By Mike Commito (@mikecommito)
The 1976 Canada Cup was without a doubt, the best hockey tournament ever. So when I read that @ referred to the 1987 Canada Cup as the greatest of all-time, rest assured I was on the internet within minutes, registering my disgust throughout the world.
Played from September 2-15 in 1976, the tournament featured the best players from Canada, the United States, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, and Finland.
According to the Globe and Mail’s assessment on September 17, 1976, “it couldn’t have turned out much better. The Canada Cup hockey tournament was a success in every way. It provided the sort of crowd-curdling hockey – by turns, close-checking and wide-open – that in Canada we had almost forgotten. Few fights. No goons. Just enough political fracas to justify its billing as an international sports event. And, of course, Canada won.”
Of course Canada won, otherwise we wouldn’t be talking about the 1976 Canada Cup at all. While the Summit Series was unquestionably historic and the 1987 Canada Cup team possessed unparalleled talent, the 1976 squad was the only Canadian team to truly check both of these boxes. For that reason, it was the greatest hockey tournament of all-time.
Don’t @ me.
Hockey Hall of Famers
I know what you’re thinking, but let me stop you right there. Sure, the 1987 Canada Cup team featured both Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. And sure, I’ll give you Ken Dryden, Stan Mikita, and Frank Mahovlich from the 1972 Summit Series. But when it comes to the team that had the most Hockey Hall of Famers, pound for pound, neither of those rosters hold a candle to the 1976 Canada Cup team. Eighteen players, including Guy Lafleur, Marcel Dionne, and Bobby Orr, who hit the ice for Canada that tournament went on to be immortalized in hockey lore. Let’s also not forget that the architect of that team, Sam Pollock, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame two years later in the builders category, or that they had Scotty Bowman behind the bench, the greatest coach of all-time.
Unlike the Summit Series, the Canada Cup had Bobby Orr. Unable to participate against the Soviets four years earlier due to injury, the Parry Sound native was able to don the maple leaf in 1976.
It was the first time he was able to make good on an opportunity to represent Canada at an international tournament. By that point in his career, Orr had already undergone a handful of knee surgeries and it was increasingly becoming clear that he was playing on borrowed time.
In some ways, the Canada Cup was his swan song. Although he was limited to just ten games in the 1975-76 season, Orr put together an impressive campaign, leading Team Canada in scoring, and taking home the tournament’s MVP award.
Over the next three years, Orr sat out an entire season and was only able to string together 26 more games before his knees finally gave out. While he won two Stanley Cups with Boston, when Orr reflected on the Canada Cup in 2008, he referred to it as “the highlight of my career.”
This was the one and only time Bobby Orr played at an international level. More importantly, it was one of the last time fans were able to witness flashes of his brilliant play.
The Best Jerseys
Team Canada’s jerseys in 1987 were great, no question. But they were only that good because they were stolen from the 1976 Canada Cup team.
Just look at that gif of ‘ol Rogie Vachon in all his glory. They may have streamlined those maple leaf arm patches, but it’s basically a replica of what they had previously sported nine years earlier.
While the Summit Series was only eight games, it spanned nearly the entire month of September and was played across two continents. By the time Canada was crowned the victor in the 1987 tournament, 19 days had passed since the first puck was dropped. Conversely, the 1976 Canada Cup was just under two weeks from the start of the round robin to the best of three series final.
Although the 1976 Canada Cup was not quite as long as its other international counterparts, that didn’t stop it from being the most watch television event in Canadian history at that time. With more than 10 million viewers reportedly tuning in for the final game, that number represented nearly half of Canada’s estimated population in 1976.
As a historian I won’t dare suggest that the 1976 Canada Cup was more historic than the Summit Series, that would simply be inaccurate. While the former was still played at the height of the Cold War, it did not have the same diplomatic undertones and cultural significance as the latter tournament.
That being said, it was still historic. It marked the first time that Canada officially made its return to international hockey following six-year boycott. After realizing that its amateur players could no longer compete against Europe’s best national teams, Canada lobbied to see a mixture of professional and amateur players included in international play. The petition did not go Canada’s way and it withdrew from international competition in 1970, leaving the IIHF in the lurch for the World Championship tournament that was scheduled to be played in Montreal and Winnipeg that year.
1976 signaled the end of Canada’s frigid relationship with the IIHF, and as the Globe and Mail wrote in the wake of the tournament, “we can look forward to renewed Canadian participation in international hockey, after a long, unhappy lay-off.”
There are few things in life more exciting than watching a hockey series get decided in overtime. Unfortunately, neither the Summit Series or the 1987 Canada Cup had any of that. Yes, the latter had two of its final contests settled in overtime, including two extra frames in the second game, but otherwise, both of their deciding games were handled in regulation. The same cannot be said for the 1976 Canada Cup.
With just four minutes remaining in Game Two of the final, Marian Stastny scored to put the Czechs up 4-3. Although Canada had handily won the first game 6-0, it now looked like the visiting team was going to do the unthinkable and force a third and deciding game. Luckily for the home crowd, Bill Barber had other plans. With just over two minutes left on the clock, the Flyers winger potted the equalizer to send the game to overtime.
The crowd of 18,040 at the Montreal Forum was then treated to some of the most nerve-wracking international overtime hockey ever played. It was monumental in more ways than one. For starters, it marked the first time that Czechoslovakia played sudden death at the international level. But more importantly, a series of disallowed Canadian goals kept the Czechs alive until past the halfway point. After Guy Lafleur saw his tally get called back at the 8:30 mark because the net was off its moorings, Guy Lapointe also fell victim to the same fate not long after. After wiring a shot through the legs of Ivan Hlinka, it seemed as though the game was over. The big Czech centre even collapsed to the ice in despair, little did he know that the clock was showing no time when Lapointe’s shot hit the twine. As a result, the referees ruled it a no-goal.
Then this happened.
With less than nine minutes remaining, Toronto Maple Leafs captain Darryl Sittler scored the game winner. Goaltender Vladimir Dzurilla was known for aggressively challenging opponents and when he came way out of his crease, Sittler juked to his left and slipped the puck into the yawning cage. It’s worth noting that by this point in 1976, Sittler had already had himself quite the year. He notched a ten point night on February 6th and scored five goals in a playoff game on April 22nd, both NHL records. And yet, for him, that Canada Cup winner was his greatest achievement. “That was my highlight, never was fortunate to be on a Stanley Cup team, so to be on a championship team with the best players from Canada in 1976 was my highlight,” he said.
The Greatest of All-Time?
There you have it, the 1976 Canada Cup was the greatest hockey tournament of all-time for all these reasons and more. If you don’t believe me, just ask Twitter. On second thought, don’t do that.
Maybe while we’re all celebrating the Summit Series a little less, we could work towards raising the profile of the 1976 Canada Cup. After all, the fortieth anniversary is just around the corner.
More Hockey History Reflections