Paul Henderson, the 1972 Summit Series, and Canadian Collective Memory: An Interview with Sean Mitton, Founder of the ’72 Project

Sean Mitton is a Canadian living in the United States, and the founder of the ’72 Project. The ’72 Project aims to collect stories from Canadians about their experience of the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union, which gave Canadian hockey its most famous and mythologized moment in Paul Henderson’s game winner in Game 8 of the series. The moment was witnessed by the majority of Canadians from coast-to-coast, and the ’72 Project is asking people to share their memories of the moment and the series. As its website states:

In the past, stories from the ‘72 Summit Series have come from the point of view of Team Canada players themselves. This project will give Canadians from the Baby Boomer and earlier generations a chance to tell their stories and share them through Social Media with younger generations. . . .

These stories will become an online archive for future generations to access, as well as becoming an integral part of our Canadian heritage. The outcome of this project will be a book that will share 72 intriguing stories from ordinary Canadians. This book will be available in both electronic and paperback versions. The book will be launched on September 28th, 2012, which is the anniversary date of the Series win.

The project is intriguing for a variety of reasons. I am particularly fascinated by its explicit attempt to collect grassroots stories about the Summit Series, in contrast with the interviews with players and management that have typically been used to construct the event at a popular level, as well as its use of social media to collect and archive stories. I spoke with Sean a few weeks ago about the project, and addressed these, and other, issues in the interview.

After the jump is an edited version of our discussion. Unfortunately for reasons of length I had to omit some details from the discussion, including a number of examples of stories that Sean has collected. Please visit the ’72 Project website to read more details about the project and to view some of the stories that Sean has collected thus far.

Mark: Maybe could you start by, in your own words, explaining the ’72 Project and why you started it?

Sean: The ’72 Project is celebrating the upcoming 40th anniversary of the series versus the Soviets, and specifically the Paul Henderson goal. For past anniversaries, there has been stuff done from the players’ perspectives . . . but never really from the perspective of Canadians themselves. [The Summit Series] was such a big deal, it was one of those moments people remember where they were back in ’72.

This is really about collecting stories from all over, from Victoria to Newfoundland, but also Canadians who live abroad. From this we will take the stories, and those will become a national archive on the ’72 Project site. From that we will be taking 72 of the most compelling stories and putting those into a book that will come out in September of this year on the anniversary date.

Mark: I find the idea of getting the “average” Canadian’s story really interesting. It is kind of co-creating a national narrative about what ’72 meant to people. But you also on your site mention that you have some more prominent Canadians sharing their stories – Jim Cuddy [of the band Blue Rodeo], a few hockey players. How have people like that received the project? And the average Canadians that you have spoken to? Are people keen to get involved? Is it getting a lot of traction with people?

Sean: Even notable Canadian celebrities enjoy this project. For the most part, those people were not celebrities when the ‘72 series happened. . . . As an example, [Canadian curler and Olympic champion] Glenn Howard was a big hockey fan and I interviewed him about the project. The cool thing about that was that his favourite player growing up was Paul Henderson. . . . Not only was team Canada coming back in the series, but [Howard and his brother’s favourite player] was scoring these goals. So when Henderson scored the game winner and became the hero, they were just through the roof about this. At that time, Glenn Howard was a teenager and a hockey player. He was not at a point in his life to say curling was the direction he was going to go. And of course today he is a multiple Briar winner. So you never know what is going to happen looking back on people’s histories.

Mark: Another thing I though was really interesting, that ties in with putting the focus on Canadians’ experiences, you mentioned [when we spoke previously] your mother’s experience of the Henderson goal. I think that is also an interesting angle, in terms of topics we have written about on Hockey in Society in terms of gender, and how a lot of stories about hockey are about or told by men. Are there a lot of women who have been involved in the project and who have stories that they want to share?

Sean: Yeah, when I thought about the project, I want there to be a balance, both from the men’s side and the women’s side and also geographically. Some women [that I spoke with] are very passionate fans. . . . You mentioned my mother. I guess she would be aware of what’s happening with the [Toronto Maple] Leafs, as an example, but she could not tell you the players or the stats. For her to have such a strong visual and emotional memory 40 years ago. . . . She was so nervous listening to [Game 8] on the radio that she was frantically cleaning the living room and then Henderson scoring, she remembers looking out the window and literally crying. So for a guy who did not know his mother as a hockey fan, [to hear about] her having that type of emotional experience kind of blew me away.

Mark: How many stories have you collected so far.

Sean: I think at this point I am officially at 120 or 125. And the goal is to get about 1,000 by September, so I think we are on track for that.

Mark: You are making a lot of use of social media, which I think is interesting especially because obviously the Summit Series historically for people, at least for people who did not witness it, has just been [consumed] through books or videos. So I found that an interesting way of opening up the storytelling to more Canadians, instead of just the players, the coaches, the commentators you see in a video or read in a book. What is your vision for new media and social media in this project, in terms of getting the word out but also helping to collect more stories and allow people to have more of a voice in the storytelling?

Sean: One of the amazing things is just how easy things are with flip video and YouTube today and being able to put something together so quickly. The great thing about being able to use [digital video] is that you are really able to see the emotion in people’s faces. And so far, we have collected somewhere in the neighbourhood of 50 video stories. The great thing is you can . . . see the emotion behind people’s stories. Especially when you are talking about a memory that happened 40 years ago, a lot of people say right away “I know where I was.”

Mark: What is your long-term vision in terms of how the stories are going to be presented? I know that you’re putting a book and an e-book of 72 stories . . . but obviously you’ll have collected a lot more stories, a lot of them on video. How are you planning to archive those on the website? What form is that going to take?

Sean: We have all the videos up on the site right now, and then we have people who are writing their own stories coming in right to the site. And then for people who do not want to write their stories, they can call them into a number and we will transcribe those stories. . . .

Mark: It is really amazing how many different perspectives and different experiences [people have] that you never even thought about them associating with it. Are there any key themes that you have found so far, any commonalities, or is it pretty diverse?

Sean: It is pretty diverse, from the perspective of where people were in their lives. I think first and foremost that people just remember. . . . When I first started the project, one of the concerns was “will people remember these things?” It is hard to have a collective memory from the country if people do not have those recollections. Living in the US now, sometimes you think about [national events] like 9/11, and when people talk about a collective memory of something that happened that everyone remembers about it. Unfortunately for some countries there are . . . these negative memories, like a 9/11 or a JFK assassination, those things where people know exactly where they were when it happened.

And for Canada, it is pretty rare that the whole country remembers where they were. So [an older generation of Canadians] all remember where they were when Henderson scores, and now the younger generation remembers where they were when Sidney Crosby scored [at the 2010 Winter Olympics]. And I think another moment . . . was the Terry Fox Run. Back in the 1980s, when Terry was running across the country, that was a pretty powerful moment. And so I think that by having these things, you do not have to be a hockey fan, but it is about Canadian pride and feeling good about these things.

Mark: The final thing I wanted to ask you about, it links up with what I mentioned earlier about the storytelling and the social media aspect. You have told me about the Ambassador Program. It is basically a way for you to collect more stories, but it is also interesting to get people involved as collectors of stories as well as tellers of them, and gives people an opportunity to participate in that aspect of the project. So maybe you could talk just a little bit about that, and how it has been so far.

Sean: I feel like I have been fortunate to ask people these questions and hear and feel the emotion, and I thought to expand that out I thought I would involve other people, especially people who want to get into sports media and journalism, and play a role in this collecting stories. . . . It is a great way for generations to connect through that moment and through hockey. And it begs another question for me, which was “what was life like for people back in 1972 versus 2010?” And so for the Ambassadors [it raises the question] “What was life like with black and white TVs and no Facebook and Twitter?” . . . So I think for people to be involved as an ambassador the first question is “what do you recall about the Summit Series, and certainly the Paul Henderson goal?” But if they want to go into it, there are a lot more layers of [people’s stories] and questions to ask, which I think is really insightful for all people.

Mark: Thanks Sean, I think that covers everything I wanted to ask you. Anything else you want to add?

Sean: Yeah, a couple different topics. One thing that surprised me is how [the Summit Series] was also affecting people in the US. There are a lot of memories from people in border cities, or [fans of US] teams. . . . Back in ’72 they were cheering for their players but also for Canada.

Mark: I am sure there was that Cold War angle too for [American hockey fans].

Sean: That is exactly right. First I looked at this project through the eyes of Canadians, but that’s not to say that Americans did not have an interest in this series as well.

Mark: I think that is a really fascinating angle too. It sounds like there is just so much [material] there so that when you are talking to so many people you are going to get some interesting things emerging out of that.

Sean: Another person who had an interesting perspective was someone who had the chance to watch [Game 8] at school or go home and watch it. And he went home and watched it, and had a closer look at the game. But he said he regretted that he did not stay in school with a whole bunch of other people.

Mark: That is something I have heard about, watching the games in schools, and that is interesting. I do not think I ever watched a live TV event in school, ever. There was nothing that captured the imagination enough to get everyone in the gym to watch a TV. That alone says so much that schools across the country were doing that.

Sean: That is a rare moment in Canadian history when schools said they are willing to stop because this too big a moment.

Mark: Well it sounds like you are hearing some pretty amazing stories, and I am looking forward to keeping tabs on the project as it develops and seeing the book when it comes out. . . . So the book is planned to come out in September on the anniversary of the [Henderson] goal?

Sean: It will be out around the anniversary of the goal, it will definitely be in September. We are trying to have some flexibility just in terms of the actual release date.

Mark: Thanks, I appreciate you talking with me Sean. Good luck with the rest of the project.

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One thought on “Paul Henderson, the 1972 Summit Series, and Canadian Collective Memory: An Interview with Sean Mitton, Founder of the ’72 Project

  1. Pingback: #Canada150: 150 Good, Bad, and Ugly Stories of Hockey in Canada (Part 1) | Hockey in Society

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