TORONTO – Joe Sakic calls it the best hockey he has ever seen and that’s saying something considering his tour of duty in the NHL and with Team Canada on the international stage.
Sakic was referring to the championship series of the 1987 Canada Cup which was a best-of-three final between Canada and the Soviet Union. Canada lost the first game 6-5 and then took Game 2 in double overtime, with Wayne Gretzky setting up Mario Lemieux for the winning goal in a 6-5 triumph.
Game 3 produced a third 6-5 outcome and the Gretzky-Lemieux magic worked again. This time The Great One set up Lemieux for the winner in the dying minutes of the third period. That goal ranks alongside Paul Henderson’s series-clinching goal in the historic ’72 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union as the most memorable goals ever scored in hockey history.
The reason Sakic was asked about the ’87 Canada Cup is for the fact that Canada and Russia renew its rivalry Saturday night at the Air Canada Centre in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey.
Sakic was attending his first NHL camp with the Quebec Nordiques 17 years ago when Lemieux buried a wrist shot in the upper left corner of the Soviet net.
“I still remember those games and how exciting they were,” says Sakic, who is playing on a line with Lemieux and Jarome Iginla here in the World Cup. “That was the best hockey, ever.”
Like Sakic, Lemieux has had a highlight-filled career, including Stanley Cup triumphs, NHL scoring titles and a gold medal from the 2002 Winter Olympics.
But Mario Le Magnifique says the ’87 Canada Cup may be the greatest single moment of his career.
“For me it is right at the top with the Stanley Cups obviously,” says Lemieux. “The Stanley Cup is very special and you always dream about winning a Stanley Cup but the ’87 Canada Cup was special. I got a chance to play with all the great players, Gretzky, (Mark) Messier, (Glenn) Anderson, all these guys. I really learned a lot from the month I was with them and I learned what it takes to get to the top.”
It’s not by coincidence that Lemieux is teaching Canada’s next wave of stars, players such as Vince Levacalier, Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards to name a few, about taking their game to the next level here in the 2004 World Cup.
“The pressure that we had in the final game and the way it came down in the final minute, I got the chance to win it for team Canada. It was a lot of fun,” says Lemieux, who is Canada’s captain in this best-on-best tournament.
While the Canada-Russia is not what it used to be, there is a lot on the line when the teams meet Saturday night.
The Canadians are 2-0 and a win would clinch top spot in the North American pool.
The Russians are coming off a 3-1 victory over the United States and a win over Canada would draw them even in the standings, with a game in hand. Russia winds up the round robin preliminary round against Slovakia on Sunday.
The medal round starts next week and win, lose or draw, Canada’s quarter-final game is set for Wednesday at the Air Canada Centre.
The Russians came into the tournament pegged as the weak team in the North American pool but the win over the United States has people cautioning not to write them off.
“That is a skilled team and they came here to play. For us, we still have to worry about us and we want to keep getting better and get ready for the quarter-final game,” says Sakic. “They have a lot of skill and a lot of talent. They are always dangerous with their speed and their skill. I don’t know why everybody is surprised. They have the ability and they showed it.”
Russia was Canada’s fiercest rival for decades but they were overtaken by the United States as public enemy No. 1 after the Americans beat Canada in the final of the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. Canada had to wait until 2002 to extract revenge, beating the United States 5-2 on home soil for the gold medal at the Salt Lake Winter Games.
And while the Americans matured into a hockey power, the Russians stumbled along, victims of political infighting and a corrupt development system. The Russians went from being a world power to the status of also-ran.
The world of international hockey definitely missed the rivalry.
“I think rivalries heat up and cool down and there is no question in the last little bit there has not been a lot of intense games between the two parties,” says defenceman Scott Niedermayer about Canada and Russia. “But who’s to say there might not be more to come and the rivalry will build. We’ve had some tough games against the United States in the last few tournaments but that all goes in cycles and changes and the way the Russians are playing now, we had better be ready to go.”
Coach Pat Quinn has coached his share of Russians on NHL teams and he’s developed a healthy respect for them.
“The ones I have been around have been clearly high-motivated people. What pushes them is they have high standards. Yes they play for medals and the Stanley Cup but what drives them . . . clearly a guy like (Pavel) Bure wanted to be the best attacker that he could be and he drove himself to be there, both physically and mentally,” says Quinn. “I think they are no different from us in that manner. Sometimes we watch them and think why aren’t they here (mentally) but we have the same problem with Canadian kids in some ways.”
But while the Americans have become 1(a as the favorite target, the Russians are 1(b.
“Every highlight you see about Canada and international hockey includes Russia and we are all aware of that,” says Dany Heatley.
Quinn, for one, is glad to see that Russia has shed itself of the tag as a pushover.
“It has changed. They have certainly developed really highly skilled guys and they have a great system for doing that and we know that from the number of high level players in our league,” he says.
“This team is as individually as strong through their lineup as anyone I can remember, counting the big Red Machine in the 1970s.”
That’s quite a compliment and if it olds true, Russia could soon be back on top as the team Canadians love to beat the most.