International hockey has a way of bringing hockey fans in. Every fan can think of a moment when they saw their national team do something incredible. The Miracle on Ice, Peter Forsberg‘s shootout goal at the 1994 Olympics, or Sidney Crosby‘s golden goal at the 2010 Olympics. These moments will never leave their minds. While the Olympics had (until 2018) become the place to see the premier best on best hockey tournament, there was something before. The Canada Cup, which went from 1976-1991, was the premier best on best hockey tournament. It had great moments and incredible games. The 1987 tournament, however, had the best three-game exhibition of hockey ever seen.
Remembering the 1987 Canada Cup
The 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union produced some exceptional hockey. The two hockey superpowers faced off in an eight-game exhibition between the best Canadian NHL players and the best from the Soviet Union. Canada eventually won the tournament 4-3-1. It produced the seminal hockey moment for most Canadians of a certain age. Paul Henderson‘s last-minute game-winner in Game 8 secured Team Canada’s victory. Even though it was an exhibition series, the games became as heated as the most intense rivalry or playoff series. Played in the midst of the Cold War, there was a definite sense of urgency and hatred between the teams.
The series produced such exceptional hockey and drama, and the demand for more ‘best on best’ exhibitions grew. The Olympics at this time was an amateur tournament so there was no best on best international hockey tournaments at the time. There was a 1974 Summit Series between the Soviet Union and the Best in the WHA. There was also Super Series ’76, which saw teams from the Soviet Championship league tour North America and play exhibition games against NHL teams. It was obvious there was a thirst for this kind of hockey.
What Was The Canada Cup
Because the Olympics and World Cup were amateur tournaments, North America, notably Canada, could not send their professionals playing in the NHL or WHA. The Soviet Union would send their ‘amateur’ athletes to these competitions and dominated them. The Soviets would boast about being the World Champions of hockey, despite not playing against the best teams from every country. It was, in part, a driving force behind the 1972 Summit Series – to see who was actually the best.
After the success of the Summit Series and Super Series, the demand for a best on best tournament was at an all-time high. Planning began in 1974 when then NHLPA president Alan Eagleson started negotiating with Soviet hockey officials about a best on best world hockey championship. In a combined effort between Hockey Canada and the NHLPA, the Canada Cup was born.
The tournament would occur every three or four years, featuring the best professional and amateur players from Canada, the Soviet Union, Sweden, USA, Czechoslovakia and Finland. West Germany participated in one Canada Cup, replacing Finland in 1984.
The tournament was a round robin. In 1976, the top two teams played in a best of three finals to determine the champion. In every subsequent tournament, the top four teams qualify for the semi-finals. Then a best of three final would determine the champion. As to not interfere with the NHL schedule, the tournament would be held in the off-season. The first Canada Cup took place in 1976.
The Lead Up to ’87
The best on best format made for some excellent hockey overall, but make no mistake, the hopes and plans were for Canada and the Soviet Union to play in the finals. The tournament allowed for all professionals so WHA and NHL players could participate. Team Canada was able to assemble a very strong team. With the likes of Bobby Orr, Bobby Hull, Guy Lafleur, Marcel Dionne, Gilbert Perreault, Bobby Clarke, Darryl Sittler, Larry Robinson, Serge Savard, Denis Potvin and Rogie Vachon on the roster, Canada was the favourite. The tournament also introduced the hockey world to the Peter Stastny and Marian Stastny.
Unfortunately, in 1976, it didn’t work out. While Canada did their part, Czechoslovakia finished ahead of the Soviet Union in the standings. Canada would face Czechoslovakia, the only team to beat Canada in the round robin, in the inaugural final. Canada would dominate the first game 6-0. The second game required overtime. Darryl Sittler would score the series-clinching goal in overtime.
The first Canada Cup established a new era in international hockey. It was the first true, best on best tournament in the world. It ended Canada’s six-year boycott in international tournaments. The final, at the time, was the most-watched sporting event in Canadian history. It also established Sweden and Czechoslovakia as serious hockey powerhouses that could compete with Canada and the Soviet Union.
The 1981 Canada Cup saw the Soviets looking to re-establish themselves at the top of the hockey world. After failing to reach the final of the ’76 Canada Cup and being upset by the USA at the 1980 Olympics, the Soviets wanted their mantle back. The Soviets brought a very strong team to the tournament. It was also the debut of the “Russian Five” – a unit that played together at the club level with CSKA Moscow and with the Soviet national team. Viacheslav Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov were on defence. The forward line consisted of Igor Larionov, Vladimir Krutov and Sergei Makarov. The line would become known as the KLM line.
Canada sent a much younger team to the ’81 tournament. Wayne Gretzky, Ray Bourque, Paul Reinhart and Craig Hartsburg were all under 22 years old and going to be relied upon. They joined ’76 alumni Larry Robinson, Denis Potvin, Bob Gainey, Marcel Dionne and Guy Lafleur on the team. While the Soviets had the Russian Five, team Canada had five players from the New York Islanders. Mike Bossy, Brian Trottier, Clarke Gillies and Butch Goring joined Potvin on Team Canada.
Organizers would get their dream final matchup. Canada and the Soviet Union played in the final. In 1981, the tournament adopted a one-game winner take all final. It was the only time this would happen at a Canada Cup. Despite dominating the Soviets in the round robin, 7-3, Canada was outclassed in the final. The Soviet Union completely embarrassed Canada 8-1.
The Soviet Union was looking to repeat as Canada Cup champions. It was Canada looking to get itself back on top of the hockey world this time. Canada came with a team made up primarily of players from the Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders. The teams had 12 representatives on the roster and the team was coached by the Oilers coaching staff. Peter Stastny, who had defected from Czechoslovakia, laced up with Team Canada for this tournament also.
The Soviets dominated the round robin, posting a 5-0 record. Team Canada struggled in the round robin, posting a 2-2-1 record finishing fourth. Canada dropped games to the Soviet Union and Sweden while tying the USA. The Americans were the surprise of the tournament finished second in the round robin. Sweden finished third.
Canada played the Soviets in the semi-final round. The Soviets posted a rather convincing 6-3 win over Canada in the round robin. Still, the semi-final matchup was a tight affair. Tied at two, the game needed overtime. In overtime, Paul Coffey gave Canadian hockey fans a great memory. First, he broke up a two on one rush by the Soviets, then led the rush to eventually assist on Mike Bossy‘s game-winner. Canada then beat Sweden in the best of three final to claim their second Canada Cup.
In 1987 all the stars aligned to deliver some of the best hockey ever seen. Canada, for the only time ever, was able to produce a lineup with both Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. There was a lot expected from the duo and they did not disappoint. The duo accounted for 29% of Canada’s offence during the tournament. Team Canada’s roster had 12 future Hall of Fame players on it.
The round robin had few surprised. Canada went undefeated, posting a 3-0-2 record. The Soviets finished runners-up with a 3-1-1 record. Sweden and Czechoslovakia rounded out the top four. The Czechoslovakian team was led by a young netminder named Dominik Hasek. Hasek proved to be quite the thorn in Team Canada’s side. In the opening game of the round robin, Canada had to settle for a 4-4 tie against Czechoslovakia. Canada needed to solve Hasek again in the semifinal.
In the semifinal, Hasek put a true scare into Canadian hockey fans. Czechoslovakia jumped out to an early 2-0 lead. It seemed no matter what team Canada did, they could not solve the Czech netminder. Then, about halfway through the second period, Canada had a breakthrough. Dale Hawerchuk beat Hasek to get Canada back in the game. The goal revitalized the crowd and team. Mario Lemieux would score two more quick goals to give Canada a 3-2 lead. Michel Goulet scored early in the third to give Canada a little breathing room. They would need it, as David Volek would pull one back to make it 4-3. Brian Propp sealed the win with a goal with two minutes left that gave Canada a 5-3 win.
The Soviet Union faced rival Sweden in the other semifinal. Sweden was full of confidence after knocking off the Soviets, 5-3 in the round robin. The Soviets had other ideas, jumping out to a 3-0 lead midway through the second period. Sweden pulled one back to make it 3-1. Sergei Makarov sealed the win with a third-period goal to make it 4-1. Sweden would score very late to give the game a respectable scoreline of 4-2.
The final was set. A three-game series pitting the Soviet Union against Canada. It is what everyone wanted.
This final series between Canada and the Soviet Union was what this tournament was intended for. Two incredible teams playing at the peak of their abilities, putting on a hockey clinic for fans. The series would show just how closely matched the teams were. In the final game of the round robin, the two teams played to a 3-3 tie. While it doesn’t get held up in the same way as ’72, the ’87 Canada Cup final was some of the best hockey ever played. There were lead changes, comebacks, plenty of overtime and drama.
Game one of the 1987 Canada Cup final took place in Montreal at the Forum. In what would prove to be a trend in the series, there was an early goal. Mike Gartner scored to give Canada a 1-0 lead just 1:49 into the game. Unfortunately for Canada, things turned ugly after that. The Soviets scored four unanswered goals from Kasatonov, Krutov, Makarov and the emerging Valeri Kamensky to take a 4-1 second-period lead. The Soviets were running away with the first game.
Ray Bourque scored a late second-period goal to make the score 4-2. Early in the third, Grant Fuhr made a sprawling save to keep the deficit at two. That seemed to ignite team Canada. Not long after the save, Doug Gilmour cut the lead to one. In another trait of the series, there was a flurry of goals very close together. Glenn Anderson tied the game up with a little over three minutes left. Then Wayne Gretzky scored a go-ahead goal 20 seconds later. 30 seconds after that, Andrei Khomutov tied the game at five. Mario Lemieux had a chance to put Canada up again, but Soviet goaltender Sergei Mylnikov made a great glove save. The game was headed to overtime. Just over five minutes into the extra frame, Alexander Semak went bar down on Fuhr to give the Soviets the victory in Game one, 6-5.
The Canada Cup final shifted to Hamilton for games two and three. Game two of this series is considered by some the greatest hockey game ever played. The game went back and forth with incredible action all game long. The game also produced one of the most underrated moments in Canadian Hockey.
Canada jumped out to an early 1-0 lead when Normand Rochefort scored just 43 seconds into the game after Grant Fuhr made a big save moments before. 44 seconds later, Alexei Khomutov tied the game at one. Doug Gilmour then restored the Canadian lead. Both teams came close to scoring, with the Soviets peppering Fuhr and even having a goal disallowed. Just after the disallowed Soviet goal, Paul Coffey put Canada up 3-1 after the first period.
Back and Forth We Go
Just over 12 minutes into the second period, Viacheslav Fetisov scored one back for the Soviets. Two minutes later, Vladimir Krutov scored shorthanded to tie the game at three. Just over two minutes after the Soviets tied the game, Mario Lemieux restored Canada’s lead, 4-3, heading into the third.
Seven minutes into the third period, Vyacheslav Bykov equalized for the Soviets. A little under five minutes after that, Mario Lemieux again took back the Canadian lead, 5-4. Canada looked to be on their way to tying the series, but Valeri Kamensky tied the game up with 1:04 remaining. Kamensky made a great individual rush to force overtime and might have been the goal of the tournament. Game 2, like Game 1, was headed to overtime tied 5-5.
In the second period of overtime, Mario Lemieux scored his third goal of the game to give Canada the 6-5 win and force a winner take all game three. The Lemieux hat trick and game-winner were huge moments in the Canada-Soviet hockey rivalry. The Soviet Union were one goal away from claiming their second Canada Cup.
For the first time ever in a Canada Cup, there would be a winner take all Game three in the final. Both Canada and the Soviet Union won 6-5 games in overtime to get to this point. The final game did not disappoint.
Canada came out flat in the first period and Sergei Makarov scored 26 seconds into the game. The goal came from a terrible Canadian giveaway in their own zone. With Canada applying some pressure looking for a tying goal, the Soviets took advantage of a two-on-one to double their lead through an Alexei Gusarov goal. Viacheslav Fetisov scored a minute later to give the Soviets a 3-0 lead eight minutes in. The Soviets were in danger of running away with the game, similar to what happened in 1981. Unlike in ’81, however, Canada was able to respond.
The response came from unlikely sources. Rick Tocchet got Canada on the board with a power-play goal two minutes after the Fetisov goal. Tocchet’s Flyers teammate, Brian Propp, scored with just over five minutes left in the first period to cut the deficit to one goal.
Canada was pushing to tie the game before the period was out. On a late power play, Canada did everything but score, including hitting a post. Unfortunately for Canada, the Soviets and Andrei Khomutov took advantage of a Ray Bourque turnover to make it 4-2 with 28 seconds left in the period.
In the second period, it was Canada that came out strong. Trailing 4-2, Canada scored three unanswered goals six minutes apart. Larry Murphy, Brent Sutter and Dale Hawerchuk all scored to give Canada a 5-4 lead heading into the third period.
The score stayed the stayed the same well into the third period. But with just over seven minutes remaining, the Soviets tied the game up through Alexander Semak. With the score tied (again) at 5-5, overtime loomed (again).
Gretzky To Lemieux
The stage was set for one of the most dramatic finishes in hockey history.
With about 1:36 left in regulation, Dale Hawerchuk won a faceoff in the defensive zone. Mario Lemieux pocked the puck into the neutral zone, and then passed it up to Wayne Gretzky. Gretzky and Larry Murphy were in on a two on one. Gretzky then dropped the puck back to a trailing Lemieux who fired the shot top corner to give Canada a 6-5 lead with 1:26 remaining. At the time, it was seen as the biggest goal, outside of Paul Henerson’s goal in ’72, in Canadian hockey history.
Canada held on to win the game, 6-5, and claim their second consecutive Canada Cup and third overall.
The 1987 Canada Cup has a lasting legacy. It has many memorable moments and great games. The hockey on display was some of the best ever seen and the final series between Canada and the Soviets was some of the best hockey ever played. The passion and desire on display during the Canada Cup was evident.
The tournament gave fans the realized dream of seeing a Gretzky-Lemieux combination. They did not disappoint. Gretzky led the tournament in assists with 18 and in points with 21. Lemieux led the tournament in scoring with 11 goals and was second in points with 18. Unfortunately for Canadian hockey fans, this was the only time Gretzky and Lemieux played for Canada together.
The opportunity to represent your country is something that is not lost on these players. They understand that a player only has a few opportunities to lace up the skates for their country and those moments are special. Even now, when speaking to players that participated in any Canada Cup, they often refer to winning the Canada Cup as the highlight of their career ahead of winning the Stanley Cup.
The End of an Era
It also, unfortunately, marked the end of an era in international hockey. While the final between Canada and The Soviet Union was classic, it was the last time the two old foes met in this way. By 1991, the Soviet Union was in political turmoil. The federation purposely sent a weak team for fear of player defections. The team was a non-factor and failed to make it out of the round robin. Canada went on to win the tournament over the USA. 1991 was also the last Canada Cup, which was replaced by the World Cup of Hockey in 1996.
By 1996, the NHL was full of Russian superstars. The mystery surrounding Russian hockey was gone. With communism gone, so was the “us versus them” mentality. These players were now part of everyday life in the NHL. So when the 1996 World Cup of Hockey rolled around, much of the animosity was gone.
Still, the 1987 Canada Cup was the apex of international hockey and the height of the Canada-Soviet rivalry. While it began in 1972, it was at it’s all-time best in 1987. The three-game final between the two countries provided some of the best moments in hockey performed by some of the greatest players to ever play. The emotion, excitement and skill on display are likely never to be seen on this level again.
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