Greatest Games: Gretzky to Lemieux... – No. 3 International Game

It was the last best-on-best series between hockey’s two powerhouse nations. Canada versus the Soviets. Each of the games ended up 6-5. The final goal in the final game could have been scored by Larry Murphy with an easy tap-in. Instead, it was a masterpiece created by two of the best players to ever put on skates.
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Every decade seems to have a ‘Golden Goal,’ and for those who remember the 1987 Canada Cup final, “Gretzky to Lemieux” was Canada’s golden goal of the 1980s. In the closing moments of Game 3, Wayne Gretzky passed the puck to Mario Lemieux, who fired it over the glove of Soviet Union goaltender Sergei Mylnikov.

It was the game-winner in the deciding game of a hard-fought series. Game 1 was won by the Soviets 6-5 in overtime, while Game 2 was won by Canada 6-5 in double overtime. And while Canada ultimately emerged victorious in Game 3 – again, by an identical 6-5 score – it proved to be the team’s biggest challenge. 

Canada had the two greatest players in the world with Gretzky and Lemieux. But the Soviet Union’s famed ‘Green Unit’ of Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov, Vladimir Krutov, Alexei Kasatonov and Viacheslav Fetisov was arguably the best five-man squad of hockey players in the world.

JAMES PATRICK: (Team Canada defenseman) It wasn’t gravy that we got to Game 3. We were on the brink of elimination in Game 2. It was incredible that we were able to pull it off and force Game 3.

DOUG CROSSMAN: (Team Canada defenseman) I remember thinking that Game 3 was going to be a historical game. You couldn’t write a better script.

GRANT FUHR: (Team Canada goalie) I knew it was going to be a hard game. That was the fun part. The Russians had a lot of offensive firepower, and so did we. You knew it was going to come down to the last shot.

VALERI KAMENSKY: (Soviet Union left winger) It was the best tournament I ever played in. Everyone who remembers these games says it was the best hockey ever played, for players and for fans.

BRIAN PROPP: (Team Canada left winger) It was a crazy night. Every fan was into the game. It was like an Olympic event.

CRAIG HARTSBURG: (Team Canada defenseman) The Russians were a great hockey team. It was such a fine line between winning and losing for either team in that series.

SERGEI NEMCHINOV: (Soviet Union center) It was a very passionate game, with the best Russian and Canadian players. It was unbelievable hockey.

BRENT SUTTER: (Team Canada center) There was still a big rivalry between Canada and Russia. When we played Russia, it just seemed like our game went to a whole different level.

No pre-game pep talk was necessary from Team Canada coach Mike Keenan to get his group ready.

HARTSBURG: There was a lot of great leadership on that team. Mark Messier, Wayne Gretzky, Brent Sutter. There were so many guys that were captains of their own teams. We talked about the game and being ready. I don’t think there was a lot the coaches had to say before the game.

PROPP: Mike didn’t say anything because we all knew how to be leaders. We knew what we had to do.

PAUL COFFEY: (Team Canada defenseman) When you have a group of guys like that, guys who want to win and are willing to do anything for each other and their country, there’s not a whole lot that needs to be said.

MIKE KEENAN: (Team Canada coach) They were easy to coach. They were really motivated. The best athletes in the game.

CROSSMAN: There were a lot of gifted hockey players. You don’t really need to coach that.

Both teams come charging out of the gate, eager to score the all-important first goal. Just 26 seconds into the game, Krutov sets up Makarov to give the Soviets a 1-0 lead.

PATRICK: Krutov, Makarov and Larionov had incredible speed and puck movement.

CROSSMAN: There were a lot of butterflies, and when they scored, it was like, “Uh oh, we’re getting off to the wrong start.”

SUTTER: We didn’t get the start we wanted. We were playing a great team, which we were, too. It was one of those series where the games were so tight. We had to keep plugging away and plugging away.

Alexei Gusarov and Fetisov each score to give the Soviets a commanding 3-0 lead eight minutes into the first period. 

RICK TOCCHET: (Team Canada right winger) The Russians just came out flying. I don’t think we were playing that bad, but we were down 3-0 at the start of the game.

KAMENSKY: We came into the first period very focused. The Canadian team was a little bit loose at the start of the game. That’s why we went up 3-0.

HARTSBURG: They took advantage of some mistakes and jumped up early. I don’t think anybody panicked. We knew we had the people on our team that could score and get us back into it. We just couldn’t fall any further behind, and we didn’t after the first period.

CROSSMAN: The Soviets came in knowing each other. The chemistry was there. They’ve been playing together for years in international tournaments. They had a bond there, they knew where each other was without even looking. We were totally different. Our team chemistry had to come together in four weeks. But the talent level of our team was so high that it did.

DALE HAWERCHUK: (Team Canada left winger) We knew there was a lot of hockey to be played. We just had to make sure we stayed disciplined and weren’t in the penalty box all night. It was early enough in the game that we felt like we could get back into it.

LARRY MURPHY: (Team Canada defenseman) We were down but not out. We were an explosive, offensive team. The ability to score was there. We had to score, obviously. We couldn’t get ourselves down any farther. Pressure was building. Sense of urgency was building. We knew we had the personnel to do it, so all was not lost. But something had to change.

COFFEY: Kudos to Mike Keenan as the coach. We were down 3-0 before people were even in their seats. Mike was always known for being ‘Captain Hook’ and pulling the goalie. But he kept Grant Fuhr in there. And Grant just played incredible the rest of the game.

KEENAN: Grant gave the team a great deal of confidence. In fact, if it wasn’t for Grant, we’d probably be down by more than three. He had given us so many great games, it didn’t even cross my mind that I should remove him.

FUHR: The Edmonton Oilers played a similar style, where sometimes we gave up some early goals, but at the end of the day I knew the guys could score goals. If I gave up three, I just tried not to give up that fourth one. That’s the biggest thing, try not to give that one up so the guys have a chance to get us back in the game.

KEENAN: We needed to change the tactics. What we employed up to that point in the early stages of Game 3 wasn’t working. So I wasn’t hesitant, nor was I throughout my career, to make adjustments quickly from the bench. In this case, those different line combinations generated a different style of play and a different set of tactics that the Soviet Union wasn’t ready for.

One of those tactics pays off immediately when Tocchet breaks through for Canada. He slams in a rebound off Murphy’s shot at the 9:50 mark of the first period on the power play.

TOCCHET: Mike put me out on the power play, and honestly, I thought he was out of his mind. The players that we had on that bench, Gretzky, Lemieux, and he puts me out there? I was pretty nervous.

KEENAN: What we wanted to do was be unpredictable. The unpredictability of putting Rick Tocchet on the power play, making many different changes in terms of tactics and line combinations, I think that was something that the Soviet Union team didn’t deal with very well. They were accustomed to rolling out their lines and defensive pairings in order. So, that was a new concept for them, and they didn’t quite know how to handle it. Viktor Tikhonov, the Soviet Union’s coach, continued to look over at our bench with a puzzled expression as the game went on.

FUHR: Once we made it 3-1, we knew we had a chance. That’s the biggest thing, we just had to trust that we had a chance.

PROPP: When Tocchet scored the first goal, that gave us a little hope.

MURPHY: The thing was to get the puck on the net. Battle. Get everything we could get at the net. Jump on rebounds. That was the result of hard work, hard pressure in the offensive zone. That goal was the beginning of it.

FUHR: We knew we were going to score goals. It was just a matter of when. When you put that much talent together, you know you’re not going to go scoreless. We knew we would get one, and if we got one, then we’d probably get two. Everybody still had confidence, and that’s the biggest thing.

A little over five minutes later, at 15:23 of the first period, Tocchet battles for the puck behind the Soviet net and dishes it to Sutter, who bangs it towards the net. Propp swats in the rebound, pulling Canada to within a goal.

PROPP: I was playing a little defensively in the first two games. In the third game, I was more open with forechecking, getting into the play and being more active because our backs were against the wall. It made a difference for me.

TOCCHET: The crowd was crazy after we scored our first goal. Then, Mike put us back out there. Me and Proppy, we knew our roles. We were fourth-line guys on this team. We did what we had to do out there, with Brent Sutter, and caught some good momentum going our way. On that shift, we wanted to get the puck in deep, cycle it, get the puck to the net, and make things happen. That’s exactly what we did.

PROPP: It was a physical game. Since we were down by a couple of goals, we had to force it a little bit more. We were very physical in the corners and behind the net.

PATRICK: Sutter and Tocchet, and guys like them, went in heavy on the forecheck and were physical, caused turnovers and crashed the net.

SUTTER: Things weren’t happening for guys who were studs offensively. So, the grinders on this team, the guys that were playing different roles than they would normally play on their own teams, started clicking. Every player on this team was a big player on their NHL team. When you get into a tournament like this, you’ve got to understand and accept a different role. You’ve got to relish it, actually.

KEENAN: The players were very open-minded and were willing to accept any role that was given to them.

PROPP: I hit the Russian defenseman, and then I went to the front of the net. From there, the puck deflected off (the defenseman’s) side. Luckily for me, I was able to hit the deflection into the net. We still had to come from behind. We had to keep pressing.

TOCCHET: It brought life to the team and the building went crazy. We knew our role was to add some energy to the team.

The Soviets strike again, with a tally by winger Andrei Khomutov late in the first period at 19:32, to regain a two-goal edge. Through one period, the Soviet Union leads 4-2.

PATRICK: For every great play we made, someone on the Soviet Union would come back and make a great play.

HARTSBURG: Mike came into our dressing room during the first intermission and said very calmly, “You’re going to be part of the greatest comeback in Canadian hockey history.” That was a huge message. Mike was calm, cool and collected, and he just reinforced that we were going to win the hockey game. We were going to find a way.

Canada was on the defensive for most of the first period but finds its groove in the second. Hartsburg levels Yuri Khmylev at the Soviet Union blueline, firing up his teammates.

SUTTER:That hit that Hartsy made was probably a turning point, where things started happening for us.

CROSSMAN: Craig had knee and hip problems in his career, and to do what he did was tremendous. He was throwing his body out there. He knew that’s what he had to do to win. He wasn’t holding anything back. He was representing Canada.

HARTSBURG: There were a lot of players in that second period that found a way to raise their game and add an emotional level to the team. Not just Lemieux and Gretzky, look at Tocchet and Sutter. It was a lot of guys who found a way to contribute, not just on the scoreboard. Everyone had to find a way to change the momentum of that game, and at the end of it, our top players came through when it really counted.

SUTTER: The momentum of everything changed. The timing to make those hits was better. We were moving our feet. We were skating better. We weren’t on our heels anymore. We were going after them.

CROSSMAN: Mark Messier would charge in and punish their defensemen. The Soviets don’t make too many mistakes. They play more like a machine together. But Mark was rattling that machine. I know he hit Fetisov quite a bit. They were going at it. And Rick Tocchet was hammering, too. That coughs pucks up and gets them unsettled.

TOCCHET: When we hit the ice, I just felt the sudden urge to be really physical, because I knew that’s what the team needed. Fetisov and all those guys needed to be hit. And that was something a couple of us liked doing in that series.

PATRICK: The way we had to play the Soviets was to be aggressive and physical and bring the energy to the forecheck.

Playing inspired hockey, Team Canada battles its way back to within one goal. Gretzky, in his “office” behind the opponent’s net, passes the puck out to Murphy, who streaks in from the point to the faceoff dot, then unloads a rocket past Mylnikov for Canada’s third goal at 9:30 of the
second period.

MURPHY: When you’ve got Wayne Gretzky with the puck, you feel confident that he’s going to make something happen. If you were open and were a good option, he was going to get the puck to you. I was just waiting for it, and it came to me. I had time to look and then just fired away.

CROSSMAN: We had the talent. One shot, and it’s in the net. We had that type of ability. I was never in fear that we could not score. We had such gifted shooters on our team.

Less than two minutes later, Crossman rushes deep into the Soviet zone and picks up the puck in the corner, then dishes it to Hawerchuk.

HAWERCHUK: I remember getting the puck behind the net and thinking, “Am I going to try to jam this in?” All of a sudden, Brent opens up in front pretty good. I made a pass to him, and he makes a great shot.

SUTTER: Dale ended up with the puck, and he fed it to me. I was 10 feet off the strong-side post, and I wanted to shoot it high. Their goalie had a tendency to go down. I was able to get enough of it, because it was kind of a scrum, to get it up over his shoulder. It was obviously a big goal for our team at the time.

Sutter’s shot ties the game 4-4 at 11:06 of the second, and so far, most of Canada’s goals have come from the “grinders.”

SUTTER: In that game, I was able to help out offensively. We were the so-called grinders on the team. On a team like that, you have to have guys in certain roles. That was our role for our team. But Tocchet, Brian and I scored. We were the guys who played on the third and fourth lines of that team.

PATRICK: Sutter was the top center on the Islanders, but he wasn’t on Team Canada. Guys like Tocchet, Propp and Sutter had different roles on our team. Those guys were the checking guys. I remember those guys being super-effective the last two games of the series.

KEENAN: Hockey is a game of momentum, and us coming back from the three-goal deficit turned momentum in our favor.

HAWERCHUK: We’re really rolling now. We’ve got momentum. That was a combination of our line doing a lot of yeoman work in their end, grinding them down, and finally getting the result. Then we scored again right after.

About four minutes later, at 15:32 of the second period, Hawerchuk fires a shot on net, which is blocked by Mylnikov, then goes hard after his own rebound. Sutter checks a Soviet Union defender, which allows Hawerchuk to collect the puck for a wraparound attempt that is again blocked by the Soviet goalie. But Hawerchuk’s third try finally gets past Mylnikov and gives Canada its first lead of the game, 5-4.

HAWERCHUK: I tried to make a power move to the net, and got cut off, then ended up wrapping it around and staying with my rebound.

CROSSMAN: Sutter was throwing his body around like he always does. He’s a Stanley Cup winner. He knew what he had to do to win. There was just a great will to win.

SUTTER: We were the checkers, the guys who had to go and create the energy and do the things that you need to do for your team to have success.

HAWERCHUK: I was playing left wing on a line with Sutter as center and Tocchet on the right side. We were the bump-and-grind line. Mario and Wayne took care of a lot of the scoring throughout the tournament, but in Game 3, our line had a really strong game. The Soviets were playing tight on Gretzky and Lemieux. We couldn’t expect them to score every goal. It was good that our line got its mojo going in that game. We played a lot. Keenan just kept throwing us out there because he knew we were rolling.

The first 12 minutes of the third period pass by without incident. No penalties, no goals. It appears Canada may do the improbable and hold the Soviets scoreless for a second straight period. Then Alexander Semak ties the game at 12:21 of the frame, setting up a tense final seven-and-a-half minutes of hockey.

FUHR: Every save you make when it’s tied 5-5 is an important save. That’s a given in a wide-open game like that.

Canada ices the puck with 1:36 left in regulation, giving the Soviets a faceoff deep in the Canadian zone. Instead of thinking defensively at a crucial moment, Keenan does the opposite.

COFFEY: In today’s game, if it’s tied 5-5, who are they putting out for a faceoff in their own zone? So-called defensive guys. That’s the problem with the game today. It’s so overcoached. But not Keenan. He puts me and Murph at the point. We had Brent Sutter and Mark Messier, two of the greatest faceoff men to ever play the game, taken off the ice, and then Keenan throws Hawerchuk, Lemieux and Gretzky out there.

KEENAN: The Soviets didn’t put their strongest unit on the ice then, which was a surprise. I was very surprised they didn’t have Larionov out there. That’s not an indictment on their style of rotating personnel, but I think it was something they probably acknowledged and learned at that point. I felt we had the momentum and the personnel to go on the attack and be offensively aggressive.

HAWERCHUK: Messier was on the ice, but he was pretty tired. Mike told me to go change for him. So, I went out there with Gretzky and Lemieux, and I said to Wayne, “Do you want to take the draw?” He said “No.” Then I said to Mario, “You want to take this faceoff?” and he said, in French, “No, no, that’s my wrong side.” So, I guess I was taking the draw for the first time that game.

COFFEY: In today’s game, that wouldn’t happen. There’d be something drawn up, and one player would have to go here, and the other guy would go there. It’s crazy. But it’s a credit to Mike Keenan. Mike had the uncanny ability to let you play.

SUTTER: Mike rolled the dice on the faceoff to do something different on the draw, and it worked to perfection.

HAWERCHUK: Just before the draw, I told Mario that I was just going to tie up their center, which means for that winger to come in and try to pick up the puck. It couldn’t have worked out any better.

While Hawerchuk ties up Soviet center Vyacheslav Bykov in the faceoff circle, Lemieux picks up the loose puck, goes around a Soviet defender to break out of the zone, then passes up to Gretzky. Bykov is bearing down on Lemieux but is hooked by Hawerchuk at the red line, falling at the blueline.

HAWERCHUK: I was going up ice with their centerman, Bykov. He was trying to get back into the play, and I was just interfering with him a little bit, which was kind of allowed at the time. I didn’t want him to get back in and break up the odd-man rush.

PROPP: We might have gotten away with a hook. It was like the playoffs, the refs don’t call too much.

HAWERCHUK: That hooking was going on the whole time in that era. You could hook a guy for one stride, and then you’d let go. As soon as I put my stick on Bykov a little bit, he flopped down, probably thinking that if he lost a stride, he wouldn’t be getting back in the play.

Canada has a 3-on-1 with Gretzky, Lemieux and Murphy. Igor Stelnov is the lone defender.

TOCCHET: When we got possession of it, I remember thinking, “Jeez, this could be an odd-man rush.” And when you see 99 and 66 on an odd-man rush, their conversion rate is pretty high.

Murphy drives hard to the net. Stelnov falls to try to prevent a pass from Gretzky to Murphy. But Gretzky drops the puck back to Lemieux, who blasts it past the glove of Mylnikov and into the net. Canada takes a 6-5 lead with 1:26 remaining.

CROSSMAN: That wrist shot. My god, that was awesome.

KAMENSKY: Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky played unbelievable in that series and in the whole tournament.

HARTSBURG: We were all pretty much prepared to go to overtime. And then the two greatest players of our time get an odd-man rush. Watching that last goal from the bench, it was almost surreal how that happened. That goal almost blew the roof off of Copps Coliseum. It was pretty amazing.

MURPHY: For sure, I knew Wayne was going to pass to Mario. That was the play. But I thought for sure Mario was going to pass to me. I was a viable option, so their goaltender had to be concerned about me also. I didn’t factor on the scoresheet for that goal but being in that position created more options for us and more trouble for the Soviets.

COFFEY: I love Larry Murphy, and I don’t think there’s anybody that anticipated that play better, but for him to beat me up the ice? Nobody beats me up the ice. (laughs)

TOCCHET: I actually thought Mario was going to pass it again, but he had that corner labeled and put it top-shelf. Gretzky to Lemieux, you had the greatest passer giving it to one of the greatest players of all-time. Good things are going to happen.

KAMENSKY: We played open hockey. We did not stop that to play defensively. We play like we play. We played attack hockey, C Canada did, too. It was 6-5, almost an even score. But they won and we lost.

COFFEY: I asked Mario, “What if it was me standing at that post? Would you give me that pass?” And he looks me in the eye and said, “We’ll never know.”

The game isn’t over yet. Canada still must contain USSR’s deadly offense for 86 seconds. That is easier said than done, as the Soviets are always a threat.

TOCCHET: Before the last five minutes, I didn’t play that much. But Mike put me in the last minute to protect the lead. I was really nervous, again, but you’re in the moment.

MURPHY: We all knew what the Russians were capable of, of course. There was a lot of clock-watching on our side. It was just a case of not giving them anything. Don’t cough up the puck. Get it out of our end. It was a nail-biter. That clock couldn’t run fast enough for us.

FUHR: It was awesome. It’s the longest 90 seconds you’ll ever have, but at the same time, it’s fun. Once you have a lead, and there’s only a minute-and-a-half left in the game, it becomes awesome. That’s the fun part of it.

COFFEY: You’re not playing on borrowed time now, you’re playing on your time.

CROSSMAN: I was partnered with Normand Rochefort in more of a defensive pairing. I’m thinking, “Oh my lord, now I’m going to go out in the last minute to protect the lead.” I didn’t want to be scored on, playing for my country.

PROPP: Crossman and Rochefort aren’t mentioned a lot, but those guys did a really good job of playing defensively. Those are the defensemen who were steady and really helped us win the games.

TOCCHET: I remember Mike yelling to us when we went on the ice, “Don’t back off.” We didn’t. We forechecked. We stayed on the Russians, so they didn’t get a chance on net. The crowd was absolutely bonkers. It was the loudest building I’ve ever been in. It was just mayhem. And the clock seemed like it would never tick down.

KEENAN: Our team was so energized at that point that we just wanted to make sure we kept the shifts short and dynamic, and kept pucks deep. We really locked it down defensively to preserve the lead and the victory.

PROPP: It was stressful because the Russians were so good. Now they had to come from behind. We got on the ice and just wanted to make sure we didn’t get scored against. It was a long 90 seconds.

SUTTER: We had to really bear down. Do our job and do it right. Do it effectively. Manage the puck the right way. Don’t give up time and space. Support each other well. But we all do that stuff because we were all good hockey players. You don’t get to that stage by not knowing how to play the game, and how to play the score, the time of the game, and the clock. We did a great job of shutting it down.

Team Canada pushes hard, and Mylnikov cannot get off the ice for an extra attacker. After what feels like an eternity for the Canadian players and fans watching, time runs out and Canada wins.

HARTSBURG: I don’t think anybody on the bench took a breath. We were all holding our breath. Every little play, whether it was a save or a check or a dump-out, was like the biggest play of the game at that point. That clock could not tick fast enough for us, and probably for the people in the building and everybody at home watching on TV in Canada.

COFFEY: We knew what was at stake. Because you either win it or you’re a bum. That’s just the way it is. Like the (1992) U.S. Olympic basketball team, with Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. When you’re that good, you’ve got to win.

CROSSMAN: When it was over, it was a relief. I was on cloud nine. It was a great month-long journey I had with these guys.

The 1987 Canada Cup marked the end of a hockey era. Although the Soviet Union would compete in the 1991 Canada Cup, it was not the same. The Iron Curtain was falling fast, and many of Tikhonov’s best players could not be forced to compete for him. While Russia continued to be a global hockey superpower, it was not nearly the dominant force that it was in the 1970s and 1980s.

NEMCHINOV: Coaches in Russia and in Canada call this game one of the best hockey games between these two countries.

KEENAN: It was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, hockey series ever played. It was the last time that Canada faced the Soviet Union (in a best-on-best tournament). The drama of the competition was not only athletic, it was also political. Communism and capitalism. The challenge of different skill sets of players. It was a great example of how electrifying the game of hockey can be.

HARTSBURG: For a lot of us, it was the highlight of our careers, especially international careers. It was an amazing three games to be a part of. It’s probably some of the best hockey ever played at the international level. It was certainly a highlight of my career.

KAMENSKY: The Stanley Cup final is different. The World Championship is different. The 1987 Canada Cup tournament was the best tournament, from what I remember in my career.

NEMCHINOV: Of course, it was exciting to be involved in this tournament, with the best players in the world on every team.

MURPHY: It was the end of an era, that series. The Soviet Union still existed. That weighed heavily on it. Today the dynamics are so different when it comes to international hockey.

HARTSBURG: People that I run into all over, friends and even strangers, they want to talk about that series. It’s probably the most amazing series in hockey history. And to be a part of that series was an honor for me.

SUTTER: Game 3 of that series was probably the best hockey game that was ever played. And rightly so, because it was a hell of a hockey game.

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