Cold Warriors: The Canada Cup Hockey Battles of the 1980’s
Monday, 27 August 2007
Originally written for the 2004 World Cup of Hockey Program
By Lucas Aykroyd
They say politics and sports should never mix, but in the 1980’s, the Cold War between capitalism and Communism sometimes cast a shadow over international athletic events. Two famous examples were the American boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the retributive Soviet boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The climate of hostility and mistrust between the superpowers also affected the hockey world during the three Canada Cups of the 80’s, all of which featured an unforgettable Canada-USSR clash.
The animosity started early on. Many people forget that the second Canada Cup was originally scheduled to take place in 1980, matching the four-year Olympic cycle. However, the tournament was postponed until 1981 at the Canadian government’s request due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
To put things in context, that war didn’t prevent the USSR from sending an ultra-talented veteran hockey team to the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. There, the men in red-and-white CCCP uniforms lost in dramatic fashion to a Herb Brooks-coached squad of American college players in the “Miracle on Ice,” as the USA claimed the gold medal.
The Russians were known for using sports for propaganda purposes, with the success of their athletes supposedly proving the superiority of the Communist system. Yet at the same time, the American media used the “Miracle on Ice” upset as a feel-good patriotic tonic to revitalize the spirits of a populace disheartened by a hostage-taking crisis in Iran, high gas prices, rampant unemployment, and so on. Those themes were played up in the recent Kurt Russell movie about the 1980 USA hockey team, Miracle.
Here, though, we find ourselves straying into the realm of diplomatic negotiations, media hype, and fans hell-bent on upholding either the Stars and Stripes or the Hammer and Sickle. In pure hockey terms, the true superpower confrontation of the 1980’s was between Canada and the Soviet Union, and it was played out in the Canada Cups.
Given the ideologically charged atmosphere, some might imagine that the players got caught up in it. Did Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak stand up in the dressing room and quote Lenin about fighting for the glory of the socialist Motherland? Did Canada’s Mark Messier fix his teammates with an intense stare and bark, “Big third period coming up, guys–let’s win it for freedom and democracy”?
In a word, no. “We weren’t thinking about the Communists, we wanted to beat the Russians,” said Mike Gartner, who played two Canada Cups on a line with Messier and Glenn Anderson. “In the 1980’s, the Canada-Russia rivalry that started back in 1972 was still very much the center of attention for us as players representing Canada.”
It was similar for the Soviets, according to Igor Kuperman, a longtime Russian hockey journalist who now works for the Phoenix Coyotes: “They had no time to think about promoting the supremacy of Soviet society. Certainly they were told about it by our officials, but it never stuck in their minds. The only thing they were trying to prove was that they were the best in the world at hockey, and the games against Canada were special games. It was two hockey systems battling each other.”
Back then, the Canadian and Russian hockey systems had many visible differences. Canada’s game relied on aggressive bodychecking and gritty defensive zone play, so-called “north-south hockey.” Forwards shot the puck at any opportunity and went hard to the net for rebounds. The Canadians also stressed such intangibles as “guts and desire,” which Wayne Gretzky cited as the deciding factor in the 1987 Canada Cup. “We were taught that part of the Canadian style is throwing absolutely everything you have at it, and when you’ve done that, you throw a little bit more,” said Gartner.
Meanwhile, the Russians employed a sophisticated puck possession game, making numerous passes to set up the perfect shot. If they didn’t like their options when carrying the puck up the ice, they would turn back and try to create a different play. Wingers circled at high speed in the neutral zone, looking for a pass to set them loose. The Russians kept an even emotional keel throughout games, meaning they could suddenly kick into high gear and score goals in bunches even if they hadn’t been playing particularly well before.
You could have essentially described both sides the same way in the 1970’s, but by the 1980’s, Canada and the USSR had adopted some of each other’s techniques. Canadian stars like Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Paul Coffey passed the puck with the flair of the best Soviets and weren’t afraid to try intricate criss-crossing patterns on the rush. The Maple Leaf men were also in much better physical shape than the 1972 Summit Series team had been at the start of that classic duel.
The Russians shot the puck more often than in the past, with forwards like Sergei Makarov and Valeri Kamensky showing off their individual puckhandling ability, and their defensemen increased their physical presence to counter the Canadian checking. No longer were they completely tied to the collective style pioneered by the father of Soviet hockey, coach Anatoli Tarasov, who once stood up on the bench when his team was losing a game to Sweden in the 1960’s and began singing the Soviet anthem to rally his troops. (The players assured him they could win without his musical accompaniment, and did.) This new Russian generation thrived on a multi-dimensional approach.
The 1981 Canada Cup was the high point of the decade for Soviet hockey in many ways. The Russians brought a rejuvenated roster to this tournament but retained the legendary Tretiak in goal. It marked the debut of the “Green Unit” with Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov, and Sergei Makarov up front and Viacheslav Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov on defense. Canada had an impressive group of forwards, including Gretzky, Guy Lafleur, and Mike Bossy, and its defense boasted future Hall of Famers like Denis Potvin and Ray Bourque. But would netminder Mike Liut be up to the Soviet challenge?
The Canadians were in full command during a 7-3 round-robin thrashing of their rivals, but both teams played their backup goalies in that game. When they met again in the winner-take-all final game, Tretiak slammed the door and Liut suffered his worst career performance in an 8-1 Soviet rout at the Montreal Forum.
“It was a strange feeling,” said Gretzky. “You wanted to look at it as just another hockey game. But there was no way to rationalize the feeling that you let the whole country down.” “They hung their heads and, like an army given the order to surrender, they lost their hearts,” Tretiak later said of the Canadians. Even after the final, tempers flared as the Soviets tried to take the Canada Cup home with them but were forbidden to do so by tournament organizers.
As the Soviets swept the World Championships and Olympics from 1981 onward, there was a mounting, near-Orwellian paranoia in Canada about Russian hockey superiority. In the 1984 Canada Cup, the Soviets dumped Canada 6-3 in the round-robin, but that game was most remembered for Mark Messier’s vicious elbow to the face of Vladimir Kovin.
When the two elite teams met again in the semi-finals in Edmonton, it was a tense battle that went into overtime. Paul Coffey brilliantly broke up a 2-on-1 rush and turned the play back toward the Soviet end, where Mike Bossy ended up tipping Coffey’s point shot past goalie Vladimir Myshkin for a 3-2 win. After Canada took the title with a two-game sweep of Sweden in the finals, Maple Leaf pride was restored.
The 1987 Canada Cup, then, might have been regarded as the best-of-three finale for the entire 1980’s. Although Canada narrowly triumphed on Mario Lemieux’s beautiful goal from Wayne Gretzky late in Game Three, the sport of hockey was the true winner.
No lead was impregnable. Canada and the USSR perfected run-and-gun hockey together after whetting the appetites of fans with a sparkling 3-3 tie in the round-robin. Whether it was Alexander Semak tallying the OT winner in Game One, or Valeri Kamensky tying the score with a spectacular solo effort in Game Two, or Grant Fuhr saving the series by thwarting Krutov and Larionov in the extra session in Game Two, it was heart-stopping.
Today, more than 12 years after the end of the Soviet Union and its sport system, the Canada-Russia hockey rivalry isn’t quite what it was. “I think we all kind of miss the excitement of that ‘us versus them, our system versus their system, our country versus their country’ feeling,” admitted Gartner. “But the world just isn’t that way anymore.”
Still, three out of the last six IIHF World Junior Championships have featured a heated Canada-Russia gold medal game. And both Canada and Russia have spawned present and future NHL superstars, from Jason Spezza and Ilya Kovalchuk to Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. You can believe we’ll see more World Cup finals between these two great hockey powers.
Here are the overall leading scorers for both teams in the eight Canada Cup games between Canada and the USSR in the 1980’s:
Wayne Gretzky 8 GP: 3 G, 14 A, 17 P
Mario Lemieux 4 GP: 4 G, 4 A, 8 P
Larry Murphy 4 GP: 1 G, 4 A, 5 P
Mike Bossy 4 GP: 2 G, 2 A, 4 P
Mark Messier 6 GP: 0 G, 4 A, 4 P
Paul Coffey 6 GP: 0 G, 4 A, 4 P
Sergei Makarov 8 GP: 5 G, 7 A, 12 P
Vladimir Krutov 8 GP: 6 G, 5 A, 11 P
Sergei Shepelev 4 GP: 4 G, 3 A, 7 P
Slava Fetisov 6 GP: 2 G, 5 A, 7 P
Alexei Kasatonov 8 GP: 1 G, 6 A, 7 P
Anatoli Semenov 6 GP: 1 G, 5 A, 6 P