog-marched across the ice, I mean, we were ready to go to war. There were so many messages that we had to be careful, but we were bonded together like no other.

JS: Describe the feeling you had as a Canadian at that moment.

JH: You know, from my teenage years, I was a Newfoundlander [first]. I still am. And it was really the first time I felt Canadian.

JH: Did you realize the gravity of the moment that you were witnessing?

JH: I didn’t think of it in that sense. I remember thinking we were in deep trouble on the ice. Deep trouble. I had bet my mother — she said there’s no way Canada could win this series — I think it was a dollar or something insignificant that Canada would win. I sent her a postcard after we won and I wrote, ‘You owe me a buck.’ I still have it.

JS: What do you remember about Game 8 and Henderson’s goal?

JH: At the end of the second period we were down 5-3. We were sitting there, just completely at a loss thinking, ‘what can we do?’ And that’s when somebody, [maybe] a couple of guys 10 or 20 rows behind me, started chanting ‘next goal wins’ at the top of their lungs. It was chaos, and the guys that were close to the glass were hammering it as the guys were coming back on [for the third period].

The rest is history. About 30 years later I asked Phil Esposito if he heard us and he said ‘you’re damn right we did.’

JS: It must have been quite a trip home?

JH: One thing I clearly remember is when I got off the plane it was pouring rain. When I got off the plane and went down the staircase to the tarmac, as you did in those days, I kissed my hand and I touched the ground and I said to myself, ‘never again.’ And what I meant is I would never go back to Russia again under any circumstances, period. And I haven’t.

JS: How many people are you still in touch with from the trip?

JH: I am in weekly contact with a close friend in New Brunswick. Unfortunately the guys that I went with from St. John’s are no longer with us, and another friend is ill, so it’s about a half dozen.

This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.

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