On a frigid February night in 1979, the heroes of the National Hockey League suffered a startling and humiliating defeat. In cavernous Madison Square Garden, the best team that the NHL could muster was blistered 6-0 in the final game of a three-match series by a squad from the Soviet Union. The rout was as unexpected as it was complete and thousands of NHL regular season and playoff games later, the painful memory lingered. Until last week. Then, as the Canada Cup II tournament moved toward its finale, the pride of Canadian hockey was slowly restored. All that remained was one last, decisive showdown between Team Canada and the Russians. But before the last whistle was blown, Canada had decisively re-established its starring role in the small universe of international hockey.
This time, the mistakes of the past were neither forgotten nor repeated. As the players for Team Canada gathered in early August, wrenched from their golf, families, second careers and increasingly brief respites from the NHL, it was clear that the 1981 series would be different. Fifty-goal scorers of the previous season were not called. Scoring statistics are no longer the sole gauge of excellence. Hard-working, fleet skaters were summoned instead to cope with the Soviets. Rick Middleton of Boston, Ron Duguay of free agentry and Butch Goring of the Islanders joined a phalanx of puck artists, including Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier of the Islanders, Gil Perreault of Buffalo, Marcel Dionne of Hollywood, Guy Lafleur of Les Canadiens and a guy called Gretzky. 'Some came reluctantly (no one more so than goalie Billy Smith); and some didn’t come at all (Bob Bourne not wanting to risk injury as a free agent). But most came like Bossy. “Sure we gave up a month of our summer. But we love hockey enough; we want to play and we want to win,” he said.
The exigencies of international stick handling necessitated a six-nation tournament. The International Ice Hockey Federation does not want the sport to
rotate on a Canada-U.S.S.R. axis, no matter how real that is. And so the encounter of the only meaningful kind circled past Finland, Sweden, the U.S.A. and Czechoslovakia. The creator of the schedule obviously had an affinity for maple leaves. In ascending order Team Canada strode past the pretenders toward a reprise and gradually quieted the ghosts of that Manhattan night.
The first offering was a polite crew
from Finland, who stood and watched Team Canada find its range for a 9-0 victory. Then a stubbornly presumptuous group of Americans, who kept pace until a burst of other-worldly firepower from the Canadians in the third period blasted them 8-3. Next were the Czechs. As Bossy said, “We didn’t really know what we were up against.” The Czechs played brilliantly, surviving a spate of late penalties to erase their pre-Cup billing and earn a 4-4 tie. And so, in the final game of the round-robin phase, the Canadians faced the Soviets.
It was appropriate that they met last Wednesday night at the hub of Canadian hockeyemdash;the Montreal Forum, an institution where the unique skills of an ice-covered land have long been appreciated, its baser elements disdained. The partisans were not disappointed. Gil Perreault, lost in the Czech game to a broken ankle in an awkward collision with Wayne Gretzky, was replaced on left wing by a superlative centre, Dionne. After barely 56 seconds, Dionne
dug the puck out of the Russian corner and passed to Gretzky. A second and a heartbeat later it was in the net.
They had done that type of thing before, these men who play in front of millions for millions. But this September night it was different. The Soviets rallied. They approached the third period tied at two. With a flurry and flourish that seems created for this sport alone, the cluster of pros from 11 of the NHL’s 21 teams scored five consecutive goalsemdash; Middleton, then Dionne, Potvin, Bossy and Goring. It ended 7-3.
There were the formalities of the semifinalsemdash;in which the Soviets dispatched the Czechs and sleepy-looking Canadians shook the Americans out of their dreams of Lake Placid revisited. The Soviets and the Canadians would meet again in Sunday night’s final but regardless, few would now forget an avenging 7-3 Montreal night. lt;£gt;
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