It wasn’t as historic as Paul Henderson’s late Game Eight winner in Moscow in the 1972 Summit Series. Nor did it capture the global spotlight like Sidney Crosby’s overtime golden goal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. But for almost anyone who witnessed it, the 1987 Canada Cup final – climaxed by Mario Lemieux’s winning goal set up by Wayne Gretzky with 1:26 left – still stands as the finest international hockey ever played outside IIHF competition. And possibly ever.
On 11th September, the Soviets won Game One at the Montreal Forum 6-5, while Canada rallied to take Games Two and Three by the same score on 13 September and 15 September at Hamilton’s Copps Coliseum. But the dazzling anomaly of three 6-5 games – from the vantage point of today’s low-scoring game – only hints at how great this series was.
No other Canada Cup or World Cup final has come close. Not even the 1976 inaugural edition with Darryl Sittler’s winning goal against Czechoslovakia, or the landmark 1996 tournament that boosted USA Hockey’s mojo with Brett Hull and Mike Richter leading the way past Canada.
Speaking personally, the 1987 Canada Cup changed my life and put me on track to eventually become a hockey writer. At age 12, I’d never seen anything like it. For pure quality, thrills, and tension, watching a 27-year-old Gretzky and 21-year-old Lemieux duel the top Soviet line of Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov in their prime was the ultimate dream.
I still recall renting a VCR from a local video store to record the momentous Game Three showdown. And when it was all over, I was so entranced that I wanted more. So I programmed an Apple II computer simulation of the games, complete with chunky 8-bit graphics and a crude random number formula providing text updates on who scored. (Yep, it was the 1980s.)
Rewatching the final games today, they remain an absolute delight: passion and high tempo, pure hockey skill unfettered by systems. No lead is safe: the Soviets go up 4-1 in Game One and 3-0 and 4-2 in Game Three, while Canada can’t sit on a 3-1 edge in Game Two.
Beyond Lemieux’s famous Game Three winner on that odd-man rush with Larry Murphy as the decoy, moments of offensive genius abound. Take the first time Lemieux and Gretzky are paired together by Canadian coach Mike Keenan in Game Two (yes, it’s unbelievable it took that long to unite the two best Canadian offensive forwards in history). The sheer hockey IQ they demonstrate in outwitting Soviet defenceman Vasili Pervukhin on a 2-on-1 break for the first goal of Lemieux’s hat trick is jaw-dropping. (Gretzky wound up with five assists and still calls this his best game of all time.)
In another memorable snapshot from Game Two, the electrifying speed and stickhandling of 21-year-old winger Valeri Kamenski enables him to split Canada’s defence pairing of Norman Rochefort and Doug Crossman and beat goalie Grant Fuhr with a perfect shot to make it 5-5 with a minute left in regulation. This is hockey poetry at a Shakespeare level.
Final shots in that double overtime classic, incidentally, favoured Canada 61-50. That gives a different meaning to the modern concept of being “a 200-foot player.” This was about rushing up and down the ice at top speed, trying to score over and over again – not about who backchecked the best.
It wasn’t textbook hockey by today’s standards, but it was still incredibly entertaining. There is stickwork that would be penalized by modern referees, but since it’s willy-nilly rather than ubiquitous, it’s just part of the battle – unlike, say, the “Dead Puck Era” NHL of 1995-2004.
In today’s world of YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram, it’s impossible to replicate the mystery of this matchup between the two hockey superpowers. Before the fall of communism just a few years later, fans in Canada and Russia only got to see their hated rivals at international tournaments, not in NHL competition. And even though the Soviets shot the puck more in 1987 than in 1972 and the Canadians had adopted more sophisticated passing and power play schemes, there was still a definite clash of styles. It was eye-opening for both sides.
American novelist William Faulkner once said he saw the “passionate glittering fatal alien quality of snakes” in Maurice “Rocket” Richard, and in 1987, that’s what I saw in Krutov and Makarov. I was fascinated by their otherworldly puckhandling (particularly Makarov’s) and their quick shots (particularly Krutov’s). They pushed the Canadians to play their absolute best – not just Gretzky and Lemieux, but also Mark Messier, Dale Hawerchuk, Ray Bourque and others.
These rosters have stood the test of time. In 2008, the IIHF named its Centennial All-Star Team with six legendary players. Gretzky, Makarov, and Vyacheslav Fetisov all made the cut. In 2017, seven Canadians from the ‘87 Canada Cup were honoured among the NHL’s top 100 players of all time: Gretzky, Lemieux, Messier, Bourque, Fuhr, Paul Coffey, and Mike Gartner.
It’s sad to think that we have lost so many of the great Soviet stars in recent years. Krutov, fellow forward Andrei Lomakin, defenceman Igor Stelnov, and goalie Yevgeni Belosheikin have all passed away – not to mention coach Viktor Tikhonov, the winningest bench boss in international hockey history, and his assistant, Igor Dmitriev.
It is strange to think that Keenan, Tikhonov’s Canadian rival, is coaching the KHL’s Kunlun Red Star in China this year. (That said, the surreal factor already went through the roof when Keenan portrayed Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin in a 2015 promo video for Metallurg Magnitogorsk, with whom he became the first North American coach to win a KHL title the year before.)
And it is also weird that Hamilton, after hosting arguably the two greatest hockey games ever, still lacks an NHL franchise 30 years later – and not for lack of trying. Copps Coliseum – renamed FirstOntario Centre in 2014 – still stands. A 2017 study estimated it would cost more than $250 million to renovate the arena to contemporary NHL standards.
But nothing can take away or dim the memory of the 1987 Canada Cup final. As exciting as today’s hockey is, this still sets the benchmark for what the game should be.