All that's left now for the Soviet Union's relentless Big Red Machine to do is to pick up the revered old Montreal Forum, skate it across Ste. Catherines Street, down through Old Montreal and dump it into the St. Lawrence River, and the National Hockey League along with it. This time was supposed to be different. Team U.S.S.R. was supposed to be done for. It would be Team Canada's and the NHL's day. Eighteen months ago the Soviets had dropped from sight, stunned by a ragtag U.S.A. Olympic team not overly talented but too young to know it. And for the past two weeks, playing in a thing called Canada Cup II, the Soviets had looked more like just another Team Sweden or Team Finland than a vaunted international power.
But last Sunday night in the Canada Cup finale, meeting a Canadian team of NHL pros that everyone was calling Team Awesome, the Soviets took the ice at the Forum and outskated, outchecked and outfinessed Canada, ultimately scoring a crushing 8-1 victory. Eight goals. Oh no, Canada.
Other Team Canada/NHL embarrassments at the hands of the U.S.S.R. could be written off with one excuse or another. In 1972 Team Canada was hopelessly out of shape, lost some face but still won the series. In 1979 the NHL had only two days to summon up the Challenge Cup team that was routed 6-0 by the Soviets in the decisive game. But this time Team Canada seemed to have everything in order. It had tremendous scorers, a mobile defense, role players. It had enthusiasm. It had a full month of training camp to get in shape, to iron out any wrinkles. And on Sunday, Team Canada had only to beat a Soviet team that four nights earlier it had annihilated 7-3 in a preliminary game.
"This was just a one-game deal," said Canada Defenseman Brian Engblom after Sunday's debacle, "and they came up better than us."
September 20, 1981
What happened before 17,033 mostly silent fans was that the NHL finally ran out of excuses for losing "big" hockey games to the Soviet Union. As Canada Cup II proved once again, the Soviets play for the sickle better than the NHLers do for the buck.
What Canada Cup II was supposed to be was an extravaganza of nationalism designed so that Canada could regain its hockey supremacy. What it turned out to be was a bust, except for the Soviets, of course. Instead of being a hotly contested two-week tournament pitting the world's six strongest hockey nations—Canada, the U.S.S.R., Sweden, Finland, Czechoslovakia and the U.S.—it was a one-game war. After the Soviet Union and Canada, you see, there's a talent gap that even a friendly referee would find impossible to bridge.
This year, for instance, Sweden was represented by an odd amalgam of 16 NHL pros and seven amateurs who hardly knew each other and played as if they didn't care to. Finland went winless, and in its five games was outscored 31-6. While Team U.S.A. was greatly improved over the 1976 Canada Cup I edition that earned the nickname "Team Useless," the Americans didn't have a genuine goal scorer, something a hockey team, well, needs.
And the timing for Canada Cup II wasn't exactly perfect, either. Pretournament exhibition games began in mid-August, when even a Rocket Richard would prefer to be on a beach. When Canada squeaked past the Soviet Union in a tune-up at Edmonton a few weeks ago, one sardonic Montreal newspaperman was quick to call the game "the greatest hockey thriller ever played in August."
Certainly, the six exhibition games and the 15-game preliminary round robin to qualify four teams for the semifinals, not to mention the $25 tickets, didn't fool Canada's sophisticated fans. At first Quebec City was scheduled to host three games, including one of the semifinals, but after only 4,055 Quebeckers turned out to see Canada play the U.S. in an exhibition game, Cup organizer Alan Eagleson gassed Quebec and moved the other two games to Ottawa, which then packed in all of 7,500 for the Soviets' 4-1 semifinal win over Czechoslovakia on Friday night. Until Sunday night no Canada Cup game had been a sellout. The Soviets and Team Canada did draw 16,001 to the Forum Wednesday night, but a Team Canada intrasquad game last month attracted an even larger crowd. At Winnipeg, only 3,688 watched Sweden play Finland. "Yeah," said New York Islander General Manager Bill Torrey, an adviser to Team Canada, "but 1,300 of them were NHL scouts."
With the '79 Challenge Cup disaster in mind, the NHL changed its international game plan for Canada Cup '81. "This year we shied away from a media dream team," said Team Canada General Manager Cliff Fletcher, who's also the general manager of the Calgary Flames. Indeed, Team Canada wasn't a mere collection of All-Stars. Sure, there was Guy Lafleur, Gil Perreault, Marcel Dionne, Denis Potvin and Larry Robinson, as well as the Stanley Cup champion Islanders' thrill-a-minute line of Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy and Clark Gillies. And, naturally, Wayne Gretzky—gentleman, heartthrob, star of Pepsi TV ads and not a bad hockey player. But six of the top 16 NHL scorers last season weren't even invited to camp, and one of the early cuts was the 1980-81 winner of the NHL's best defenseman award, Randy Carlyle. So much for NHL glory. "We've taken our heads out of the sand," Fletcher said. "A player without speed is dead against the Soviets."
Still, the U.S.S.R. was less than awed by Team Awesome, especially if you believed Anatoly Tarasov, the father of Soviet hockey and the man who directed the Red Machine to 13 Olympic and world championships. "To say I'm impressed wouldn't be telling the truth," Tarasov said Friday night after Canada blitzed the U.S. 4-1 in the semifinals. "Your goalie [Mike Liut] isn't so great. And the defensemen aren't the fastest, either." Only Gretzky impressed Tarasov. "Very smart," Tarasov said, pointing to his head. "Very smart. Smartest player I've ever seen."
For their part, the Soviets were a team in transition. Gone were Boris Mikhailov, Vladimir Petrov and Valery Kharlamov, the guts of the dynasty of the 1970s. And Soviet team spirit sank on Aug. 27 when news came from the U.S.S.R. that Kharlamov, cut from the national squad only a few days earlier, had died in a car crash near Moscow. Further, in many Canada Cup games the Soviets had seemed lost on the ice. It was as if they were looking for a teammate, a notable deviation from previous Soviet teams, which seemed to locate linemates through telepathy. In five chances against the Czechoslovaks one night, the Soviet power play failed to produce a score. But they still had Vladislav Tretiak, who at 29 remains the world's No. 1 goaltender. Tretiak sat out the 7-3 Soviet loss to Canada, but in the six games he did play in Canada, he allowed only eight goals and had by far the lowest goals-against average in the competition, 1.33.
On Sunday in Montreal, Forum vendors passed out tiny Canadian flags, and when Jan Rubes began to bellow the lyrics to O Canada, just about every voice in the place joined in. According to plan, Team Canada came out pressing, shelling Tretiak early, trying to take a lead. Meanwhile, the Soviets were content to back into their own zone, play things safe, ice the puck, if necessary. "That's something we'd never seen them do," Fletcher said later.
In a scoreless first period Team Canada pumped 12 shots at Tretiak, while the Soviets took four at Liut. In the second period, though, the Soviets changed tactics and moved in on Liut, who played shakily.
Igor Larinov fired from the slot and beat Liut high, but Gillies tied the score on a wrist shot. Tretiak had no chance. At 11:15 there was a pileup in front of the Canadian net and the puck dribbled out to the right face-off circle; Soviet Forward Sergei Shepelev picked it up and flicked a backhander into the net. Liut never saw it. Five minutes later Shepelev scored again. It was 3-1 for the Soviets, and suddenly Canada was on the ropes. The Soviets scored two quick goals and three late goals in the final period, and the rout was complete.
Afterward, in the Soviet locker room, a group of players, led by veteran Aleksandr Maltsev, stuffed the huge, weighty, nickel Canada Cup Trophy into an equipment bag bound for Moscow. Eagleson spotted the Soviets leaving the building with the Cup and, as he said, "tried to explain to them that it belongs to the Canadian Government."
Listen up, Alan. The Soviets don't need to steal the Canada Cup. No, sir. No, Canada. They own it.