Olympic hockey has an international gold standard to meet
By Colin Fleming
Hockey fans tend to strut around with a few more canary feathers protruding out of their mouths at Olympics time, when their sport -- ah, that sweet, violent, balletic, transcendent sport -- gets more traction and attention than it normally does in the pantheon of the Big Four North American pro leagues.
If you are a hockey fan, you probably do what I do, and stump for your sport whenever you can, taking pride in its place the Games. In the Olympics hockey is, to my thinking, the showpiece event, given that it’s more front-and-center, team-oriented, and our-country-vs.-yours than just about anything going. Sure, there’s the NHL’s Winter Classic, but that’s faddish, more a case of, “Ooh, it’s like pond hockey, only without the attendant spruce trees, and it’s being played in a baseball stadium.” There may be nothing more compelling in sport than the Stanley Cup playoffs, and it’s nice to see them bringing in more non-traditional fans every year, but I worry that my regular argument that playoff hockey might as well be called a different sport than regular season hockey rings a touch insincere. The postseason is not that different -- the games are just more, well, hotly contested.
But in international matters, that’s when things can get real gone, as Elvis would have said, were Elvis a hockey zealot. And let’s face it: hockey mavens and gatecrashers alike, we are all hoping for something epic, something like we saw in 1980, something that’s both indicative of hockey at its best and something that goes well beyond the game itself.
The 1980 clash between the U.S. and the Soviet Union is the standard-bearer for a lot of people. It has always fascinated me as a gargantuan upset because from a certain point of view -- what was later revealed as the NHL-friendly talent of the American team -- someone besides U.S. coach Herb Brooks really ought to have seen it coming. Sorry. That’s blasphemy. But do yourself a favor and check out the pre-Olympic 10-3 thrashing the Soviets dished out to the Americans at Madison Square Garden a couple of weeks before the Games.
Not the best of omens. Then again, the Hartford Whalers, of all teams, once beat the 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers -- one of the two or three greatest squads in the history of the sport -- 11-0. After all, it’s hockey.
A number of those Oilers players would be at the forefront of the international hockey event upon which all my dreams of classic, epic international events rest. I’m talking about a tournament that featured the best hockey ever played, with arguably the two best teams ever to take to the ice squaring off against each other in a best-of-three final.
Before NHL players suited up for their home countries at the Olympics, there was something called the Canada Cup, which was kind of a dry-run for what we have going on in the Olympics now. Prior to the start of the NHL seasons in 1976, ’81, ’84, ’87 and ’91, the world’s hockey power nations duked it out for global supremacy. What this usually meant was that Canada and the Soviets would advance to the finals, and hockey would be played at a level rarely seen before or after.
In 1987, Team Canada squad featured -- this is going to disturb you, so steel yourself -- 12 eventual Hall of Famers. Wayne Gretzky played, even by his admission, the best hockey of his life, and the first power play unit consisted of Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier, Ray Bourque and Paul Coffey. Alas, this unit had a penchant for giving up shorthanded goals, but that’s largely because the Soviet team had a couple of guys -- namely, Sergei Makarov and Vladimir Krutov -- who were every bit as good as Lemieux, and just a tick below the preternatural Gretzky.
Every time the Olympics roll around, I fire up the tapes of that 1987 Canada Cup final, like some kid on Christmas Eve hoping that what he sees in his imagination will become reality come the morrow, or, in this case, right before the puck drop of the U.S. vs. Canada, or Russia vs. Sweden. I wish to see the gold standard reprised, you might say, but we’re talking some long odds on that score, considering what went down at the ’87 Canada Cup.
All three games ended with a score of 6-5. Two went to overtime, one to double overtime and the final game nearly went to OT -- the only reason it did not is because of the most ingenious goal in hockey history.
From the start of the opening game, there was a pace to the play that is still unfamiliar even if you’re a long-time hockey fan. Coffey, who had actually played his last game for the dynastic Oilers at that point -- although no one knew it -- proved that he, not Bobby Orr, not Bobby Hull, was the fastest player the world had ever seen. He kept pulling off these super-bizarro legerdemain moves, entering one side of the frame on the TV set, flying out of it, and then roaring back in from the other direction, while everyone else on the ice remained front and center. We’re talking vertiginous speed. The overall game itself, meanwhile, was a speed-fest, with some of the top all-time skaters doing their thing. The Team Canada side alone included Bourque, Coffey, Messier and Gretzky, as well as Glenn Anderson and Mike Gartner.
The Soviets featured a line so accomplished that they were known as the Green Unit, on account of the color they wore at practice. Eventual NHL stalwart Igor Larionov centered Krutov and Makarov, with fellow eventual NHL stalwart Vyacheslav Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov (who was better than Fetisov at this point) on the back line.
In Game 1 of the finals, Bourque, of all skaters, was unable to come close to catching Makarov from behind on a breakaway. After leading 1-0, Canada fell behind 4-1 before launching this crazy comeback fueled by its checking lines, the muckers-and-grinders, if you will, which featured superstar set-up man Dale Hawerchuk. That’s right, a perennial 100 points-per-year guy was a plugging fourth-line type in this series. That’s how stacked Canada was.
Canada actually went up 5-4 on a goal that only Gretzky could have scored. Bourque, at the right point, fired the puck into the Soviet zone, and no one, save Gretzky, did much of anything, because to normal perception, not a whole lot was going on.
But Gretzky was weird. Or very different, anyway. He sprinted towards a portion of the ice where there was no puck, where nothing was happening, because he read and anticipated a kind of unfolding geometry in his mind. Bourque’s shot ricocheted off the boards behind the Soviet net, and emerged on a patch of ice just as Gretzky himself was arriving to fire the puck into the Soviet net. The Soviets went on to win in OT, but even if you’ve seen the game a dozen times, you are absolutely knackered by the end.
But: this was the worst of the three games. Crazy, right?
For artistry, for something that Nijinsky, Bach, and Scotty Bowman alike could agree on, there is nothing like Game 2.
When things started to tilt in the Soviets’ favor after Canada played the first period of its life, coach Mike Keenan decided to put Gretzky and Lemieux on the same line. That would be the game's two greatest offensive players by, I think, anyone’s standards. Gretzky went for five assists, Lemieux scored a hat trick. But there was Krutov and Makarov and a host of Soviet stars to contend with, like the young Valeri Kamensky, who tied everything up at 5-5 with a goal straight out of pond shinny -- but one that that no shinnier would be brazen enough to attempt. It was basically one-against-five before Kamensky, while getting tackled, roofed the puck over a clearly baffled Grant Fuhr.
One thing that’s particularly appealing about the games is Fuhr. You wouldn’t think a goalie could give up five or six goals three games in a row and be said to be on a roll, but he was facing some serious firepower -- like All-Star game firepower -- from each side. Goalies, of course, position themselves now to make stops; in the late 1980s, they made saves, which is rather different, and in Fuhr’s case was tantamount to a fetishization of the glove save, with the goalie doing the splits, flashing his mitt out at some laser shot and snagging the beam of vulcanized rubber right out of the air. It was as if Fuhr was saying, “Behold, mere mortals, look what I have plucked!” It was awesome.
Gretzky, though, was something else. He would call this game the finest he ever played. It went to double OT. Estimates have Gretzky, a center, logging close to an hour of ice time. He becomes incontinent on the bench from exhaustion and its assorted maladies. No matter -- he enabled Lemieux to score the series-tying goal. One of the coolest victory celebrations ever ensued. Huzzah.
The classic set up the third and deciding game:
This was the most intense of the three games in the series, if it never quite reached the artistic level of Game 2. As in the opener, the Soviets surged ahead, Canada countered with its checkers, and come the end of the third period, the game was tied 5-5. This was the hockey version of William Blake’s fearful symmetry.
As a kid, I watched these games feeling utterly perplexed that there were players in the world nearly as good as someone like Gretzky. There were times, periods, shifts, where both Makarov and Krutov were Gretzky’s superiors, just as there were times, periods, shifts, when he was theirs. Battle royale.
Makarov would go on to have a nice, albeit late-starting NHL career, but Krutov, who died in 2012, would not fare as well, generally embarrassing himself in his lone season with the Canucks. He was out of shape, and ill-suited for the transition to the freedoms of North American life after all of the years of living under Soviet lockdown.
One anecdote from his brief NHL career has Krutov in his bed, a bucket of beer by his side, a skate lace tied to the light of his room so he never had to get up. He was dubbed Vlad the Inhaler because of his love of American fast food, or Vladimir Kruton, which, if anything, seems even crueler. But watch the 1987 Canada Cup and tell me how on earth this man is not in the hockey Hall of Fame. Ditto for Makarov, the only player on either side who gave Coffey the occasional push as skater supreme. I wonder, sometimes, if both Soviets would be enshrined already if they had managed to topple this star-saturated Canadian team. No dice, though.
It’s not uncommon for me to meet people who think I’m something of a meathead because I love hockey like I do. But there is an art to hockey when it is at its best, and no one can convince me that what Wayne Gretzky did to win the 1987 Canada Cup was not an act of outright genius.
With hardly any time remaining in regulation, there was a face-off in Team Canada’s end. Hawerchuck took the draw, flanked by Gretzky and Lemieux. The puck squirted past the Soviet center, and the left defenseman made an unfortunate pinch. Lemieux, with his insane reach, tapped the puck out to center ice while doing this surreal pirouette type of move, a leftover from a Keystone Cops routine. The puck then awaited Gretzky in the neutral zone. The puck was his to take, and skate with and attack. The puck was no one else’s, and anyone who has ever played hockey, at any level, would choose, in Gretzky’s position, to acquire possession of it.
But not Gretzky. He did not want it, which blows my mind every time I watch this play. What he wanted, instead, was a portion of ice, up the ice, as he wished to initiate an attacking geometric pattern that had a depth of field to it, a dimensionality moving at 25 miles-per-hour.
By then, Lemieux had righted himself, and it was he who tapped the puck forward to Gretzky at that aforementioned patch of ice. Defenseman Larry Murphy -- yet another future Hall of Famer -- had joined the rush on the right wing and was driving the net as Gretzky gained entry to the zone. Lemieux was behind both, the top point of this pyramid of all-time greats. The play, seemingly, was for Gretzky to hit Murphy for the tap-in goal on the far post. The Soviet defenseman, anticipating it, dropped to the ice to cut off the pass, at the very same moment that Gretzky ceded control of the puck to Lemieux, who roofed that sucker in a flash. The entire play took 8.5 seconds. Have you ever thought that fast at that level of skill?
As I lack the means to hose myself off after having now worked myself up to my standard ’87 Canada Cup finals lather, about all I can say is, Let’s do this, Olympics! Give us something epic, please. But if that doesn’t happen this year, how cool is that hockey-type Christmas Eve feeling? That’s almost as good as the games themselves. And when one -- or three, as in the ’87 Canada Cup -- delivers, it’s game over, baby.