As you probably learned back in third grade, comrades: The end justifies the means. So it was with this year's Canada Cup. The less savory sidelights of early-round play—the cheap shots that bordered on international incidents, the woeful officiating, the inequitable travel schedules—were all but forgotten last week as Team Canada and the Soviet National Team split gloriously played sudden-death games by the same 6-5 score, thus setting up Tuesday night's Game 3 showdown for the Cup championship. The first game was ended by a rising slap shot from a rising Soviet star; the second by the NHL's second-best player. Second, but closing.
On Friday night in the Montreal Forum, Alexander Semak, whom Soviet assistant coach Igor Dmitriev had earlier described as "famous for his powerful, unexpected shot," unexpectedly put an end to a remarkable Canadian comeback. With only two minutes gone in the second period, the NHL selects had trailed 4-1. The home team's two dozen towering but conspicuously individual talents seemed no match for the awesomely efficient Little Red Machine (average Soviet player: 5'9¾", 178 pounds; average Canadian: 6 feet, 187 pounds), but Team Canada suddenly rallied against the pending rout.
It may have been a matter of pride or maybe just force of habit. Two days earlier, Canada had dug out of a 2-0 hole to overwhelm Team Czechoslovakia 5-3. And two nights before that—helped by the cooperative officiating of NHL referee Mike Noeth—Canada had rallied to tie the Soviets 3-3. On this night, a crowd of 14,588 looked on with mounting delirium as Team Canada woke up and pumped in four unanswered goals, the last by Wayne Gretzky, fresh from filming a deodorant commercial with retired Soviet goaltending star Vladislav Tretiak. But the Soviets forced sudden death with a late goal, and then Semak's blink-and-you-missed-it score had them dancing along Kutuzovsky Prospekt and crying along Rue de Ste. Catharine.
Faced with possible humiliation, Team Canada came out of the blocks like Ben Johnson in Game 2 on Sunday night in Hamilton, Ont. Forty-three seconds into the match, Normand Rochefort scored for a 1-0 lead. Gretzky did not get an assist on that goal, but he set up each of the next five. On the business end of three of those scores was Mario Lemieux, the 6'4" Pittsburgh Penguins center whose 10 goals led the tournament. With all apologies to 99, 66—Lemieux, that is—impressed the Soviets more than any other NHL player. Asked who was better, Lemieux or Gretzky, Dmitriev chose to talk about Lemieux, calling him a "technically excellent player."
September 20, 1987
The week before, after a Lemieux hat trick had flattened Team USA 3-2, a Finnish reporter stood up at the postgame press conference, nervously cleared his throat, and asked Team Canada coach Mike Keenan, "Why not, Gretzky and Lemieux, same line, all time?"
"It would be counterproductive," answered Keenan. However, 99 and 66 were so electric on power plays and four-on-fours that a few days later Keenan was forced to announce: "I've changed my mind." Keenan's reversal may have saved Canada and the entire NHL. It certainly was the reason that Game 3 would be required. Of the 10 goals Lemieux had scored, Gretzky had assisted on eight of them.
Led by the double digits, Canada controlled play Sunday night and took a 3-1 lead, dominating the way the Soviets had in Montreal. Then the Soviets, refusing to be intimidated by the ridiculously high sticks wielded by the Canadians, unleashed their Big Red Machine and, with Vladimir Krutov scoring twice, tied the score at 4-4. Lemieux restored Canada's lead with a goal from just off the crease midway through the period, but Valeri Kamensky, the Soviet hero of Rendez-Vous '87, sent the game into OT with a spectacular effort. The lanky Kamensky burst through the neutral zone, split Canada's defense and, while falling, chopped a rising shot over goal tender Grant Fuhr's shoulder.
But each time the Soviets tied the game, 99 and 66 answered the call. So it would be in the end. The weary teams skated through one 20-minute sudden-death session, after which Lemieux said that he "visualized" himself scoring the game-winner. Ten minutes into the second, Lemieux proved himself a visionary. From his position in the high slot, defenseman Patrick Murphy passed the puck to Gretzky, who was standing to the left of Soviet goaltender Evgeny Belosheikin. In no time at all the Great One shoveled the puck across the crease and onto the stick of the Pretty Damn Good One, and Lemieux snapped the puck into the net. The longest game in Canada-Soviet Union hockey history was finally over—and the longest 44-hour wait for a Canada-Soviet Union game was just beginning.
This exact Canada Cup final had been eagerly awaited by both camps since February, when the NHL and Soviet all-stars split the two games at Rendez-Vous in Quebec City. Yet this dream matchup almost didn't come off. The Soviets gained the finals with an easy win over Sweden, but Canada had unexpected difficulty with Team Czechoslovakia. In fact, after 30 minutes of the Canada-Czechoslovakia semifinal, it looked as if Cup-organizer Alan Eagleson would have an all-Eastern bloc final on his hands.
"At half-past nine I was dying," Eagleson said. Indeed, at that time the Czechs led Canada 2-0, and the play of Czech goalie Dominik Hasek had Montreal fans recalling Durnan and Plante and Dryden. Then, just as Eagleson was thinking of the empty seats and darkened TV sets that a Soviet-Czech final would create, Team Canada scored three goals in 2½ minutes—the first by Dale Hawerchuk, the next two by Lemieux. Hasek was shaken, and vulnerable. It helped that Claude Lemieux, Montreal's consummate grinder and cheap-shot specialist, ran Hasek twice before skating from behind and sucker-punching him in the head.
The Czechs wondered aloud about the officiating when this flagrant foul went uncalled. Nor were the Swedes without complaints. "We logged 9,000 air kilometers [5,580 miles] between games; the next closest team had only 4,000," said coach Tommy Sandlin after Sweden lost 4-2 to the Soviets in the semis. "In the world championships, all teams play under the same circumstances. This is not a sports tournament, it is a business."
For Gretzky, it was business on the ice but pleasure off. As the MVP of Sunday's game walked out into the Ontario night, there was a smile on his face and his arm was wrapped around the waist of his new good friend, actress Janet Jones. To the victor....