Playing for pride in the Canada Cup

Robert Miller,Terry Jones September 10 1984

Playing for pride in the Canada Cup

Robert Miller,Terry Jones September 10 1984

Playing for pride in the Canada Cup


Robert Miller

For its organizers and underwriters, the six-nation Canada Cup hockey tournament which opened Saturday night in Montreal and runs until at least Sept. 18 offers a chance to make a profit, sell beer and launch an all-sports cable television service. For the players—particularly the National Hockey League professionals who dominate the Canadian, American and Swedish rosters—it offers a chance to display their skills in the only genuine test of world hockey supremacy that the sport’s crowded calendar allows. And for Canada’s long-suffering but ever-optimistic hockey fans, it provides an out-of-season opportunity to watch their game played at the very highest level—with the added possibility that this time Wayne Gretzky, Larry Robinson and the rest of Team Canada will defeat the mighty Soviets.

Gretzky, the Edmonton Oiler whose prodigious talent and winsome personality enable him to tower over his fellow professionals every winter, reflected the view of millions of Canadian fans last week when he declared: “It’s time we beat the Russians. We’re overdue.” But it was far from certain that the 1984 version of Team Canada, a youthful and swift-skating lineup dominated by members of the Stanley Cup champion Oilers, would be strong enough to succeed where the 1981 and 1979 squads failed. In the 1981 Canada Cup final the Soviet Nationals humiliated Canada’s best 8-1. In the previous hockey summit—the so-called Challenge Cup of 1979—the Soviets skated to an easy 6-0 win over the NHL All-Stars in the third and deciding game. And last week, in a final pre-tournament tuneup before 14,804 Montreal fans who paid as much as $25 a ticket, this year’s Soviet entry outperformed Gretzky & Co. 5-4. The

Soviets scored three goals during penalties incurred by Canadian players who responded unwisely, but in kind, to acts of Soviet aggression which the referees largely failed to detect. It was a problem as old as Canadian-Soviet hockey showdowns and it left Team Canada general manager and coach Glen Sather unhappy. Said Sather, the Oiler boss who selected the Team Canada players from 12 NHL clubs but decreed that all would have to play the Oilers’ free-wheeling attack-oriented style: “We just can’t play them from the penalty box. Our guys should know by now that we must have great self-control in these games.”

Fastest: Self-control was only one element in Sather’s overall plan to recapture the Canada Cup. Speed and conditioning were equally important, and the Canadian team—with an average age of 25 and almost a month of two-a-day practices under its belt— seemed to have plenty of both. Emile Francis, general manager of the NHL Hartford Whalers and one of a panel of six senior advisers to Sather, watched several early workouts in August and pronounced the current Team Canada to be the fastest hockey club he had ever seen. But speed and stamina might not be enough. Team Canada and tournament chairman Alan Eagleson declared that he had “complete faith in Glen Sather” but he was unwilling to predict the final result. Said Eagleson: “We could finish anywhere from first to fourth. But I’m hoping for a Canada-Russia final, with us winning it. That’s really what this is all about.”

To that end, Eagleson modified the 1981 playoff format to give every possible chance to the Canadians—who once again will enjoy home fan support while playing in familiar buildings. This year’s Canada Cup schedule called for a Sept. 1 to 10 “round robin” series of 15

games—in Halifax, Montreal, London, Ont., Buffalo, N.Y., Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver—in which each team faces the other five once. After the preliminary round, the two lowest-ranking teams will be dropped, and the four survivors will meet in sudden-death semifinal matches on Sept. 12 and 13 in Edmonton and Calgary. The semifinal winners will then meet in a best-ofthree series (in 1981 the final was a onegame affair, in which Team Canada fell behind early and then collapsed) set for Calgary and Edmonton on Sept. 16 and 18 (Sept. 20 if necessary). The extended final offered some protection against a team simply having a bad night and losing everything in a single game. And, Eagleson said, a three-game series in Edmonton offered a chance at increased ticket sales—especially if Gretzky and the seven other Oilers on the team had the opportunity to perform before their rabid home-town supporters. Said Eagleson: “I expect we will make at least $1.5 million in profit, and there is a chance we might reach $2 million. I am much more encouraged by this year’s advance ticket sales than I was at this point in 1981.”

The CTV Television Network will carry six preliminary-round games, five involving Team Canada, as well as semifinal and final rounds. And The Sports Network (TSN), a new 24-hour-a-day cable service owned by Team Canada sponsor John Labatt Ltd., planned to carry nine preliminary-round games featuring the other teams. Indeed, the TSN service went on the air, with roughly 300,000 charter subscribers, for the first time on Saturday, showcasing the Canada Cup. Although Team Canada began the tournament on an auspicious note, defeating the lightly regarded West Germans 7 - 2 in the Montreal Forum Saturday night, a number of obstacles stood between the Canadians and the Canada Cup itself. Among them:

The Soviet Union: Master goaltender Vladislav Tretiak, 32, personal friend of Wayne Gretzky, personal nemesis of a whole generation of Canadian hockey players, may have retired—after one of the most distinguished careers of any sportsman: three gold Olympic medals and one silver, plus numerous triumphs over the world’s greatest hockey clubs since 1972—but “the big red machine” from Moscow remained the heavy favorite to repeat its 1981 Canada Cup victory. Also missing from this year’s Soviet team: superstar Vyacheslav Fetisov, whom Gretzky calls “the greatest defenceman I have ever played against.” He is out with a broken leg suffered during a training camp in Italy. The swift and powerful forward Viktor Zhlutkov, who was named to the Soviets’ 30-man Cana-

da Cup roster, also failed to make the trip across the Atlantic, and several familiar names from previous Soviet appearances in North America, including defenceman Valery Vasiliev and forward Viktor Kapustin were no-shows, as well.

But coach Viktor Tikhonov once again was able to draw from the deep pool of world-class talent that fills rosters in the Soviet Elite League, which includes such teams as Central Red Army, Moscow Spartak and Moscow Dynamo. To replace the legendary Tretiak, Tikhonov chose veteran backup goaltender Vladimir Myshkin, who last week denied that he was under any pressure. Said Myshkin: ‘T have a job to do, and I will do it.” In last week’s pre-tournament game against Team Canada, Myshkin looked eminently capable.

Czechoslovakia: The ever-dangerous Czech national team barely succumbed to Team Canada—by scores of 5-4 and 32—in a pair of brilliantly played pretournament matches in Halifax and Montreal. The Czechs were silver medallists, behind the Soviets, at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, and they were at least a threat to win the current tournament. In 1976, the Czechs ruined Eagleson’s hope of a Canada-Soviet final in the inaugural Canada Cup when they defeated the Soviets and then took what was probably the finest Canadian team ever assembled into overtime before losing. The Czechs now have an

extra incentive: the presence in Team Canada’s lineup of Peter Stastny, former member of the Czech national team who defected in August, 1980, to star for the NHL’S Quebec Nordiques. Stastny said in Halifax before the tournament that he wanted to prove to his former compatriots that “the hockey played in the NHL is the best in the world.” Replied Ludek Bukac, the Czech coach: “I am surprised that with all the great players developed in Canada, their bench is not so deep that they would need players from other countries.”

The United States: Team America is vastly improved over the 1981 edition, which finished the Canada Cup tournament with a 2-2-1 won-lost-tied record. In four pre-tournament games against Team Canada the Americans managed a win and a tie. And, except for a 9-3 loss on Aug. 16 in Bloomington, Minn., they matched the better-known Canadian players stride for stride. The U.S. team is built around such legitimate NHL superstars as Washington Capitals’ Rod Langway, winner of the Norris Trophy as the league’s premier defenceman in each of the past two seasons, and New York Islanders’ centre Bryan Trottier. Trottier was born in Val Marie, Sask., and he played for Canada in the 1981 Canada Cup, but he decided to become a U.S. citizen on July 30, in order to play, as he put it, “for the country where my family lives and I earn my living.” According to Team America general man-

ager Lou Nanne, who is also the general manager of the NHL’S Minnesota North Stars, this year’s U.S. team “is at least 25 per cent stronger than the last time we played a Canada Cup. Then, you could count our world-class players on your hands. Now, you need to use your toes too.” Added coach Bob Johnson, who coaches the Calgary Flames during the NHL season and who was at least intermittently dreaming of a Canada Cup upset to rival the U.S. 1980 goldmedal hockey triumph over the shocked Soviets at Lake Placid: “The Los Angeles Olympics are going to have a positive effect on us. We watched a lot of the Olympics on television, and it struck me that a lot of our players identified strongly with the Americans’ success.” Sweden: With 11 seasoned NHL stars on its roster, Sweden’s Tre Kronor (Three Crowns) national team was also a potential finalist, even though Toronto Maple Leaf defenceman Borje Salming, a Swede—who has been recuperating all summer from a broken kneecap—bowed to his NHL team’s wishes and declined to participate. Also missing from the Swedish lineup were veteran star forwards Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson of the New York Rangers. Both Hedberg and Nilsson suffered serious knee injuries in the 1981 Canada Cup. But with such explosive players as Thomas Gradin and Patrik Sundstrom of the Vancouver Canucks, Kent Nilsson of the Calgary Flames, Mats Naslund of

the Montreal Canadiens and Thomas Steen of the Winnipeg Jets, TVe Kronor could not be taken lightly by anyone. The Swedes defeated the Czechs twice before leaving Europe, and last week, in a pre-tournament game in the London, Ont., Gardens, they demolished the badly outclassed West Germans 8-0.

For their part, the West Germans may recall that score with pleasure before the tournament ends. The West German team, with no bona fide NHL players and a handful of born-again Germans from Canadian junior and senior clubs, replaced Finland in this year’s Canada Cup because they squeezed past the Finns into sixth place in the 1983 World Championships held in Dusseldorf and Munich, West Germany. Under the format Eagleson negotiated nearly a decade ago with Dr. Gunther Sabetzky, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, the participants in the Canada Cup are determined by the standings in the previous World tourney—an arrangement that raised at least the theoretical posssibility that the Canada Cup could be held without the presence of a Canadian team. But it would have to take place without the organizational and persuasive flair of Eagleson, who controls hockey off the ice as completely as Gretzky controls the NHL on it.

Indeed, after the cumulative disappointments connected with the Canada Cup Eagleson was ready to abandon the

concept. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had indirectly caused the cancellation of the tournament in both 1979 and 1980. Two of the 1981 games were moved to Ottawa from Quebec City after dismal advance ticket sales and civil rights lawyer Guy Bertrand’s protest over the number of Quebec-born players on the team. The disastrous attendance figures in Winnipeg and the bitter disappointment of the final 8-1 loss to the Soviets were almost the final straws.

Last week he recalled his despair and the way that Sidney Oland, president of Labatt Brewing Co. Ltd., helped talk him out of it. Said Eagleson: “I was really low, ready to let the tournament go. We’d had sponsor problems, and Carling O’Keefe had dropped out. There wasn’t any enthusiasm for the project in Ottawa. And even though we made a profit, I was at the point where I wondered whether it was worth the effort. Labatt had stepped in as sponsors at the last minute, and after the final game they gave a little party. It was a sombre affair. But Sid Oland took me aside and said, ‘Alan, if you’ll stick with the Canada Cup, I think Labatt will stick with it, too.’ Well, the upshot was that we eventually made a deal, and Labatt made a major, long-term commitment not only to the Canada Cup, which they have through 1988, with an option for 1992, but also for the World Championships and the Olympic hockey program.”

Excited: According to Oland, Labatt decided to underwrite the Canada Cup because “this country is very involved in hockey, and we wanted to be part of that. We are excited about international hockey and, anyway, the NHL is all tied up.” Labatt’s two principal competitors in the Canadian beer market—Molson Breweries of Canada Ltd. and Carling O’Keefe Breweries of Canada Ltd.—own, respectively, the Montreal Canadiens and the Quebec Nordiques.

The theory among the brewers is simple: sports fans tend to drink beer, and brand loyalties tend to flow from team loyalties. For Labatt, which owns 45 per cent of the Toronto Blue Jays American League baseball club and stages the annual Canadian Grand Prix for Formula 1 racing cars, the association with Eagleson’s various hockey ventures is an integral part of its overall marketing and promotion plan. While the brewing company makes the product and underwrites the hockey tournament, the TSN TV operation carries some of the games and broadcasts the beer commercials.

Still another affiliated group, TV Labatt, produces the programming. Although Labatt has never revealed how much they paid to Hockey Canada and the NHL Players Association (yet another organization under Eagleson’s effective control), industry sources said the brewing company committed more than

$7 million in a deal signed in December, 1982. Said John Hudson, Labatt’s director of media properties: “What we paid is enough to guarantee there will be a Canada Cup tournament.” For his part, Eagleson predicted that this year’s tournament revenues would be at least $7 million, and expenses would be roughly $5.5 million.

Eagleson, Sather and his staff—Oiler assistant coaches Ted Green and John Muckier—were expecting superior performances from the 22 players finally selected for Team Canada, and the roster itself indicated how the balance of power has shifted in the NHL since 1981. Aside from the elegant Gretzky, the veteran Robinson, a perennial Montreal all-star who at 33 was the team’s oldest player, and New York Islander sniper Mike Bossy, who was favoring a sore knee and whose tournament potential remained in doubt as play began, Team Canada was not overloaded with household names. The era of Guy Lafleur, Marcel Dionne, Gilbert Perreault and Bob Gainey has ended, and the Gretzky/ Oiler era has begun. In effect, Team Canada reflected the transition of power that began with last May’s Stanley Cup final, in which the four-time champion Islanders were crushed by the young Edmonton team in five rousing games. For Sather the Stanley Cup win was the culmination of a four-year building program, in which he stressed youth, speed and attack—the system he decreed for the Canada Cup. Among its features: five-man units playing regularly together, with the onus on the defence to move the puck as quickly as

possible to the forwards and into the attacking zone. At least some of the Team Canada lineup had difficulty adjusting. Said Sather: “They [the nonOiler defencemen] are used to carrying the puck on their regular teams. If they don’t get the puck up when the forwards break, we don’t get the flow.”

Notorious: Although the system worked for Edmonton, and appeared to be effective for Team Canada, the Oilers were notorious for winning NHL games but allowing high scores—11-6,10-7 and 9-8—against themselves, which suggested that Sather placed a low priority on defence, a contention he denied. Said Sather: “I believe in keeping the puck. It’s not that I don’t worry about defence but I believe a better offence is the way to go.” But, as Tretiak’s sterling career demonstrated, tournaments and titles are often won by defence and, particularly, goaltending. Said Team America coach Johnson: “The whole tournament may well come down to goaltending.” Team Canada’s goaltenders—the Oilers’ Grant Fuhr and the Boston Bruins’ Pete Peeters—were skilled, but their names were not Ken Dryden, Rogatien Vachon and Tony Esposito—superstar Canadian goalies who faced earlier international challenges.

Certainly, for Canadian fans, hockey has never been quite the same since the steamy night of Sept. 2, 1972, when an ill-equipped and clearly nervous Soviet team faced off against the original Team Canada, a badly out-of-shape collection of demigods who confidently expected to chase the comrades back to the steppes. The result of the first meeting

between the Soviet Nationals and the NHL all-stars: Comrades 7, Demigods 3. By the end of the eight-game series, which the Canadians finally won on Paul Henderson’s historic goal, hockey had become truly international and Canadian fans demanded more top-flight international competition. Hockey has such a powerful hold on the Canadian psyche—Nova Scotia broadcaster C. Arnold Patterson calls the game “Canada’s third official language”—that the occasion of Henderson’s 1972 goal remains frozen in millions of ordinary Canadians’ memories.

Special: Remarkably, many members of the current Team Canada were too young in 1972 to understand what Henderson had done. Said 20-year-old Brian

Bellows of the Minnesota North Stars, a native of St. Catharines, Ont.: “I remember they took us all down to the school gymnasium where they had a television set. I knew it was special because why else would they take us out of class in the middle of the afternoon?” Larry Robinson, Team Canada’s co-captain with Gretzky, also remembers. “It was my first year in the NHL,” he said last week. “Everybody remembers that final goal, and you can’t help but think about it when you put on that Team Canada jersey. That’s what this jersey is all about. There may be four other teams in this, but it’s still Canada vs. Russia and always will be.”

Robinson has played in all three Canada Cups and he had no hesitation when

Sather called him to play this time. Indeed, Eagleson says that he is “proud that we did not have even one refusal, and I can assure you nobody is doing it for the money. The players can earn a maximum of $5,000 for taking part —and they have to win to get the final $1,000—which isn’t very much for a bunch of guys who earn maybe $250,000 a year, especially when you consider they are giving up almost seven weeks for this thing.” According to Eagleson, the players take part in the Canada Cup because they want to represent the country—and take on the Soviets. “I know it sounds corny,” he says, “but Gretzky sings that song every day, and Gretzky means it. They all do.”

The first $600,000 of the net profit

from the tournament goes to Hockey Canada for a scholarship program. The next $1.4 million will go to the NHL players’ pension fund, and the rest is paid to the owners of NHL franchises for making the players available. Each of the six teams receives full expenses, plus a $125,000 minimum guarantee for taking part. Total prize money is $600,000. The total pride involved is incalculable. Said Oiler forward Glenn Anderson, 23: “Ever since I was 12 I have dreamed of being on the best team in the world. To have won the Stanley Cup and now to have a shot at winning the Canada Cup, to be part of the best team in the world, what a summer!”

With Terry Jones in Montreal and Peter Giffen in Toronto.