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Hockey's ultimate Dream Team

With 18 Hall of Famers on its roster, Canada's entry in the 1976 Canada Cup tournament was arguably the best such assemblage in the history of international competition.

The notion of a Dream Team is one that has lost some luster over the years in large part because of the NBA, the league that kicked off the whole sequence of mega-squads back in 1992.

That outfit, with fading stars Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and dead-in-the-heat-of-their-prime uber-talents like Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and Scottie Pippen, tore the heads off their enfeebled competitors. The skill level of the team floored you, but you never had a real understanding of what they were, as a team, any more than if you matched up a top tier college program versus a high school squad.

Since then, we get an NBA-sourced All-Star team every few years made up of guys who agree to compete wherever after a number of other players have declined the invite, and people care less and less. Hockey, meanwhile, isn’t a sport known for Dream Teams, as success at the highest level requires a cohesion between four lines, three pairs of defenseman, and a goalie that emphasizes a congruous blend and singularity of purpose. You need stars, you need grinders, you need glue guys, you need a sniper or two, you need a defenseman who joins the rush, you need a d-man who hangs back and bails his goal-minded partner out from time to time.

That’s why when there were tournaments like the 1987 Canada Cup, a future Hall of Famer like Steve Yzerman could be left home, but a ‘tweener sort of player like Craig Hartsburg could be a key member of the squad, and ultimate victory could be achieved, etc.

But then there was the 1976 Canadian squad and the first Canada Cup, now marking its fortieth anniversary. You want to talk Dream Teams? Let’s say there was some magical wand that could be waved that would turn teams from various sports into common denominator quantities, such that they could compete against each other in what we’ll call the sport of ultimate value, where there are no sticks and pucks and balls, just each team at its outright essence matched against every other. I’m going to say that no one could match up with that ’76 Canadian team. And they didn’t even go undefeated. Which is telling.

The 1976 Canada Cup was the first best-on-best hockey tournament with the pros participating. Four years prior, there had been the Summit Series, in which hubristic Canadians assumed that their home country boys would annihilate the Soviets, thus reinforcing their country’s position as the end-all be-all of hockey, and teaching those Commies some lessons about humble pie.

This did not happen. The Canadians barely prevailed in an eight-game series that they just as easily could have lost, and probably would have lost if Bobby Clarke had not purposefully broken the ankle of ValeriKharmalov, who had been busy turning the Canadians into extras in his own private highlight reel.

There were no other countries involved in that tournament in ’72, but that changed in ’76. The Soviets didn’t send their best team, being embroiled instead in in-fighting and power grabs, but everyone else did, and the Canadians were, if not exactly possessed of Socratic wisdom at this juncture, less hubristic, anyway. The plan, clearly, was to ice the best possible team, no screwing around, a team that could beat you at the uptempo game, the dump and chase game, edge you 3–2, or blow your doors off 10–3.

Of the 25 members of that squad, 18 would become Hall of Famers. This metric takes some adjusting to. The very idea that there were 18 future Hall of Famers in the 18-team NHL at once takes some adjusting to as well. In the smack middle of their primes we had Clarke, Guy Lafleur, Gilbert Perreault, Larry Robinson, and Marcel Dionne. Bobby Hull was there, and he was still awesome. Ditto Phil Esposito, who had slipped some but remained elite. Bob Gainey featured as a defensive maven. Denis Potvin was conceivably the best player in the world at the time, having one of those two- or three-year runs that break up those six-to-10-year streaks that the likes of Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, and Mario Lemieux have where there is no doubt about who is king for the bulk of a decade.

Rogie Vachon was the goalie, and this was as good as he ever got, and it’s part of the reason why he has recently been inducted into the Hall. Ken Dryden wasn’t there due to an injury, but that was for the best, because Dryden wasn't Dryden when didn’t have the Montreal Canadiens playing in front of him. He wasn’t a sieve, he just wasn’t All-World the way Vachon was in ’76. (Dryden went 2-2 with 4.75 goals-against average in the Summit Series.) Vachon needed to be All-World at times because the other nations had seen what the Soviets did in ’72, and they were bringing it.

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One good foil to another team bringing it is to have Bobby Orr, the MVP of the tournament. Orr was considered done at this point. His time with the Bruins was over, his knees shot. He wasn’t going to play. He wasn’t sure if he’d play again anywhere, excepting Old Timers games. You watch him, and it’s clear he’s on one knee. The cartoon-like speed that made him look like he was in pursuit of the Roadrunner is gone. Potvin resented the pub Orr was getting, believing he was the team’s best d-man, which he was if we’re talking more than this quick spate of games.

Orr’s Bruins had underachieved during the decade, winning two Stanley Cups but never going dynastic, as many thought they should have. They never even won back-to-back Cups, but if you’re an Orr guy and not a Bruins diehard, you might favor what he did in ’76 over anything else. It’s a testament to will, to making one last display that you are the best in the world when you wish to be, and that’s not getting clubbed out of your hands.

Hockey players, even the best ones, tend to be leg guys or hand guys. A leg guy is Paul Coffey, that was his game. A hand guy is Mike Bossy, with his shot, his release, his hand/eye coordination, the zip on his passes, the demonstrative play/will of his stick. Then you have your unclassifiables, like Gretzky and even a Mark Messier, but up until ’76, Orr was a legs guy, who then became a hands guy.

All of his greatness at this tournament comes from his stick and hands. His poke-checks, his high slot dishes to snipers, a slap shot that seemingly is aided by a rifle scope. He dominates with a fraction of his body, and it’s not the portion of that body that you would have previously thought was his key attribute.

Canada opened the tournament on September 2 by routing Finland, 11–2. Victories over the U.S. (4–2) and Sweden (4–0) followed. Going undefeated seemed almost inevitable, but hockey is not basketball, in that you can be much better than an opponent and still lose on account of a hot goalie, which the Czechs had in Vladimir Dzurilla during Round Robin play on the night of September 9. The Czechs prevailed 1–0 in what was being called one of the best games ever before the next day’s sun had risen. The game-winner didn’t come until there were five minutes left in regulation, with Vachon having one of his finest performances, too. Dzurilla, though, might as well have been a gymnast in goalie pads. He was Hasek before Hasek (and Dominik Hasek's childhood idol), Mister Fantastic from the Eastern Bloc, denier of snipers, having one of the half dozen best games a goalie ever did.

Watching at the time, people must have figured these two teams would meet in the best-of-three final, and that they did. This Canadian team was more than a Dream Team, though. It was also a team—T-E-A-M-style—and such teams do the whole iron-forged-in-fire bit, whereas squads that are based more on the bully principle tend to, if not wilt, then stagger some.

Those finals opened with a 6–0 Canada drubbing, then wrapped with a narrow 5–4 victory in overtime on a goal by Darryl Sittler, because those Czechs believed they could hang, and they could. They had their own splash of greatness. But it’s tough for a splash to beat a tidal wave, and it’s perhaps tougher still to imagine a team in the history of sports that could have stopped the flow of this Canadian squad, even if we’re doing the whole wave-the-wand thing.