There is this terribly unfair stereotype of the Russian—particularly the Russian authority figure—as a stolid, stone-faced, humorless technocrat. But here was Viktor Tikhonov, coach of the Soviet National Hockey Team, grinning impishly and joking with reporters last Friday night, addressing, through an interpreter, such matters of importance as: Would he be drinking champagne to celebrate? ("Perhaps, if you're buying.") Was his job as Soviet coach on the line tonight? ("From the question you're asking, it seems like you're trying to get rid of me.") Just how good were the All-Stars from the National Hockey League? ("If I had Team NHL, I would never lose a game.")
Really? That good? Hard to believe, considering Tikhonov's Soviet All-Stars had just whupped the pride of the NHL 5-3, overcoming both the players and the embarrassingly biased refereeing of Dave Newell, to halve the two-game series known as Rendez-Vous 87 at one game for each side. Two days earlier Team NHL had won 4-3, meaning the Soviets had outscored the NHL by one goal overall. Did the Soviets therefore consider themselves the winners of the Rendez-Vous, the coach was asked. "It is important that you know," replied the merry Tikhonov, "that the NHL didn't win, and neither did we. The person that won was hockey itself. Both games were like holidays, like festivals, two of the greatest hockey games you'll ever see."
So they were. And the fact that no tie-breaking procedure had been established if the two teams split was not the cop-out it once seemed, but rather the perfect ending to a near-perfect week. Co-winners. Why not? Where was it written there must always be a loser? There were winners all around—players, fans and, at long last, the NHL itself, a league that would do well to ride the coattails of the charismatic Marcel Aubut just as far as he would take them.
Aubut, 39, the president of the Quebec Nordiques and senior partner of Aubut-Chabot, a Quebec law firm, was the mastermind of Rendez-Vous 87 at Quebec City, a festival conceived to inject some life into the moribund carcass of the old standard NHL All-Star clash between those two great titans, the Wales and the Campbells. Few who watch the game know which is which, and fewer still care. Aubut is the rare mover and shaker within the stodgy NHL community. He was the first owner to actively participate in the defection of players from Czechoslovakia, spiriting away the Brothers Statsny, Peter and Anton, who have become the cornerstones of his franchise. It was Aubut who spearheaded the drive to play a five-minute, sudden-death overtime, and it was Aubut who was behind the creation of a second hockey network on Canadian television. He is a doer. And he is also an extravagant host. The genesis for Rendez-Vous 87 came in 1983 during a Board of Governors' meeting in Quebec City, at which Aubut rolled out the red carpet for his fellow owners. "We treated them like kings," Aubut recalls in a rich French-Canadian accent. "They wanted us to host an All-Star game as soon as possible. Then [NHL president] John Ziegler told me since Quebec was one of North America's oldest cities, an international city, a winter carnival city, that maybe we should do something special. I ask him, let me think about it."
February 23, 1987
Aubut thought...and presented a proposal to the league governors during the 1986 All-Star break in Hartford that left them, well, stunned. "It shouldn't be a party just among us, the hockey fans," Aubut told them. "It should be an event where sports fans who otherwise have no interest in hockey have no choice but to watch and where even the people who are not interested in sports have no choice but to watch. That is the way to promote a sport."
When the league agreed to Aubut's proposal to invite the Soviet National Team and extend the All-Star break from two days to five, Aubut didn't stop there. Once he had the Soviet hockey team, Aubut wanted Soviet chefs, Soviet dancers, Soviet singers. He wanted businessmen, politicians and athletes from the entire realm of sport—this for a league that considers an evening with Anne Murray to be a knockout affair. Voilà! Rendez-Zoo was born. It would be an international festival of culture and sport.
Aubut also would have been happy to get NHL Players Association president Alan Eagleson off his back. Eagleson spent the weeks leading up to Rendez-Vous whining in the most public manner that the players' tickets weren't good enough, complaining that the hotels in Quebec were too expensive and threatening to lead a player boycott of the entire event if those matters weren't resolved. Eagleson, who organizes the Canada Cup and considers himself the kingpin of Canadian hockey, "hoped Aubut would fall flat on his face," according to one NHL governor.
"I used to ask myself why Eagleson was so nervous," Aubut told reporter Rèjean Tremblay of Montreal's La Presse, gloating a little at Rendez-Vous's success. "Now I know. He was the king and master of the international hockey scene, the only one to have contacts in the Soviet Union and with the International Hockey Federation. Now I have these contacts too.... And I intend to keep cultivating them."
The only glitch of the entire week came at the opening press conference, when Eagleson—whose manners are akin to a burro's—brusquely interrupted Procter & Gamble's marketing services manager Greg Breen, who was making a presentation to Mario Lemieux for receiving the most votes in the fans' All-Star balloting. Eagleson broke in to introduce the Soviets, who had just arrived. Members of the press, who had been sitting through several corporate speeches so that they could eventually interview the Team NHL players, were then told that the players had to leave for practice. "In a matter of minutes, Eagleson alienated both a league sponsor and the press," remarked one NHL staffer.
While the league organized that little gathering, everything Aubut handled went smoothly and with èlan—beginning with Monday's sumptuous Gourmet Dinner, a 10-course, nine-wine, $350-a-plate affair for some 1,500 that featured the culinary skills of chefs from the U.S.S.R., the U.S. and Canada. The caviar wasn't Russian, but the beaver consommè was a splash. And the huntsman who trumpeted as the pheasant terrine was served became a league hero when his mount piled horseapples alongside the media table. Once that course was cleared, on came the bison filet and the fiddleheads.
On Tuesday, Lee Iacocca addressed a businessmen's lunch of 2,500. That evening the International Gala took place, a black-tie affair featuring such singers as Crystal Gayle, Paul Anka and Gordon Lightfoot, plus the world-acclaimed Red Army Choir and dancers from the Bolshoi Ballet. President Ronald Reagan, Soviet President Andrei Gromyko and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney appeared on videotape. Sports figures such as Wilt Chamberlain, Pelè, Gary Carter, cyclist Eddy Merckx and Vladislav Tretiak, the great Soviet goal-tender who retired in 1984, had been flown in for the occasion. Capping the affair was an original song of peace written by David Foster (love theme from St. Elmo's Fire) and performed by the entire troupe, athletes included. "If you think I can't sing, you ought to hear Tretiak," critiqued 1980 U.S. Olympic hero Mike Eruzione. There wasn't a dry eye in the house.
Two international fashion shows and a rock concert featuring the Russian group Autograph (two encores and three standing ovations) rounded out the week's festivities. All of these goings-on are worth mentioning because they marked the first time in memory that the NHL had operated on something other than a minor league basis. This was first class all the way. And it happened before a frigid but festive backdrop, as Quebec City glistened in all the winter finery of its annual 10-day carnival. Ice sculptures and snow castles lined the streets, which, despite temperatures in the subteens and 30-mph winds, were jammed Thursday night for the carnival parade. How cold was it? "There were six more ice sculptures after the parade than there had been at the start," remarked Walt MacPeek, a writer for the Newark Star-Ledger. "My favorite was of the man hailing a cab."
Of the 21 NHL teams, only the Toronto Maple Leafs balked at putting up the $11,000 to have a float in the parade. The Leafs owner, of course, is that miserly curmudgeon Harold Ballard, who won't have anything to do with the Russians. So stern are his convictions that this will be the eighth straight season he has fielded a sub-.500 hockey team. Winning teams must remind Ballard of the Sovietskis.
Oh, yes. There were a couple of hockey games on the schedule too. The NHL All-Stars went into this series scared of being embarrassed, which is pretty much the way you have to play the Russians—not scared witless or into timidity, mind you, but scared of humiliation in their own Ail-Star Game. The NHL squad, which was selected by a consortium of eight past and present general managers, had only two full days to practice before the first game. A coaching troika of Jean Perron (Montreal), Bob Johnson (Calgary) and Michel Bergeron (Quebec) did a good job of preparing the team, but the NHL was missing its two most mobile defensemen, Mark Howe and Paul Coffey, both of whom were injured. The NHL's other top rearguard, Ray Bourque, had a pulled groin muscle and was less than 100%. All of this meant that slow, stay-at-home types like Montreal's Rick Green and Washington's Rod Langway would have to anchor the defense.
The NHL thought that the sheer talent on its forward lines, great puck-handlers like Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Mark Messier, would generate the necessary offense. In addition, because the Soviets dictate that a great portion of the game be played without the puck, the league formed a checking line of Dave Poulin, Kevin Dineen and Dale Hawerchuk to stop the Soviets' big guns: Sergei Makarov, Vladimir Krutov and Igor Larionov, a unit that has been among the best in the world since 1981. Team NHL was fervently hoping to escape the first period of Wednesday night's game in a scoreless tie so that the players could get their feet under them.
From the theatrical opening ceremonies—the Red Army Choir, the Harvard Glee Club and a choir from Quebec City engaged in dueling anthems (the Red Army Choir won)—to Poulin's game-winning goal with 1:15 left, this game was a classic, everything that hockey can be. It took only two hours, twenty minutes to play—considerably less than the average stop-and-fight-and-start NHL game. "Discipline over emotion!" was the NHL battle cry. Messier, whose intensity terrified both the Soviets and his fellow NHL-ers—'He had me quaking in my boots," said Langway—repeated it over and over on the bench. It sank in. "They weren't going to outmuscle the Soviets," said former Sabre GM Scotty Bowman, one of the eight who selected the NHL Team. "They weren't going to intimidate them, so they were told to just play hockey. That's what they did."
Soviet referee Nikolai Morosov handed out only five minor penalties (four to Team NHL) despite a great deal of pre-game concern about his possible bias. There was no shoving or badgering after the whistle. And the level of play! There was only one offsides call in the first two periods. Gretzky later said that it was the fastest-paced game he had ever played in.
Team NHL took a 2-0 lead on goals by Jari Kurd and Glenn Anderson—the entire six-player Edmonton Oilers contingent was spectacular this night—as both shots went between Soviet goalie Evgeny Belosheikin's legs. A 27-page scouting report prepared by former Ranger G.M. Craig Patrick, who followed the Soviets for 10 games in December and January, had encouraged the NHL team to shoot for the 20-year-old Belosheikin's five-hole; as it was, he proved nearly impossible to beat anywhere else.
The Soviets started tentatively but began to hit their stride in the third period, tying the game 2-2 and again at 3-3, when Anatoly Semenov beat Edmonton's Grant Fuhr on a spectacular, cage-crashing breakaway. The game seemed destined for overtime. Then Lemieux, who had played so lethargically that he was drawing boos in his home province, took the puck at center ice and, breaking over the blue line, cut to his right. At the same time, Poulin drove for the net. "I was just trying to take the two defensemen out, and suddenly I popped through," said Poulin, who had never played against the Soviets before and hadn't even seen them on television since 1976. Lemieux shot, and Poulin, the captain of the Flyers, tipped it over Belosheikin's left shoulder for the game-winning goal.
But it was the penalty killers who were the real heroes, particularly the twin towers of Langway and Green. Four times they beat the Soviet power play, which passed crisply around the perimeter of the slot but was unable to penetrate and create scoring chances. "The guys who had no speed came through," said an exhausted Langway. "We couldn't keep up with them, but we knew where they were going. I didn't realize we could play so well defensively."
With one win in hand, the NHL had assured itself of a tie in the series, but this created the sort of confidence that is disastrous against the Soviets. Several NHL players said, off the record, that they would beat the Soviets in Game 2, one star saying they would "kick their butts." Coach Perron quietly criticized the goalie, Belosheikin, whose style is hauntingly similar to that of the great Tretiak. "He's very, very quick, but he's not good with the puck around the net, and he gives up rebounds. I think he's in awe of NHL players." Even NHL prez Ziegler became giddy with success, donning a Russian hat, putting his coat on backwards and dazzling the assembled diners at Cafè de la Paix with an impromptu Cossack dance on the eve of Friday's Game 2.
Here's an important point to remember about the Soviet National Hockey Team: It is seldom pushed to play its very best. When you spend 95% of your time trying not to run up scores on teams, as the Soviets do, you cannot wake up one morning and play at the lop of your game. You must first lose, then sleep on it, then spend a practice listening to Tikhonov snap and snarl at the slightest miscue before you begin to i dig deep into your belly. And that is just what the Soviets did Friday night, putting on one of the finest exhibitions of hockey anyone will ever see. "I would have paid my own money to coach in that game," Bob Johnson said later.
The NHL jumped out to an early lead courtesy of Newell, who first miscalled a trip on Soviet forward Sergei Nemchinov—an off-balance Lemieux had skated into him and collapsed—and then seemingly closed his eyes during the power play while Kurri tripped up Soviet defenseman Vyacheslav Fetisov, retrieved the puck and passed out to Messier in the slot. One-zip, NHL.
In the second period, the best of the series, the Soviets took over. Drawing the NHL defense-men away from the net with short, tantalizing passes, the Soviet forwards kept breaking to the slot, accepting whatever punishment awaited them, to be in position to score. The Soviets stormed to a 2-1 lead, and then the 20-year-old forward Valeri Kamensky, who at 6'2", 198 pounds is big enough to clear a path, made the key play of the game. With 19 seconds left in the second period, Kamensky—the next Soviet superstar—walked around Green, then beat Fuhr between the legs to give his side a 3-1 lead. The Soviets eventually stretched that to 5-2, forcing the NHL to resort to the tactic of calling for a stick measurement on Sergei Priakhin with 2:40 left. "That was a bush league maneuver," said one NHL general manager. After Newell ignored one final trip—this one by Gretzky, who then picked up the puck and fed it to Bourque—the NHL closed to 5-3.
"The NHL actually played better tonight than we did on Wednesday," Perron said later, seemingly relieved not to have to play a rubber match, as were most members of the NHL contingent. "But the Russians came to play. More guts on the puck. More intensity."
Tikhonov was equally impressed with the NHL lineup. "That team I really like. Really strong. And, for the first time, disciplined. Of all the teams over the years, this one I admire the most."
Goodwill all around. As for the players, who were all business at Rendez-Vous, forgoing the festive activities to study tapes every night and concentrate on hockey, well, none of them were complaining. "We can do those other things in 10 years, when we've retired," said Poulin, expressing the prevailing sentiment. "I've enjoyed this as much as any single thing to do with hockey."
And Rendez-Vous itself? This much we do know: It won't be an annual affair. Next year the league will hold its All-Star Game in St. Louis, returning to the boring traditional format. "But I am sure Rendez-Vous is going to create children," says the irrepressible Aubut. "I don't know exactly how or where or when, but everybody realizes that maybe we should do more things like Rendez-Vous."
The wheels, you can sense, are already turning. No doubt Monsieur Aubut will think of something.