QUEBEC CITY – You read it here first.
Canada will play Russia in the Gold Medal game in Quebec City on May 18.
This is both a no-brainer and a very bold prediction. It’s a no-brainer because these two dominant forces of world hockey have assembled great teams for the 2008 World Championship. But it’s also a daring prophesy because Canada and Russia almost never meet in the finals.
There is no Olympic team sport that for so long has been dominated so emphatically as hockey by Canada and the Soviet Union/Russia. Just look at these facts:
- Canada and Soviet Union/Russia have combined for 47 out of 71 possible IIHF World Championship gold medals since 1920. Canada leads with 24, while their greatest rival has 23. This is a combined share of 66 percent.
- The dominance is even greater in Olympic hockey where the two hockey giants together have grabbed 15 out of 21 gold medals (71 percent).
- Combining those two biggest IIHF-organized events, Canada and Soviet Union/Russia have a whopping 62 gold medals between them from 92 opportunities. This amounts to 67 percent of all available gold medals in the history of international hockey thus far.
In world soccer, the two dominating nations – Brazil (5) and Italy (4) – have together won nine out of 18 FIFA World Cups, exactly 50 percent.
But despite Canada’s and Soviet Union/Russia’s supremacy in the most exciting game in the world, the countries don’t play each other in the finals very often.
Since the IIHF introduced the playoff system with a one-on-one final gold medal game in 1992, the two giants have made it to the tournament-ending game together only once – and that was at the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France. Russia (then under the impossible name of Commonwealth of Independent States) defeated an Eric Lindros-led Canada 3-1.
Since then, there have been 15 IIHF World Championship gold medal games and another four Olympic finals, but so far there hasn’t been a second occasion for a Canada vs. Russia clash at the summit. One of the reasons is, of course, the relative decline in the eastern power’s hockey program since they stopped appearing in CCCP-marked jerseys after 1991.
While the Soviet Union’s Big Red Machine won 22 World Championship titles and seven Olympic gold medals in the 47 years of Soviet hockey’s existence (beginning in 1954), Russia’s record is one World Championship title (1993) and one Olympic gold (the 1992 win in Albertville).
Russia has not only had difficulty winning championships. Apart from 1992 and 1993, they have only made it to one gold medal game – in Gothenburg, Sweden, at the 2002 World Championships. Slovakia took the gold after a thrilling 4-3-win.
Even if you throw the Canada Cup/World Cup events into the mix, you have to go back to the classic 1987 Canada Cup to find a final featuring the big foes.
Unless you make it through the quarters and the semis, you won’t be playing for the gold and this has been Russia’s problem. On several occasions, despite very talented teams, the Russians have somehow managed to find ways to lose. A perfect example was the tournament last year in Moscow. Russia had a team with potential to go all the way, but bowed out in the semifinal against Finland in overtime.
All this while Canada, since the introduction of the playoff system in 1992, has enjoyed its best period as a world power since the days of pre- and post-World II domination.
In the 16 years following the introduction of the playoff format, Canada has been to seven World Championship gold medal games and three Olympic finals, which has resulted in five World titles and one Olympic gold medal, in 2002 in Salt Lake City.
But Canada and Russia avoiding each other in final games year after year will come to an end on May 18, in Quebec City’s wonderful Pepsi Colisée, one of the few original hockey palaces remaining in the world, where there is not a bad seat in the house and where the ambiance is phenomenal. As soon as you enter the Colisée, you smell hockey.
In the house which Jean Beliveau built and Guy Lafleur thrived. 15,399 fans will scream on that Sunday afternoon at 13.00 local time when the Shane Doan-led Team Canada and Alexander Ovechkin’s Team Russia will enter the Colisée ice for the pre-gold medal game ceremonies.
The vast majority will cheer for the home boys, but the fierce rival will produce many sympathizers for the “visitors.” During the days of hockey’s cold war between 1972 and 1987, the old Soviet teams always felt welcome here and they generally performed well both in the province of Quebec (Montreal Forum) and in Quebec City.
When Ville de Quebec was a WHA (1972-1979) and later NHL (1979-1995) city, the beloved Nordiques were involved in many classic encounters with the Soviet national team and with CSKA Moscow.
The highlight of Quebec’s era as pro-hockey city was likely the Rendez-vous ‘87. This was the name of the NHL All-Star Weekend which featured two games between the NHL All-Stars and the Soviet national team. The teams won one game each and most observers suggested that this was the best NHL All-Star break ever, perfectly and stylishly organized by the Quebec Nordiques and their owner, Marcel Aubut.
But the city’s ties to Russian hockey are not only ancient history. Team Russia’s winger, the 22-year old Alexander Radulov, is a hero of Lafleurian proportions in Quebec City. Between 2004 and 2006, the spectacular youngster from Nizhny Tagil in Russia amassed an incredible 227 points in 127 games for the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
In his last junior season, before he signed with the NHL Nashville Predators, Radulov scored a remarkable 55 points and 23 playoff games to lead the Remparts to the Memorial Cup championship, the finest trophy a Canadian junior team can win.
This is something which is very difficult for a European hockey fan to understand – how can a junior player become a hero for an entire city? But this is Canada, where there are towns where NHL hockey is of marginal interest, but where the junior game is king. In most European countries, a junior game attracts parents and girlfriends only.
So while Canada entertains the fans of Nova Scotia and Halifax during the preliminaries, the Quebec “partisans” will adopt Radulov’s Russia as their home team. This allegiance will, of course, be revised when Team Canada arrives to town on May 15, but there will surely be locals who wouldn’t mind Radulov popping in a pair of goals in the final game -- as long as Canada wins.
So, who will win the first Canada vs. Russia gold medal matchup in 16 years?
The score is tied after regulation time and we are heading into overtime. Here, the crystal ball gets a little blurry.