It’s normally not the easiest pursuit in the world to get all jacked up for the NHL’s annual All-Star Game, like the one happening on Sunday in Los Angeles. Maybe you justify watching by say, hey, it’s better than the Pro Bowl, but then again, what isn’t? The skills competition gets over-hyped and just doesn’t feel as much fun as it used to, but we watch, we let loose a few oohs and aahs, we check the schedule to see when the season resumes.
This was not the case thirty years ago, when the NHL dispensed with its standard All-Star routine to stage some proper international drama. Specifically, the Soviets were coming to town—Quebec City, as it were—to play a two-game series against the NHL All-Stars (which kind of has a Hanna-Barbera ring to it) on February 11 and February 13. This was an exciting deal, as they say.
Some quick history: the Soviets had only been playing hockey since the 1940s. They rapidly became the kings of the amateur game, stockpiling gold medals like czars stash jewelry and nesting eggs.
The 1972 Summit Series was their big breakout against professionals. The expectation—among Canadians, anyway—is that Team Canada would wax the Ruskies eight game to zip, but this is not nearly what happened, and they likely wouldn’t have prevailed by the thinnest of margins—a Paul Henderson goal in Game 8—if Bobby Clarke had not set out to break the ankle of Valeri Kharlamov, which he achieved with little difficulty or compunction.
The Montreal Canadiens took on the Red Army team and played them to a 3-3 draw on the last day of 1975 in what numbers among the two dozen or so finest hockey games every played. These Soviets were bloody good, every bit as good as the best Canada had on offer.
There was the hiccup of the 1980 Olympics, but various Soviet teams would barnstorm throughout the NHL in the 1980s, holding their own. They won the ’81 Canada Cup, played an epic overtime death match in the semis of the ’84 Canada Cup against Team Canada, and were primed to battle Canada once more later that September in 1987 in the latest, and what turned out to be the best, edition of that excellent tournament.
The thinking with Rendez-vous was that this would be the amuse bouche for the events of September. Money would be raised for the NHL pension plan, the North Americans—okay, let’s be real, the Canadians—could get an idea for where the Soviets’ game was at, and we’d be ditching the retrograde All-Star format for a year.
Then there were the memories of the 1979 Challenge Cup. If you like 1980 US Olympic literature, you’ll probably recall that this was the series where the Soviets pasted NHL All-Stars 6-0 in the rubber match of the three-game set. Not a good look for Canada, even if this wasn’t strictly speaking an all-Canadian team. It just looked so much to be so that even Bobby Orr slipped up and referred to them that way.
Rendez-vous doesn’t get a lot of street cred anymore, but it was a humdinger of a two-game set that announcer Dan Kelly referred to frequently during the Canada Cup final of September.
If you are a hockey nut, just looking at Team NHL’s roster will excite you. Of course, the obvious players are here: Gretzky, Bourque, Lemieux, Coffey, Messier, Fuhr, Hawerchuk. But what’s this? What unexpected delights do we find? Kirk Muller. Mark Howe. Tomas Sandstrom. And Rod Langway, the Minister of Defense! Because, after all, this is Cold War stuff, the Soviets were bringing the offense, so you really needed both connotations of his nickname.
That Wayne Gretzky led in scoring is about as remarkable a statement as saying the Beatles released a single one time that went to No. 1, but it is something to see him paired with Jari Kurri on the international stage. Langway struggles—there is just too much speed on the Soviet side. It’s fascinating to watch players like Sergei Makarov—who is the second best player on the ice—and Vladimir Krutov weave and set picks like basketball players going at video game speed. This generation of Soviet skaters had progressed well beyond their Summit Series forefathers. Pull up some old YouTube clips and watch Makarov’s stride. The Soviets of the 1970s tended to employ a wide base, their skates not quite coming together back under them as each stride was pulled in. This made them hard to knock off the puck, but Makarov employs a longer stride, skate practically touching skate as blades rake across the ice, and no one can budge this player, nor the Weeble-like Krutov, who employs a similar style.
The NHL took the first game, 4-3, with Dave Poulin netting the game winner on assists from the routinely underrated Doug Wilson and Super Mario. Wilson scored in the second match as well, a tilt where the Makarov-Krutov-Igor Larionov line asserted itself as the best in the world, helping the Soviets win 5-3 and take the tourney by a single goal on aggregate, if you’re into those kinds of things.
Now, this was a little misleading, as we’re talking All-Stars who don’t play together—excepting regular season teammates—essentially throwing sticks in the middle of the frozen pond ice and then divvying them up for a game or two. No real prep working save a quick practice, certainly no strategy. A feeling out, was more like it. Whereas, the Soviets were used to this drill and knew each other as hockey players as well as any on earth.
But you always had the sense that they held a little back until it really mattered, for when they needed it later. Hockey recon, after a fashion.
You don’t have to see Rendez-vous ’87 as such to absolutely delight in the poetry of its play, the pace of these two games, the otherworldly stickhandling, passes all but sweeter than net-rippling wristers. But these games do back the car into the spot that the ’87 Canada Cup finals will come roaring out of, while also happening to make for the best All-Star weekend anyone had ever had, for any sport, so far as the product on display goes. You were even sad when your favorite team laced them back up again for the game that really counted, a term now made more relative.