For hockey fans in the Great White North, there is no greater international rivalry than the one between Canada and Russia. That’s because historically the Russians have pushed Canada harder than any other nation.
In saying that, there’s no disrespect intended toward the USA. Over the last 15 years, the Americans have frequently challenged Canada for top spot at the Olympics (in men’s and women’s hockey), the World Cup, and the World Juniors.
You could throw the Czechs into the mix too. After they edged Canada for gold at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games, they went on a hot streak at the IIHF World Championships, winning three straight titles. And they ended Canada’s two-year reign as World Champions last spring in Austria with a 3-0 victory in the final game.
But when you look back at Canada’s hockey history, the most intense, jaw-dropping moments have always come against the Russians. Paul Henderson’s goal on Vladislav Tretiak with 34 seconds left in Game Eight of the 1972 Summit Series was one of the most euphoric, nation-defining moments we’ve experienced.
For fans of another generation, watching Wayne Gretzky feed Mario Lemieux for the 6-5 winning goal in Game Three of the 1987 Canada Cup was just as amazing--arguably the two most talented forwards ever teaming up to (barely) edge the Russians, led by the lethal KLM Line of Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov, and Sergei Makarov.
Now, winning gold at the 2002 Olympics was very, very memorable too. But since that marked Canada’s first Olympic gold in 50 years, it’s hard to argue that supporters of the red Maple Leaf wouldn’t have enjoyed the victory just as much if it had come against Russia instead of the USA. (Remember, too, that the Russians only lost 3-2 to the USA in the Salt Lake City semi-finals.)
The Russians would point to events like the 1979 Challenge Cup, where they thrashed a mostly Canadian NHL all-star roster 6-0 in the deciding game, or the 1981 Canada Cup, where they triumphed 8-1 in the final, as well as their various IIHF World Championship and Olympic victories over Canadian teams, particularly in the 1960’s and 1980’s.
Yet in recent years, the World Juniors are where Canada-Russia has taken center stage the most. In the 1980’s, the two sides were fairly equal in terms of topping the podium, while in the 1990’s, Canada jumped ahead with its run of five straight gold medals from 19. But starting in 1999, the Russians gained an edge, defeating Canada in the finals that year as well as 20, and only succumbing to last year’s Canadian team led by Dion Phaneuf, Sidney Crosby, and Corey Perry with a 6-1 loss in the gold medal game.
This year, it’ll be a matter of whether Canada can contain offensive threats like Evgeni Malkin and Nikolai Kulemin and whether the outstanding goaltending of Justin Pogge and the balanced attack of Brent Sutter’s forwards carries the day.
Whereas the USA’s approach, for instance, is typically pretty close to Canada’s, what always makes a Canada-Russia game intriguing is the steadfast belief that both sides retain in the rightness, so to speak, of their very different styles.
Of course, both nations have absorbed techniques from each other over the decades. But when it comes down to crunch time, Canada will always look to get pucks deep, forecheck aggressively, go to the net, and play tight, physical defence in its own zone, while the Russians will primarily look to outskate their rivals and bewilder them with dazzling displays of passing and stickhandling. And whichever team executes its style better on a given day will come out on top.
It’s not hard to guess which style will be favoured by most of the 18,630 fans packed into GM Place on Thursday, , as well as the millions glued to the live TV broadcast on TSN/RDS (4 pm PAC), when the next chapter in this ageless rivalry unfolds.