It’s probably worth noting right off the hop that I was born in 1980 and this tournament coincides with my earliest memories of enjoying hockey and that’s likely to bias me. That being said, I am completely right, and this is the greatest tournament of all-time, despite having it final games inexplicably being played in Hamilton.
The Summit Series was an outstanding series. It was a chance for Canadians who believed they were unrivaled in hockey excellence to learn some humility but still emerge triumphantly. It was a chance for the entire world to get a glimpse of the greatest goaltender of all-time in Vladislav Tretiak, and in a tournament full of legendary players, it was Paul Henderson who stole the show and became the hero of the tournament. It was absolutely marvelous hockey that I didn’t get the chance to experience firsthand, but it was also two nations going head to head, by 1987 the rest of the world had caught up.
To appreciate the ’87 Canada Cup fully, you have to appreciate what a marvelous year 1987 was for hockey. The sport was incredibly fun to watch, there was no shortage of goals, every team seemed to have a superstar, and one of the great sports dynasties was taking place.
This time was a lot less fun for Leafs fans, but fortunately for six-year-old me, I was a Jets fan and Hawerchuk was my God.
The closing of the 1986-87 season gave us one of the all-time greatest Stanley Cup Finals, with Ron Hextall picking up the Conn Smythe in a seven-game loss to Gretzky’s Oilers. This was the glory days of Dave Poulin, before he did things like advocate for acquiring Brett Lebda and destroying all calculators in the greater Toronto area.
Terrific finals left plenty of people wanting more hockey, and that void was perfectly filled by the Canada Cup.
The 1981 and 1984 Canada Cups, on paper, were the most historic tournaments. The 81 tournament is the tournament that debuted the Russian Five (Makarov, Krutov, Larionov, Kasatonov, and Fetisov), was the final appearance of Tretiak, and the USSR’s tournament victory, not to mention the debut of Gretzky in the tournament.
I might be forcing the importance of the 1984 Canada Cup, but this would be Canada reclaiming the championship of their namesake tournament, and also the North American debut of Dominik Hasek on the underdog Czechoslovakian team.
What had been lacking in all of the previous Canada Cups, however, was Team Canada winning the tournament over the Soviet Union in the Finals. And (spoiler alert) that’s exactly what 87 provided.
So before even getting too much into the on-ice product, let’s look at who’s involved in this tournament.
- We have the return of the Russian Five for the Soviet Union. This is now their third appearance in the tournament, and by the next Canada Cup they will have all landed gigs in the NHL. Largely based on their performances here (the fall of communism was also a factor).
- We have Dominik Hasek returning, but this time posting the second-best save percentage in the tournament (behind Vanbiesbrouck of Team USA). By the next Canada Cup, he’d also be playing in North America, albeit in a backup role before finally being allowed to be great.
- Team USA icing a team of their best players instead of trying to tap into Miracle on Ice nostalgia was a nice change. They still didn’t do great, but Vanbiesbrouck was the top goaltender of the round robin and was the only goaltender who put up a save percentage above .900. His .922 was basically unheard of in the 80s, let alone in a tournament with stacked teams.
- This tournament did also have one other noteworthy participant. It was the Canada Cup debut of Mario Lemieux. At this point, we were three years into Lemieux being the second best player in the NHL. Following this tournament, Lemieux would put up his best to statistical seasons. This would also be the first and only time he would play with Wayne Gretzky, I wonder if they’d do anything significant?
I’ve often heard this Team Canada roster is one of the best rosters ever put together. It’s pretty darn good. Starting with Gretzky and Lemieux, you’re already making a strong case. Add in Mark Messier, Ray Bourque, Paul Coffey, Dale Hawerchuk, Michel Goulet and Mike Gartner your case gets stronger. Players like Doug Gilmour, Larry Murphy, Grant Fuhr, and Ron Hextall (coming off a Conn Smythe and Vezina) it’s hard to argue. Where it gets weird is the lack of Steve Yzerman, Luc Robitaille, and Al MacInnis. Instead, you have Normand Rochefort, Doug Crossman, Craig Hartsburg, and Brent Sutter. They are all decent players, but it’s hard to say it can match up what was assembled for the 2010 or 2014 Olympics by Canada.
The Round Robin, as is in pretty much every tournament was unremarkable, aside from Canada’s slow start out the gate by tying the Czechoslovakians, and the suspense building tie against the Soviet Union to close out round robin play. Sweden upsetting the Soviets, but being defeated by Team USA was interesting, but not so interesting that you don’t skip those games on the tournament DVDs.
The Semi-Finals were the tournament becomes noteworthy.
In the USSR-Sweden game, you have a Soviet powerhouse going up against the team that upset them in the round robin. The concept of that was short lived as the Russian Five teamed up for a goal in the first two minutes and never gave up the lead in a 4-2 victory. The Russian Five would have a combined 10 points (3G, 7A) in the game.
The Canada-Czechoslovakia game would be more interesting. The two teams tied in their round-robin matchup, and the game would feature arguably the two greatest players of all-time in Lemieux and Gretzky shooting on Dominik Hasek, who at least statistically is the greatest, although Tretiak is still probably the greatest of all-time.
The first half of the game saw Hasek shut out the Canadians, and Czechoslovakia established a 2-0 lead. At the halfway point the game, Dale Hawerchuk would finally get the Canadians on the board, and with two more goals from Mario Lemieux, the Canadians would head into the 2nd intermission with a lead they wouldn’t give up in a 5-3 win.
Arguably the three best hockey games ever played. With all due respect to Kharmalov and Tretiak, this was probably the best Russian Team ever iced. You can debate the 76 Canada Cup Team, you can consider the recent Canadian Olympic Teams, but this was Gretzky and Lemieux playing together, and against worthy competition.
The question gets asked a lot (at least in Toronto), “how many times a team has blown a 4-1 lead?”
Heading into the final minute of the second, that’s the lead the Soviets held over Canada. Bourque, Gilmour, Anderson, and would tie it up when there were just over five minutes left in the game. With three minutes remaining, Gretzky would give the Canadians the lead. The comeback was complete….for about 30 seconds.
The Soviets would tie it up, and just over five minutes into overtime future NHL journeyman Alexander Semak would end it. Canada was a game away from elimination.
Game Two would start with three goals in the first five minutes, the Canadians leading 2-1. The back and forth would continue throughout the game with the Canadians leading 5-4 heading into the final couple minutes.
Future Nordique, Valeri Kamensky would tie the game with 1:04 left, and Canada and the USSR would once again head into Overtime with the score destined to be 6-5.
The first game ending in 6-5 is interesting, the second game ending in 6-5 is an interesting coincidence, as is the fact that the original Summit Series concluded with a 6-5 score in Game Eight. I wonder what this is foreshadowing, but anyways, since you probably know there was a Game Three and that Canada ultimately wins the series, I’ll quickly note that Mario Lemieux completes his hat trick on a goal assisted by Wayne Gretzky and Larry Murphy halfway through the second overtime. Gretzky to Lemieux, interesting.
The wonderful thing about the 80s is that even a combustible coach like Mike Keenan didn’t change his goaltender after they gave up three goals in the first ten minutes of a deciding game. That’s exactly what Grant Fuhr did to start game three. If that had happened a decade later, the arena would have been half empty because coming back from that is next to impossible.
Instead, the marvelous 80s meant the score was 3-2 for the USSR before the 13-minute mark of the game. The first would end with a 4-2 Soviet lead.
The second period would be entirely different and by the second intermission, Team Canada would have a 5-4 lead.
This score would somehow hold for the first half of the third period. It was around this time that young me was incredibly excited. Growing up in North America during the end of the Cold War, I was surrounded by people who believed there was nothing more important than beating the Russians. I was young, but I knew what I was about to witness was a big deal.
With just over seven and a half minutes remaining, the Soviets killed the mood in my parents living room and I would spend the next six minutes of playing time surrounded by incredibly tense adults who were experiencing very real sports feels.
What happened next is one of those great sports moments that has been burned into my head for the past 29 years. No amount of alcohol, head trauma, etc. has made the next play any less clear in my head.
Gretzky and Lemieux are on the ice, as you’d expect with little time left in the game. The fact that they were on for a defensive zone faceoff would seem bizarre today, especially since this play is one of the few documented instances of Lemieux knowing where his defensive zone is.
Anyway, the greatest players of this generation are on the ice with my personal hero Dale Hawerchuk, Larry Murphy, and a fifth player who I actually can’t remember. I guess my memory isn’t so great after all.
The late 90s as a Leafs fan has soured me on Larry Murphy, but there is little doubt he played well on this shift in ’87. With Hawerchuk behind the play, Murphy jumped up in the rush and was ahead of Lemieux, if the defensemen and goaltender weren’t aware that the third guy trailing on the play was Lemieux, the best guess would be that Gretzky would be looking to pass to Murphy.
With possibly the two greatest centers of all-time on the ice, Hawerchuk was the player selected to take the faceoff. He didn’t win it, but he tied up his player and in the process, another Soviet tripped over the center while Lemieux recovered the puck. This is what essentially made a 3-1 one situation for Canada as Lemieux banked the puck past the pinching defender.
Hawerchuk would aid the rush again as he blatantly hooked the second Soviet returning to the zone to cover Lemieux. It’s amazing that Hawerchuk wasn’t called for interference, but when your team cheats to win you don’t care, just ask Bruins fans. You could make the argument that using North American refs throughout the series may have been a factor too.
Nothing really needs to be said about Gretzky. He played flawlessly as usual. He moves into position ahead of Lemieux for the pass, and then uses incredible patience to pull the defenseman out of position to the point he falls on his ass, giving him two reasonable passing options in Murphy and Lemieux.
Murphy looks like he’s going to be in position for the tap-in, but on the other hand, Lemieux is the greatest scorer in the game besides Gretzky. It’s safe to say Wayne trusted him to finish.
Lemieux was Lemieux this entire shift. He uses his speed and his reach to gain control of the puck to start the play, his smarts to use his teammates, and of course this finishing ability by picking his spot on Sergei Mylnikov. It was beautiful. It was historic. It was the perfect end to this tournament. It was 6-5.
The final minute was one of cautious celebration. Too many times in the series, there was a quick response by the opponent, and every other game had gone to overtime. As the buzzer finally sounded, it was finally time to completely let loose and prepare for the presentation of the trophy that smugly matched the Canadian jerseys. A brief moment of ultra-nationalism was experienced, the anthem sung, and then our house emptied out and the television was shut off.
For me, this tournament would lead into my first year playing organized hockey. I recall being terrible, but my team was good and we would go on a championship run of our own, thanks to great goaltending. I would begin a phase of my life where every cent I had to my name was being spent on hockey cards and completing the 87-88 O-Pee-Chee was the first step in that.
A family friend would introduce me to Dale Hawerchuk this year, and I associate this year as being the year my Dad took me to more hockey games than any other year.
For Christmas Santa gave me a Nintendo along with Ice Hockey, so I could relive the Canada Cup over and over again. The skinny guy was always Gretzky, the fat guy was Lemieux, and the two medium guys were Hawerchuk and Murphy. It was actually convenient there were only four players on the ice in the game because I couldn’t remember who the fifth guy was (I’m thinking Paul Coffey).
Hockey became my life largely because of this tournament, so like I said I’m a little biased towards it, but in retrospect, the hockey was pretty fucking good.
As far as the tournament, it would lead to a Final Canada Cup held in 1991, which notably featured the debut of Eric Lindros, but unfortunately, Mario Lemieux would miss it and the only time we would see Gretzky and Lemieux on the same team again would be the 1997 All-Star Game.
Having the ’87 Canada Cup as a lead-in for the Calgary Olympics didn’t hurt either, although the fourth place finish was a bit of a let down. Brian Bradley and Jim Peplinski are a poor substitute for Wayne and Mario.
The Canada Cup would soon be replaced with the more reasonably named, but remarkably less fun World Cup of Hockey, but most importantly peaked an interest in the idea of having NHL players compete in the Olympics.
While I still prefer the days of the rosters filled with random players from junior and European teams, it’s clear that the Olympics have been the heir apparent to what the Canada Cup was, and the 2002, 2010, 2014 Olympic Golds filled the void left since the Canada Cup ended.
Maybe it’s because the Olympics are still fairly recent in our mind, maybe it’s because the World Cup has diluted itself with the European and North American Kids team that I can’t get behind the tournament this September. Maybe it’s because there’s no “WE GOTTA BET THE COMMUNISTS” mentality about any teams in the tournament where you have a nation actively hating a team, but it’s not doing it for me.
What I do hope is that what cynical old me views as a heavily sponsored all-star game tournament will actually produce some moments that young kids will latch onto the same way I latched onto the Canada Cup. Gretzky to Lemieux, The Henderson Goal, and the Golden Goal mean a lot more to kids than they mean to old jackasses like me, and nothing would make me happier than being wrong about the World Cup.
No matter what happens this September, it’s still important to remember that the 1987 Canada Cup was the Greatest Hockey Tournament of All-Time.