Review: An Ice Wars Diplomat Recounts the 1972 Summit Series
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Gary J. Smith, Ice War Diplomat: Behind the Scenes at the 1972 Summit Series (Madiera Park, BC, Douglas and Mcintyre, 2022), 309 p.
I have never been a sports fan. And I’ve always had a rather yellowish view of professional sport. The question lingering in my mind was something like this: Why would grown men spend their lives chasing a small rubber disc on a skating rink when they could be doing something more socially productive, like performing surgery or build bridges? I still haven’t found a satisfactory answer to this question. So I was rather dubious when I was offered the opportunity to read and review a book about a hockey competition that took place 50 years ago. I shouldn’t have been. Gary Smith’s “Ice War Diplomat” is a fascinating read. (Full disclosure, Smith is a friend of mine and former colleague in the Canadian Foreign Service.)
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This book works on three levels. The first recounts the experiences of a young foreign service officer on his first posting overseas. The second deals with all the machinations that took place in the organization of the hockey competition. The third places it all in the geopolitics of the Cold War, involving relations between Canada, the United States, the Soviet Union and China.
After completing a year of Russian language training in Ottawa, Smith and his new wife, Laurielle, were posted to the Canadian Embassy in Moscow. On their first full day in town, they were invited to lunch by Ambassador Robert Ford and his wife, Theresa. Ford was a formidable figure in Canadian diplomacy. He had previously served as ambassador to Yugoslavia and Egypt and was on his third tour to Moscow. Besides being a brilliant analyst of Soviet affairs, he was also a poet who had received the Governor General’s Literary Award. And he was a demanding boss who expected the best from his subordinates. In her way, Theresa was no less fearsome. She set and upheld the highest standards of diplomatic representation and entertainment, and could be caustic in her comments on the performance of others. Thus, on their first day in Moscow, the Smiths had to endure their baptism of fire, an ordeal they passed without incident.
For the Smiths, life in Moscow was a strange mixture of pleasure and apprehension. There was entertainment provided by the local hockey league. The Canadian Embassy fielded a team nicknamed the Moscow Maple Leafs, which played against Soviet amateur teams and teams from other embassies. Games were played outdoors and fans were bundled up against the cold. The events were usually followed by festivities soaked in beer or vodka. Less amusing was the need to live in a society where surveillance by the KGB, the Soviet secret police, was rampant. Offices and residences were all bugged with listening devices. Diplomats and other Westerners lived in constant fear of being overheard by Soviet ghosts. And that could give rise to serious questions about marital intimacy. As Smith writes: “Then there was the matter of bedroom activities. Not everyone was comfortable knowing that someone in the basement of the apartment complex was listening to your every tender moment. Laurielle laughed when I smothered her saying listeners might learn something new. But it was no laughing matter for those who had to live in this deeply repressive society. As Smith notes, “The experience of working as a diplomat in the Soviet Union was like living in an intense pressure cooker.”
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Smith’s arrival in Moscow coincides with a major shift in Canadian politics. Pierre Elliott Trudeau had been elected as Prime Minister. Trudeau came to power with a number of original ideas. One of them was that if the Soviet Union’s policy of containment was useful and necessary, it had to be complemented by a policy of engagement. Trudeau therefore worked to obtain an invitation to visit the Soviet Union. The visit took place in March 1971. It went very well and Trudeau invited his Soviet counterpart, Alexei Kosygin, to make a return visit to Canada. The latter took place in October 1971 and resulted in the signing of a “general trade agreement” between the two countries. It was this agreement that paved the way for the start of discussions on the organization of a series of hockey matches between the Soviet Union and Canada.
To say that these discussions have become very complex is an understatement. They brought together a wide range of organizations and characters, many of whom had irreconcilable goals in mind. On the Canadian side, there was the National Hockey League, the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, Hockey Canada and the National Hockey League Players Association. Some of the actors in these dramas were well-known personalities such as Clarence Campbell, the NHL president, and Alan Eagleson, the head of the NHLPA. Others had a lower profile but could nevertheless be adamant in defending their positions. On the Soviet side, there were also clearly evident divisions between the senior coaches and the Ministry of Physical Culture and Sports.
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Smith entered the cauldron of conflicting interests and egos with skill and aplomb as the Canadian Embassy’s point man for the organization of the games. He has had his ups and downs in this business. The highest came when he received a personal message from Under Secretary of State for External Affairs Ed Ritchie congratulating him on his work in the negotiations. A personal message from Canada’s top diplomat to a junior officer was unprecedented and a real feather in Smith’s hat. At the other end of the scale was an exchange with the always mercurial Eagleson, who accused Smith of being a “f—— communist.” Between the two, there was a series of tough negotiations that eventually culminated in the legendary “series of summits” of 1972.
Smith’s account of the series’ eight games is masterful. It captures on-ice and off-ice drama in language that captures the excitement of games. It provides insightful pen portraits of some of the show’s stars such as Ken Dryden, Phil Esposito and Vladislav Tretiak. His account of the final game, filled with extraordinary episodes, is worth the price of the complete book. It was, of course, Paul Henderson’s last goal in the last minute of the game that defined the image that most Canadians retain from the entire series.
After the series ended, Ambassador Robert Ford sent a telegram to Ottawa containing his assessment of what had happened. The first paragraph summarizes the essence of the story from a Canadian perspective. He wrote: “I think it is safe to say that we have come through the past two trying weeks with Soviet-Canadian relations intact, probably improved, and with Soviet public and official attention focused on Canada in a measure that must be the envy. of all other diplomatic missions in Moscow. While all of this attention has not been good, the end result must be to ensure significant Canadian interest in all areas and facilitate our approach in other areas of activity. In his restrained assessment, Ford rightly chose to downplay Soviet media coverage, which had focused on the Canadians’ tough, rough play. Some Russian journalists have gone so far as to call Canadian players “hooligans”. This did not stop the Soviet authorities from seeking further confrontations with Canada or repeatedly joining in anniversary celebrations marking the series.
Well-respected former Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson described the book as “a tour de force of reporting, history and analysis.” I can only second this judgement. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in hockey, politics or international relations.
Louis A. Delvoie is a retired Canadian diplomat who served abroad as an ambassador and high commissioner.