SPORTS

An exhilarating Rendez-Vous

HAL QUINN February 23 1987
SPORTS

An exhilarating Rendez-Vous

HAL QUINN February 23 1987

An exhilarating Rendez-Vous

SPORTS

Under a heavy mantle of ice, the St. Lawrence flowed silently by Quebec City last week. In the frigid but sunsplashed weather, pedestrians hurried past the intricate ice carvings celebrating the city’s famous Winter Carnival. And when they looked at the passing limousines, they caught glimpses of Prime Minister

Brian Mulroney, his wife Mila, Pierre Cardin, Paul Anka or any one of dozens of celebrities and artists in town for Rendez-Vous 87—the multimilliondollar festival of sport and culture. But the centrepiece of the international event was two games between the stars of the National Hockey League and the Soviet Union’s national team. They were just two evenings in a week featuring a black-tie gala, concerts and fashion shows. But for the participants, they were the rendezvous. Be-

fore the first face-off, Team NHL head coach Jean Perron said: “The reputation of the NHL is at stake. For the players, these are the two most important games of the year.”

For North American hockey fans— palates numbed by the usual NHL fare—they were also the two best games of the season. Both matches were played at levels of speed and skill

attained only when Canadian teams face the Soviet Union. Team NHL won the opening game 4-3 on a dramatic goal with just over a minute to play. Said Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov: “We realized then that we had to strengthen our attack. The play was much quicker than we had ever seen before from an NHL team.”

The Soviets raised the already lofty level of their play and won the second game 5-3. Said Soviet forward Vladimir Krutov, who scored twice: “In this

game, you had to give out at all times. At no time could you let up.” Added Tikhonov: “The most surprising thing is that the level of play never deteriorated. And it is important to understand that the NHL or the Soviet Union did not win this series. The winner was the game of hockey itself.” Added Wayne Gretzky, the outstanding NHL player of the second game:

“They’re such a great team that we knew we couldn’t sweep them.”

In fact, before the first game the members of Team NHL seemed almost resigned to an unenviable task. The 24 players had assembled for the first time only two days before the series opener on Feb. 11. Preparing to face the best players in the world outside the NHL, the all-stars had time for just a brief skate, one full practice and a couple of team meetings. Said Philadelphia Flyer centre Dave Poulin, who

later scored the winning goal in the first game: “In situations like this, you hope your instincts take over once the puck is dropped. We do have a group of players with great hockey instincts.” Mark Messier, the outstanding centre of the Edmonton Oilers, was less optimistic. Said the muscular 26-year-old: “We certainly have the talent. But great talent doesn’t win a series like this; great teams do.”

The pre-series reports on the two teams justified that pessimism. Because of injuries, the league was without three of its best players: New York Islanders forward Mike Bossy, a gifted goal scorer; Paul Coffey of the Oilers and Mark Howe of the Philadelphia Flyers, considered among the best defencemen in the league. Their only peer, Ray Bourque of the Boston Bru-

ins, did play in Quebec City but was hampered by a groin injury.

Moreover, scouting reports on the Soviet team indicated that the NHL squad would be severely tested. The Soviets are acknowledged as the hockey world’s best skaters and playmakers. But even among the Soviets, the KLM line—Krutov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov—stands out. In 27 previous games against NHL teams, rightwinger Krutov, 26, had scored 19 times. His centre, 26-year-old Larionov, had scored 15 times in 20 games. And left-winger Makarov, 28, had scored 21 goals in 34 games. Held

scoreless in the first game, the KLM line accounted for two goals in the Soviets’ second-game victory.

The unknown factor about the Soviet team was how their young goaltender— Evgeny Belosheikin—would react to the pressure of the situation. The 20-yearold goalie has played only one full season in the top Soviet league, from which the national team is drawn. But Belosheikin developed under the tutelege of one of the best goalies ever to play —Vladislav Tretiak. And the youngster played brilliantly in the 1986 World Championships and in the preOlympic Calgary Cup last month. Still, former NHL coach and general manager Scotty Bowman said that the Soviet goaltending was an advantage for the NHL. Said Bowman: “In the past the Soviets won because of Tretiak. He was

so good that he gave the whole team confidence and psyched out the opposition. I don’t think they have been able, or will be able, to replace him.” Although he played well, Belosheikin allowed seven goals and did not play at Tretiak’s level.

After the first game, Messier stood at his locker in the NHL dressing room, a look of wonder on his face. Poulin’s goal, with one minute 15 seconds remaining, had won the game. Said Messier: “We became a team in 48 hours.” He had more difficulty believing that a committee of hockey writers had named him the game’s most valu-

able player. Said Messier: “I’m like an offensive lineman in football; I’m not supposed to get recognition.”

In fact, the award could just as easily have been given to Washington Capitols defenceman Rod Langway, who repeatedly frustrated Soviet attacks. Nursing a postgame welt under his right eyebrow and dabbing blood from cuts to his face, Langway said: “We were very concerned about not looking bad. It’s not like the NHL. We have to show the Soviets so much respect.” Messier believes the respect is mutual, but added, “I’ve never seen a whole team so strong on their skates and so strong with their sticks.”

Predictably, the world’s best player made no adjustments for the RendezVous 87 series. Wayne Gretzky simply played the game his way. Whoever the competition, the 26-year-old Oilers centre controls the play. Oilers administrator Bill Tuele explains Gretzky’s magic in terms of crisis points. Said Tuele: “Every player reaches a point where he has to give up the puck or lose it or take a body check. Wayne’s crisis point is higher than anyone else’s. He will hold the puck for one, two, three seconds longer than anyone. And he knows the other players’ crisis points, and uses that.”

Gretzky himself contends that the Soviet hockey system has reached a crisis of sorts. Since the first encounter in 1972 between hockey’s superpowers, NHL teams have learned more from the Soviets than the Soviets have from the NHL. More and more NHL teams are now sending two, not three, forwards to forecheck in the offensive zone. And more teams are using the Soviets’ freewheeling offensive patterns with passes between interchanging forwards, no longer simply skating on left and right wing or at centre. Said Gretzky: “We play the same way, very aggressively, going to the puck all the time. They were dominant when they had Tretiak. When he retired, that was like an NHL team losing Ken Dryden or Terry Sawchuk. They cannot dominate without him, and they may never replace him.” Clearly, a two-game series could not decide which team, or hockey philosophy, was superior. And many NHL stars, including Gretzky, would like to see a re-enactment of the 1972 sevengame series, which Team Canada wón with Paul Henderson’s dramatic goal. Said Bowman: “Playing just two

games is like having John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg play one match to decide who is the world’s best tennis player. It’s just not realistic.” But amid the Carnival and Rendez-Vous festival, last week’s brief encounters provided a feast of hockey memories.

— HAL QUINN in Quebec City