Gretzky to Lemieux: Behind the Book with Ed Willes of The Province
Wednesday, 7 November 2007
Gretzky to Lemieux: The Story of the 1987 Canada Cup
By Ed Willes
Published by McLelland & Stewart
Hardcover, 256 pages
Release Date: October 6, 2007
Considering how many books have commemorated the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union, it’s almost unbelievable that until this year, no one had given the same full-length treatment to the 1987 Canada Cup. In the three-game final series that climaxed this classic tournament, the two archrival nations played hockey at a level that has arguably never been equaled, before or since. It pitted a 26-year-old Wayne Gretzky in his prime and a blossoming 21-year-old Mario Lemieux–plus other Canadian superstars like Paul Coffey, Mark Messier, and Ray Bourque–versus the elite Russian “Green Unit” of forwards Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov and defensemen Viacheslav Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov. Showing how equally matched the teams were, each game finished with a 6-5 score.
Canada’s winning goal, of course, gave veteran Vancouver sports columnist Ed Willes the title for his latest book. Everyone remembers Gretzky feeding Lemieux for a perfect glove-side wrister with 1:26 left. Gretzky to Lemieux smartly expands on territory previously touched upon in Larionov’s self-titled 1990 autobiography, Lawrence Martin’s Mario, and The World Cup of Hockey by Joe Pelletier and Patrick Houda, among other great reads. It really shines in terms of fresh insight into the Canadian dressing room’s dynamics. For instance, who knew Gretzky asked backup goalie Kelly Hrudey, of all people, to make a speech to the players between the overtime periods in Game Two? And when Willes describes Glenn Anderson channeling Judy Garland with the “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” chant from The Wizard of Oz after a tough start for Canada in Game Three, that surely qualifies as the campiest moment in international hockey history. In addition, the book more than does justice to what went through the minds of the Russians under dictatorial head coach Viktor Tikhonov.
On the whole, Gretzky to Lemieux is as fast-paced, lively, and colorful as the hockey it honors. HockeyAdventure.com caught up with Willes recently.
1. Apart from this being the 20th anniversary of the 1987 Canada Cup, what motivated you to write Gretzky to Lemieux?
Actually, the anniversary had nothing to do with it. After publishing my first book, The Rebel League: The Short and Unruly History of the World Hockey Association, I was looking for another project. One afternoon, I was visiting a neighbor who had tapes of the final, and he popped them into his VCR. I was instantly mesmerized. Also, I started covering the NHL in ’89, so I was familiar with most of the players and coaches and had solid relationships with a couple of them. It just seemed like a good fit all the way around.
2. Describe your working process and timeline.
I did it in two three-month chunks. The book was originally supposed to be released in the fall of ’06, but McClelland & Stewart pushed it back a year to coincide with the anniversary. That came as a blessing because I needed the extra time to complete the process. For reasons which are still unclear to me, Paul Coffey never returned my phone calls. I had trouble tracking down a few others.
3. What were the most surprising and enjoyable discoveries you made during your research for Gretzky to Lemieux?
What stayed with me is the impact this event had on the players and coaches who took part, and that includes Gretzky, Lemieux, Mike Keenan, Igor Larionov–everyone. James Patrick was a fringe player on Team Canada, but he told me about sitting on the bench for over an hour in Game Two, then getting thrown out in overtime and facing a two-on-one against Larionov and Krutov. I checked it out against the tape and, sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. Gretzky could recall individual moments from those games with remarkable clarity. Rick Tocchet told me he’s kept tapes of the games, and when he needs a confidence boost, he watches them.
4. You cite Mike Keenan’s coaching and Grant Fuhr’s goaltending as the two great difference-makers for Canada in the finals. Let’s say someone counters: “OK, Keenan’s line-matching trumped Viktor Tikhonov’s tactics. But Fuhr allowed 16 goals in the three games, while Sergei Mylnikov and Evgeny Belosheikin allowed 17 combined. Was Fuhr so much better than his Russian counterparts?” How do you respond?
He was, and you can’t quantify it with numbers, which is part of the beauty of Fuhr’s performance. By today’s standards, he let in some terrible goals, but he also had the incredible ability to board up the net when it was needed. It didn’t matter if the score was 7-6, 4-3, or 1-0–he wouldn’t surrender that one goal which would change the complexion of the game. He developed that skill while playing with the Oilers and it was solidified during the 1987 Canada Cup. He couldn’t get away with it in today’s game, though.
5. If Lemieux hits the crossbar or Mylnikov saves the shot and the Russians go back down and score the winning goal, do we still acknowledge this as the greatest hockey series ever played? And do you still get to write this book?
In all honesty, no. I mean, there’s a reason why nobody writes about the ’81 Canada Cup.
6. Given how well the corruption of Canada Cup chief Alan Eagleson is documented in your book (not to mention Russ Conway’s Game Misconduct and Net Worth by Alison Griffiths and David Cruise), are you surprised by how many Eagleson apologists still exist in the NHL and the media?
I find it shocking, but if you’re wondering why abuses still exist within the NHLPA, I think there’s part of your answer.
7. In Larionov’s autobiography, his famous 1988 letter to Ogonyok is reprinted. He states that all members of the “Green Unit”–including Vladimir Krutov–refused to accept mysterious injections from national team doctors prior to the 1982 World Championships in Finland. However, in Gretzky to Lemieux, you write: “Larionov intimated that Krutov had been fed steroids on a consistent basis when he played for the national team that helped account for his great strength on the puck.” So the picture is a bit murky. Is it your view that we’re looking at an East German women’s swimming team-type scenario, so to speak?
That’s my view, but to be clear, we’re talking about Krutov here, not Larionov. I talked to two members of the Vancouver Canucks organization who were around when both players came over in 1989, and they both said one of the reasons Krutov was so bad was because he’d been cut off from his supply of steroids. Can I prove that? No.
8. In Dave Bidini’s 2005 book The Best Game You Can Name, former Winnipeg Jets GM Mike Smith discusses his oft-criticized penchant for drafting Russians: “The press didn’t understand either. On [one] occasion, when it came time to make our ninth pick, I wanted to take a Russian goalie, but our head scout said: ‘Look at these [writers]. They’re hanging over the boards yelling at you.’ He was right, people like Ed Willes were yelling, ‘Take a Canadian, Smith! Take a North American fercryingoutloud!'” This sounds odd, given your praise of numerous Russians in Gretzky to Lemieux. What’s your reaction to Smith’s claim?
That’s an outrageous lie. It’s wrong on so many levels, it’s almost funny, although I thank Dave for spelling my name right. I was actually fairly moderate on this issue. My criticism of Smith was that he insisted on drafting Russians who couldn’t play a lick. I mean, look at the players he drafted. Sergei Sorokin was supposed to replace Phil Housley, and he couldn’t play in the ECHL.
I’m wondering if the Russian goalie he’s referring to is Nikolai Khabibulin, one of Winnipeg’s two Russian picks (Alexei Zhamnov was the other) who actually worked out. Igor Kuperman, who was at the Jets’ draft table that year, told me Smith was committed to taking Russians throughout that draft, and in the late going, he flipped his list over to Kuperman and asked if he recognized any of the names. Igor was surprised to see Khabibulin was still available and told Smith to take him. Too bad Kuperman wasn’t around when other teams were drafting Pavel Bure, Sergei Fedorov and Vladimir Konstantinov and the Jets were drafting stiffs.
9. Will the NHL ever find its way back to that free-flow, improvisational, end-to-end style we saw in the 1987 Canada Cup?
They can try, but the players are too big and fast, the goalies are too good, and the game is overcoached. Every now and then you get glimpses of what the game used to be, but they’ll never be able to duplicate it. Look at the ’02 and ’06 Olympic finals and compare them to the 1987 Canada Cup. There is no comparison.
10. What are your future plans?
As far as a book goes, nothing’s etched in stone. I’ve got a couple of projects in mind, but my day job as The Province’s sports columnist keeps me busy.