The towel around his neck was soaked with perspiration and champagne. From the ceiling in the Team Canada dressing room, spray from shaken Labatt’s beer cans dripped steadily, pausing only briefly on his brow before joining the stream of sweat running off his chin into his saturated jersey. Minutes earlier Mario Lemieux had snapped a perfect shot—his 11th goal of the Canada Cup tournament—past Soviet goaltender Sergei Mylnikov. That goal, with one minute and 26 seconds remaining in the third period of the final game of the tournament, proved to be the exquisitely fine difference between the world’s two best hockey teams in three of the greatest hockey games ever played. Amid the bedlam that followed Canada’s 6-5 victory over the Soviet Union in the decisive third game last week, Pittsburgh Penguin Lemieux reflected for a moment and said: “All the players in this room have to go back to their NHL teams, and they are not ‘the best teams in the world.’ We have to realize that and start all over again.”
But as quickly as the Canadian NHL stars staked their claim to world hockey supremacy, their reign ended. Even as champagne corks ricocheted around their dressing room at Hamilton’s Copps Coliseum, the realization set in that the team—together for 44 days in August and September—would never be together again. They had survived a 6-5 overtime loss to the Soviets in Game One, after recovering from a three-goal deficit. They had lost the lead twice in Game Two, before winning 6-5 in the second overtime period in perhaps the single best hockey game ever played.
And in the final game, they had stormed back, after trailing 3-0, to lead, tie and then win the Cup on Lemieux’s goal. Said Edmonton Oiler left-winger Glenn Anderson, who recovered from a knee injury in training camp to play a key role in the Canadian triumph: “This is a better feeling than winning the Stanley Cup, but it’s sad too. You don’t know how good these people are until you play with them. The individuals became a team, and it will be sad to see them leave.”
The six-nation Canada Cup will not be challenged again until 1992, and few from this year’s edition will likely be chosen to represent the nation’s hockey heritage. The 1987 team that disbanded last week was unique. It was a group of NHL superstars who, at head coach Mike Keenan’s direction, accepted supporting roles to the world’s best player—Wayne Gretzky, who led all tournament scorers with three goals and 18 assists in nine games. They were also playing in the shadow of 21-year-old Lemieux, potentially the game’s best scorer, who in addition to his 11 goals collected seven assists. Said Keenan, after pairing wits with Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov—line-change for line-change—for more than 215 minutes of the swiftly paced hockey: “When you make a team like this, with thoroughbreds, you don’t have the balanced personnel you would have on an NHL team. We had to establish roles for players who had never had those roles before.”
Among those accepting unfamiliar roles harassing the skilled Soviet attackers was centre Dale Hawerchuk, who has averaged more than 100 points in the past four NHL seasons with the Winnipeg Jets. The group also included St. Louis Blues Doug Gilmour, who scored 42 goals last season, and Mark Messier, who collected 107 points in the regular season before helping the Oilers win the Stanley Cup. Said Hawerchuk, who scored Canada’s fifth goal in the final game, assisted on the fourth and won the face-off that set up the winner: “Something about falling behind brought out the best in this team.” Added Gilmour, who earned more playing time as the tournament progressed: “Just being involved with this calibre of players is scary.” Said Messier: “The offense of both teams was so tremendous that the defence couldn’t shut everybody down. Three 6-5 games, it’s just unbelievable.”
The Soviets, at least their assistant coach and spokesman Igor Dmitriev, believed it. Declared Dmitriev: “With 17,000 Canadians in the arena hoping for them and with a Canadian referee [Don Koharski], they could not lose.” The next encounter between the world’s two hockey powers will likely be staged more equitably—four games in North America and four in the Soviet Union—in 1990.
The undisputed star of Team Canada and the tournament, Gretzky, has said he would like to finish his professional career with another similar series. Said Canada Cup chairman Alan Eagleson: “If Wayne wants an eight-game series with the Soviets in 1990, we will do it. The game of hockey owes it to him.” Until then, hockey fans will savor the memories of watching three of the best games ever played.
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