Catherine the great looked a bit ill at ease. The Empress—actually, a statue of her on the roof of The Russian Lady Cafe—had been draped in an American flag. It was Friday night, and next door in the Hartford Civic Center Coliseum the Soviet National Team was about to play Team USA in the qualifying round of Canada Cup IV. Draping Kate the Great in Old Glory was cafè owner John Rimscha's way of assuring patrons where his loyalties lay.
Inside the arena, a sellout crowd of 14,838 watched what seemed to be a 60-minute three-on-two as the Soviets won 5-1. By Monday morning, Team USA had been eliminated from the tournament, the flag over The Russian Lady Cafe was long gone, and some notions hatched earlier in Cup competition proved to be flawed. To wit:
•The Bear has lost a step. Observers of international puck wars claimed to have detected a decline in the quality of Soviet hockey, a reading based largely on the fact that the Soviets had lost two of the three world championships since their star goaltender, Vladislav Tretiak, retired in 1984. The Soviets' 5-3 loss to Sweden in Game 1 of the Canada Cup seemingly confirmed that suspicion. But then the Soviets thrashed the U.S., survived some brutal NHL refereeing to get a 3-3 tie with Team Canada on Sunday night and, well, so much for that theory.
•The Yanks are ready for prime time. After Team USA bolted to a 2-0 Cup start, pronouncements were heard that U.S. hockey "had arrived." But successive losses to Canada, the U.S.S.R. and Czechoslovakia put the U.S. back in touch with reality.
The game against the Soviets on Friday fully exposed how far behind the Americans are in passing, playmaking and penalty-killing. It was this kind of night: The Soviets scored 16 seconds into their first power play and 16 seconds into their next. On its first man-advantage, Team USA never even got a shot on goal. Down by two goals in the final period, coach Bob (the Badger) Johnson asked officials to examine forward Valeri Kamensky's stick. Jackpot! It was declared illegal, and the Soviets were assessed a two-minute minor. By way of apologizing, forward Vladimir Krutov scored a shorthanded goal to put the game out of reach.
As the Soviets have struggled to survive post-Tretiak, coach Viktor Tikhonov has been third-guessed by everyone from Chelyabinsk to Moscow to Riga. Supposedly, while the rest of the world had adjusted to the Soviet style of play, Tikhonov's hockey philosophy hadn't progressed. If anything, the Soviets at times seemed to regress to the boring NHL style of dumping the puck into the zone and then chasing after it. Of course, if your winning percentage in this decade were higher than .900, you too might be set in your ways. Nevertheless, rumors put the 57-year-old Tikhonov in the twilight of his career, headed for a position in the Soviet hockey hierarchy after the Winter Olympics in Calgary. Questioned about the importance of the Canada Cup, Tikhonov smiled courteously and said, "This is just a tournament."
Just a tournament? Tell that to Alan Eagleson, the Cup's organizer, who portrays the event as a confrontation of cosmic significance, the only chance the hockey world gets to see the planet's best players have at one another, since NHLers don't play in the Olympics and only a handful are ever available for the world championships. Less wide-eyed observers dismiss these summertime summits-on-ice as a further drain on the overworked stars of the NHL and a device to generate off-season income for the NHL Players Association, of which Eagleson is executive director.
North Americans from St. Louis to Sault Ste. Marie all agreed on this: Thirty dollars a ticket—the admission charge at most sites for good seats—was steep, even in Canadian dollars. For the opening week of round-robin games, attendance was less than 50% of capacity. Eagleson defended the prices as being justified for "a high-quality product," but the Cup's first sellout came only last Wednesday, when 17,056 packed the Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, Ont., to see the U.S. play Canada. Both teams were undefeated, the U.S. more conspicuously so, having upset Sweden two days after the Swedes upset the Soviets.
The Canadians had beaten the Yanks four times in exhibitions and figured to waltz by them this time, too, with a lineup that included Wayne Gretzky, Michel Goulet, Mario Lemieux, Ray Bourque, Paul Coffey, Mark Messier and Dale Hawerchuk. Even Glenn Anderson, the Edmonton Oilers' blur of a wing, was returning from a knee injury in time to face Team USA.
"They've got Anderson coming back, we've got Corey Millen," said Johnson. Millen, conscripted two weeks ago from the U.S. Olympic team, has never played in the NHL. Johnson put him on Gretzky. Said Aaron Broten, the New Jersey Devils center, "Well, Corey, it's just the best team in the world, and you're up against the best player in the world. No real pressure." Millen scored the second goal in Team USA's 3-2 loss. Lemieux scored three times for Canada, twice on assists from 99.
Sadly, the Canadians' artistry was obscured by chippy play, which at times seemed to hypnotize—no, paralyze—the Finnish referee, Karl-Gustav Kaisla. Among the low-lights: Chris Chelios and Claude Lemieux, Montreal teammates, choking each other.
Against the Soviets, Johnson tried to wring the maximum advantage from home ice. "Flags—lots of flags," ordered Badger Bob. "And we want a singer—not an organist—for the National Anthem. Make it God Bless America. Between periods, I'll feed 'em apple pie." After the 5-1 rout, Johnson was still trying to be upbeat: "Remember, this is at least three levels above the NHL."
"Who's kidding who?" asked U.S. forward Bobby Carpenter. "Sometimes the Soviets are vulnerable, and tonight wasn't one of those times."
Sunday night was. The Soviets overcame the officiating to lead 3-2 with three minutes to play, but along came Gretzky to get a tie for Canada moments after the Soviets had killed back-to-back penalties. So, Canada would play Czechoslovakia in one semifinal, and the Soviets would meet their Swedish nemeses in the other. The winners then play a best-of-three series for the Cup starting this Friday night. Count on another Canadian-Soviet showdown.