September 15, 1987 — Hamilton, Canada
Although the history of hockey has many touchstones for any ideal of greatness, there was arguably no finer hockey ever played than in the best-of-three finals of the 1987 Canada Cup between the host nation and the Soviet Union. Of course, there have been other exceptional moments in the game. But 1987 had it all. It featured games in the modern era, where every minute of every game could be captured on film and appreciated time and again and compared to other great modern moments; it had familiar players; it had late-game heroics; and, most of all, it featured a pure level of skill that has never been matched before or since.
The tournament will always be remembered for Canadian coach Mike Keenan’s mid-tournament decision to play 99 Wayne Gretzky and 66 Mario Lemieux on the same line. Their performance will go down in hockey history as probably as the best one-two punch displayed in one international tournament ever. Gretzky finished the tournament with 21 points (3 goals and 18 assists) in nine games, while Lemieux had 18 (11 + 7).
The Soviet Union reached the final by defeating Sweden in the semis 4-2, while Canada struggled against a pesky Czechoslovak team, but prevailed 5-3. This set up the finals many fans were hoping for, and the anticipation was exceeded only by the drama of the three games; the first at the Montreal Forum, the two last out in Hamilton, Ontario.
In game one, Mike Gartner scored early for Canada but by the end of the first period the Soviets led 3-1 and were in control. The teams exchanged goals in the second, and this set the stage for a dramatic comeback by Canada in the final 20 minutes. Indeed, Canada scored three times to take a 5-4 lead, and it was Andrei Khomutov that tied that game at 17:33 to force overtime. The nailbiting fourth period didn’t last long, but it was played at ferocious speed and both teams had chances to win. However, it was Alexander Semak at 5:33 that scored to give the Soviets a win in the first game.
Two nights later, right back at Copps Coliseum, Canada was in a do-or-die situation. As in game one, both teams had leads and neither team could take full control. Canada again scored first, but this time it was they who led 3-1 after the first period. The Soviets scored twice in the second to Canada’s one, and Canada led 4-3 after two. Again, it was a late Soviet goal that forced overtime. On this night it was Valeri Kamensky with just 1:04 left in regulation who tied the score, 5-5, and this game went not to one overtime periods but two. Mario Lemieux scored the winner at 10:07 of the second OT, and Wayne Gretzky got his fifth assist on the night. He later called this the best international game he ever played, and he estimated he played 55 minutes of the 90 that were played.
September 15, 1987, was a special night in hockey history. The Canada Cup was in the building, and after two exceptional 6-5 overtime games, it just didn’t seem possible the series could get any more dramatic. Well, it could, and it did. The teams combined for six goals in a wild first period, but the Soviets headed to the dressing room with a well-earned 4-2 lead. Canada, however, came out and controlled the middle 20 minutes, scoring three unanswered goals and taking a 5-4 lead. Semak tied the game midway through the final period, and the game intensified as a third overtime game seemed inevitable.
Then the extraordinary happened. Gretzky moved the puck up ice after a faceoff deep in the Canada end, and as he got to the faceoff circle in the Soviets’ end he dropped the puck to Lemieux, trailing on the play. Lemieux had defenseman Larry Murphy in a perfect position to his right, but he later admitted that he never even thought about making this pass.
Super-Mario measured his shot carefully and buried a wrister over the glove of goalie Evgeni Belosheikin with just 1:26 left in regulation, and Canada held on for the 6-5 win.
The skill and speed of the games, the quality of play and the dramatics and heroics led even the losing coach, Viktor Tikhonov, to call this the most “perfect” hockey he had ever seen. Indeed, the biggest winners were the fans and the very game itself. It never got better than this. The 1987 Canada Cup would also be the last tournament that generated strong “cold war” sentiments between the two ideological rivals. After that, games would be just about hockey.
As part of the IIHF's 100th anniversary celebrations, www.IIHF.com is featuring the 100 top international hockey stories from the past century (1908-2008). Starting now and continuing through the 2008 IIHF World Championships in Canada, we will bring you approximately three stories a week counting down from Number 100 to Number 11.
The Final Top 10 Countdown will be one of the highlights of the IIHF's Centennial Gala Evening in Quebec City on May 17, the day prior to the Gold Medal Game of the 2008 World Championship.
These are the criteria for inclusion on this list: First, the story has to have had a considerable influence on international hockey. Second, it has to have had either a major immediate impact or a long-lasting significance on the game. Third, although it doesn't necessarily have to be about top players, the story does have to pertain to the highest level of play, notably Olympics, World Championships, and the like. The story can be about a single moment — a goal, a great save, a referee's call — or about an historic event of longer duration — a game, series, tournament, or rule change.
Click here for the 100 Top Stories