Zaugg: A new golden era?

Russia and Canada could rule the hockey world again

07.05.2009
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Quebec City Quebec Canada

Canadian Rick Nash battles with Russian Ilya Nikulin during the 2008 World Championship final.

BERNE – Several years before US author Francis Fukuyama published his famous 1992 political book, The End of History and the Last Man, international hockey had begun to change in much the same way as Fukuyama was to describe in his book. It was a change that brought about the end of a bipolar world of clear opposites with a simple structure. After the fall of communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union, our sport echoed Fukuyama's model, with just one great power ruling in the West.

No one could have imagined the collapse of the Soviet hockey empire when watching their team at the 1986 IIHF World Championship in Moscow. The world of hockey was divided into two halves, and there were only two superpowers: Canada and the Soviet Union.

International hockey has never been better than in the late 1980s when both hockey superpowers were at their peak. Canada had its best generation led by Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier. The Big Red Machine was powered by the “Green Unit” of Vyacheslav Fetisov, Alexei Kasatonov, Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov.

In 1987, on Friday, September 11, Sunday, September 13, and Tuesday, September 15, international hockey witnessed its three greatest games ever. The final games of the Canada Cup.

The Soviets won the first one in Montreal, 6-5 in overtime, Canada answered with another 6-5 win in overtime, in Hamilton, and finally won the Cup by a third 6-5 score, this time in regulation. Gretzky won the scoring title with three goals and 18 assists in nine games, followed by Lemieux with 18 points. Sergei Makarov had 15 points, Krutov 14 points, and Slava Bykov nine points.

But soon after those glory days, it looked like the “End of History” would also become reality in hockey. After the collapse of Communism, the Canadians lost the only opponent who had really consistently challenged them. Canada started to rule the world of hockey much like in the golden years before the Soviets arrived on the scene, winning world titles in 1994, 1997, 2003, 2004 and 2007, and also winning gold medals at the World Juniors twelve times since 1990 (including five straight since 2005).

But Fukuyama was not only wrong about politics and the economy. He was also wrong about hockey.

After winning the 1992 Olympics and the 1993 IIHF World Championship, the Russians had to wait 15 years until their next big senior-level triumph at the gold medal game at the World Championship in Quebec City on May 18, 2008. This day may someday be remembered as the beginning of a new golden era in international hockey. As the return of the Big Red Machine.

The Russians won 5-4 in overtime in the best, most exciting and competitive international game since the 1987 Canada Cup. And Slava Bykov, who was on the ice in Game Three in Hamilton when Mario Lemieux scored the Canada Cup-winning goal on September 15, 1987, finally got his revenge. He was behind the bench as Russia claimed the title on Canadian ice.

Who will match Canada and Russia in international hockey in the future? Watching the Canadians and the Russians, both in 2008 in Quebec City and again here in Switzerland, I am sure they will dominate the game we love for the next decade much like they did in the 1980s.

The new regulations (such as no more red line offside and zero-tolerance officiating) have opened up the game, bringing back a kind of firewagon hockey. The scoring derby at this tournament makes me think of the one at the 1987 Canada Cup. Martin St. Louis leads the scoring race with 14 points in six games, followed by Russia's Ilya Kovalchuk (12 points) and a quartet with 10 points that includes Canadians Jason Spezza and Shea Weber.

Of course, both the Canadians and Russians are capable of losing a single game and being eliminated from a World Championship tournament. It could even happen here in Berne.

But in my estimation, a new golden era has begun in international hockey. Because no other countries can come close to the number of world-class players the Russians and Canadians produce year by year – and I emphasize the word "world-class". The Russian hockey culture has recovered from the fall of the old system, and is now back on track.

A gold medal game between the Russians and the Canadians would be logical here in Bern and in most of the upcoming big tournaments. That is, if you can apply logic to a game played on a slippery surface like hockey.

I am sure that with my prediction I am not as wrong as Mr. Fukuyama was in 1992 with his prediction about politics and economics. And even if I am, it doesn't matter: Mr. Fukuyama has become rich and famous despite being wrong.

KLAUS ZAUGG

Klaus Zaugg is a Swiss hockey journalist who has covered the IIHF World Championship since 1981. The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the official views of the IIHF.

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