The battle for hockey supremacy

HAL QUINN September 7 1987

The battle for hockey supremacy

HAL QUINN September 7 1987

The battle for hockey supremacy


phil Esposito wiped the perspiration from his hands with a napkin and rocked back and forth in

his chair at the Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, Ont. The former NHL superstar and current general manager of the New York Rangers was simply watching an exhibition game. But the teams on the ice represented Canada and the Soviet Union—a warm-up match for the Aug. 28 opening of the six-nation Canada Cup hockey tournament. Since 1972, when Esposito was the inspirational leader of the Canadian team that narrowly defeated the Soviet Union in the eight-game Summit Series, the only valid test of the national game has taken place in matches against the Soviets. The world’s two leading hockey powers are favored to meet in the mid-September Canada Cup finale, and the game in Hamilton was merely a preview. Still, said Esposito, one of four Team Canada general managers: “I get nervous just watching. It’s psychological warfare every time we play the Soviets.” Paul Henderson’s dramatic lastminute goal in Moscow 15 years ago provided a fleeting victory. Since then, the two nations have met on the ice in Olympic, amateur, junior and World Championship competitions—with the Soviets clearly dominating. But in those tournaments, Canada’s best players—NHL stars—have either been ineligible or unavailable. Only in the Canada Cup tournaments—in 1976, 1981, 1984 and from Aug. 28 to Sept. 15—is Canada represented by its best players. Of the first three Cups, Canada won two, the Soviets one. For Canada Cup 1987—with teams from Czechoslovakia, Sweden, Finland and the United States providing a formidable supporting cast—the Canadian and Soviet teams are perhaps the best ever assembled. Said Team Canada captain Wayne Gretzky: “There’s a lot of pressure on this team, we realize that. Canadians expect us to win.”

The Soviets won the first exhibition game in Hamilton 9-4; Team Canada won the second, 5-2, in Calgary. Their first Cup game is on Sept. 6 in Hamilton. Canada opened the tournament last week by playing Czechoslovakia to a 4-4 tie. The teams play each other once with the top four teams advancing to the semifinals. The winners of those two games play a best-of-three final series for the Cup.

By any measure, Canada’s lineup is superb—led by Gretzky and NHL super-

stars Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier, Ray Bourque, Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr. Still, the tournament poses a severe challenge. Said Gretzky: “The Soviets are always great. As good as they are offensively, they’re just as good de-

fensively. They are unbelievable skaters, great puck controllers, and they have good goaltending.”

That combination is reflected in the national team’s record. The Soviets have won all but five of the last 23 annual world championships and five of the last six Olympic gold medals. The top Soviet line—right-winger Vladimir Krutov, centre Igor Larionov and left-winger Sergei Makarov—is regarded by many hockey experts as the best in the world. The Soviets play in five-man units, and the so-called KLM line is usually paired with defencemen

Viacheslav Fetisov, the team captain acknowledged as one of the best at his position in the world, and Alexei Kasatonov. Said Leif Boork, coach of the Swedish team at the 1984 Canada Cup: “As recently as this year’s world cham-

pionships in Vienna [won by Sweden], the KLM line seemed like Gretzky, a little fed up with so much hockey. But now they appear enthused again, more concentrated.”

Under head coach Mike Keenan— coach of the Philadelphia Flyers— Team Canada has prepared for the tournament, and the Soviets in particular, by working on its “transition game,” switching from offence to defence at full speed. Explained Keenan: “When we have the puck, we’re all on offence. When we don’t have the puck, we’re all on defence.”

Defensively, the Soviets’ style allows opponents to advance the puck along the boards, but not up the middle of the ice. Consequently, the Canadian coaches selected wingers like Rick Tocchet and Brian Propp of the Philadephia Flyers and Hartford Whaler Kevin Dineen, players capable of playing the entire game along the boards. The team’s centres, like Gretzky and Messier, are also skilled playmakers from the perimeter. Indeed, the competition for the 23man team was so intense that the those released—including Toronto Maple Leaf Wendel Clark, Boston Bruin Cam Neely and New Jersey Devil Kirk Muller—are NHL stars themselves. Said Vancouver Canuck Tony Tanti, a 41-goal scorer last season, after he was cut: “I thought

I had a chance to make the team—until the first day of camp.”

Unlike the Canadians, the Americans and Swedes did not have an overabundance of players. Team USA lost Flyer defenceman Mark Howe, New York Islander centre Bryan Trottier and Minnesota North Star centre Neal Broten to injuries incurred last season

in the NHL. Other American-born players were also unavailable. Leaf defenceman Tom Fergus was ill, teammate Al Iafrate out of shape, Montreal Canadien defenceman Craig Ludwig was operating a water-skiing school and Washington Capital forward Dave Christian was celebrating his marriage. Said general manager Lou Nanne: “I’m upset with the players who could have played and decided not to. They would have made us significant contenders.”

The Swedes were serious contenders, too, until five top NHL players, including New York Ranger Tomas Sandstrom and Flyer Pelle Eklund, decided not to compete. Said the team’s former coach Boork: “The loss of those players hurt, but this is a team with peaks and valleys. The peaks are its morale and very disciplined defensive system. The valleys are that it is not a physical team—a problem on the narrower North American rinks—and the

coaches may have underestimated the problem.”

The Czechs, like the Soviets, had no problem with players declining to play. Close to the Soviets in skill, the Czechs play a slightly more conservative style but are capable of winning the Cup. Still, cautioned head coach Jan Starsi:

“We are the only team besides the Soviets that does not have players in the NHL who are accustomed to playing on the smaller rinks. And the Soviets regularly play exhibition games in Canada. We are the only team without that advantage.” The Finns, with 11 NHL players—including 54goal scorer Jari Kurri and 34-goal scorer Esa Tikkanen of the Oilers— have their best team ever and could be the surprise entry.

Indeed, on the eve of the fourth Canada Cup, Messier said, “We know that if we’re going to win, we are going to have to play almost flawless hockey.” For hockey fans across Canada, and millions of

television viewers in the Soviet Union, Europe and the United States, the twoweek tournament may provide a demonstration of just that.Z