Ice War Diplomat is the memoir from former Canadian diplomat and ambassador, Gary J. Smith, detailing his crucial role in the creation of the 1972 Summit Series between the USSR and Canada.
2022 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Summit Series, an eight game series between the Russian Red Army team and a Canadian collection of superstar NHLers who battled for hockey supremacy. To mark the occasion, a deluge of books and documentaries detailing the events of the games are set to be released. In sorting through them, Gary J. Smith’s account seemed to be the most interesting. While he wasn’t on the ice, his role as a Canadian diplomat – fully fluent in Russian – was invaluable in putting together the contest as well as keeping the games on track when things looked to go off the rails.
Gary not only provides insight into the inner workings of the games themselves, but he also discusses his journey that led him to his role as a public servant. Smith writes about requiring approval before he could even marry as the Canadian government had to vet his wife to be sure blackmail opportunities or conflicts of interest didn’t exist. Both then had to spend a full year in classrooms learning Russian before being posted behind the Iron Curtain.
Both sides of the political spectrum argued over the rules and locations of the games, right down to which referees would officiate the contests. These arguments went to great lengths, and would often get heated. These are details you believed should have been sorted out well before the puck dropped, but there were even instances of discussions happening between periods let alone between games. When you’re the USSR and perception is reality, you take advantage of every situation to make sure the facade of daily life is better than it seems.
I don’t think anyone can truly justify just how big an event this was. The importance of the execution of this series weighed heavily on Smith and his diplomatic brethren. Smith says at one point that these games were operating on a level of a proxy war between the two nations. Sixteen million people in Canada watched the final game (sixteen million in a country consisting of just under twenty-two million) and over one-hundred and fifty million Russians watched across their twelve time zones. This was less of a game and more of a cultural event.
I’d like to say that fifty years later, we’ve evolved as a society that these types of clandestine operations are a thing of the past, but just look at what is happening in the world today. Russia is once again isolated behind a wall of secrecy with even their hockey teams being banned from international competitions. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
While I fully intend to explore many of the other books and documentaries to come, I think Ice War Diplomat is an important piece of the big picture. Without those working behind the scenes, there is no way this event would have happened.