On January 26, 2011, Wayne Gretzky turns 50. The IIHF looks back at his greatest moments in international hockey, one a day for ten days, starting with number 10 and working towards the top story to be published on his birthday.
Nobody could have said this beforehand, and maybe it required a few years of perspective to say this after, but the 1987 Canada Cup finals between Canada and the Soviet Union is considered by many to be the finest three hockey games ever played.
Whereas Canada’s 1972 team lacked Bobby Orr and Bobby Hull, and the two sides were unfamiliar with each other’s style of play, by 1987 each side knew the other from years of international experience and each country put together the best possible team, from the first to last player.
Canada finished first in the round robin and the Soviets second, and both took care of their semi-finals opponents to set up the showdown everyone anticipated. Game one was a remarkable beginning to the finals. Played September 11 at the Montreal Forum, Canada scored the early goal, but by the end of the first period the Soviets had a 3-1 lead, a lead they extended by another goal early in the second period.
Canada fought back, though, and scored four goals to take a 5-4 lead. The last of those came off Gretzky’s stick with just 2:59 left in the game, and as the Forum fans roared their approval, they felt Canada had pulled out another late-game miracle. But even as Gretzky’s goal was being announced, Andrei Khomutov beat Grant Fuhr with a shot just 32 seconds later to tie the game and send it to unlimited, sudden-death overtime.
The pressure of the extra time was Canada’s forte, and most believed sudden death was to Canada’s advantage. But at 5:33, it was Alexander Semak who scored the winner, sending the entire country into fits of panic. There were two games left in the series, both scheduled for Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, and Canada had to win both to save face.
In game two, Canada again jumped out to an early lead, but again the Soviets responded in an even tenser game than the first. With the score 1-1, Canada scored twice before the end of the period, but the Soviets tied the game thanks to another determined comeback. Mario Lemieux made it 4-3 late in the second; the Soviets made it 4-4 early in the third; and then Lemieux again notched what looked to be the game winner. But with time winding down, Valeri Kamenski scored, with just 64 seconds left, sending this game to a fourth period as well.
Both teams couldn’t score the winner in the next 20 minutes, and it took Lemieux, with his third of the game, to win it for Canada, 6-5, in the fifth period, forcing a one-game showdown.
Game three started off as a Canadian nightmare. By the time the game was eight minutes old, the Soviets were leading, 3-0. Canada got two back, but the Soviets added a fourth, and after 20 minutes they were in a controlling position, 4-2.
The second period was the most dominant by either side in the series. Canada scored the only three goals to take a 5-4 lead, and the home side played with a determination the visitors had no answer for. Victory seemed certain. During intermission, however, the Big Red Machine regrouped, and it was CCCP that came back to tie, on another dramatic Semak goal, at 12:21. Another 5-5 tie, and overtime looming.
Then came a faceoff that shook the hockey world. With less than two minutes to play and a faceoff to Fuhr’s left, Canada had three centremen out – Gretzky, Lemieux, and Dale Hawerchuk. As Gretzky prepared for the draw, he looked at the Soviets and was aghast – the great defenceman Vyacheslav Fetisov was not on the ice for the Soviets! This was a tactical error by Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov, and Gretzky knew it was something that might be exploited.
Hawerchuk took the faceoff and kicked the puck ahead a few feet. Lemieux swooped in and claimed the puck and poked it past the 21-year-old Soviet defenceman Igor Kravchuk who tried to keep the puck in, a colossal error the experienced Fetisov likely wouldn’t have made. In one moment, Canada had an odd-man rush.
Lemieux pushed the puck ahead to Gretzky at centre ice, and number 99 skated along the left wing boards. Lemieux was trailing and defenceman Larry Murphy was skating hard to the middle while Hawerchuk hung back. Gretzky dropped the puck to Lemieux at the top of the circle.
Number 66 measured his shot and rifled the puck over the glove of Sergei Mylnikov at 18:34. This time, there was no last-minute heroics from the Soviets. Canada held on for the 6-5 win – all games ended in the same score – and Lemieux’s goal instantly became the second-most important in the country’s history after Paul Henderson’s series-winner in 1972.
In the bigger picture, Gretzky’s role to Lemieux’s play in the 1987 Canada Cup cannot be overstated. Lemieux entered training camp a remarkably talented, but not always supremely motivated, player. Gretzky set him straight with a diatribe that both praised him for what he could be, and damned him for not pushing himself to get to that point.
Coach Glen Sather promptly put the pair on a line for the tournament, and over the course of the nine games Lemieux led all scorers with eleven goals. Gretzky assisted on nine of those while leading the tournament with 21 points. The moment when the pair jumped into each other’s arms after the winning goal remains one of hockey’s defining moments, both for the goal and for the relationship between the two stars that evolved during Canada Cup ’87.
Number 10 – Gretzky has five points vs. Sweden in final game of his only World Championship to win tournament in scoring.
Number 9 – Number 99 unofficially retired by hockey world
Number 8 – Gretzky has a goal and two assists in game one of the 1984 Canada Cup finals vs. Sweden
Number 7 – Number 99 named MVP of Rendez-vous ‘87
Number 6 – “Gretzky-san” mobbed in Nagano as NHL makes Olympics debut
Number 5 – Gretzky leads U20 in scoring at age 16
Number 4 – “Ninety-Nine All-Stars” barnstorm through Europe
Number 3 – Gretzky, as GM, wins Olympic gold at Salt Lake
Number 2 – Dramatic Gretzky-to-Lemieux pass wins Canada Cup ’87
Number 1 – To be revealed tomorrow, January 26, on Gretzky’s 50th birthday