COVER

A CUP TO SAVOR

CANADA WILL BE HARD-PRESSED TO DEFEND ITS HOCKEY CHAMPIONSHIP

D’ARCY JENISH September 9 1991
COVER

A CUP TO SAVOR

CANADA WILL BE HARD-PRESSED TO DEFEND ITS HOCKEY CHAMPIONSHIP

D’ARCY JENISH September 9 1991

Paul Henderson has not played professional hockey for 10 years. But, at 48, the Brampton, Ont., grandfather is one of the most recognized and celebrated hockey players in Canada. Henderson's enduring fame is based on a single goal that he scored in Moscow on Sept. 28, 1972. With 34 seconds left in the final match of an eight-game summit series between top players from Canada and the Soviet Union, Henderson tapped in his own rebound to give Team Canada a 6-5 win and the narrowest possible series victory. “Hardly a day goes by that somebody doesn’t come up and talk about that series,” said Henderson, who now runs nondenominational Christian retreats and seminars for businessmen and athletes. “Most Canadians I meet will tell me exactly where they were and what they were doing when I scored that goal. It’s amazing.” For the next 2-1/2 weeks, another collection of the country’s top pros will try to prove that Canada remains the world’s top hockey nation.

But to do so, the latest edition of Team Canada will have to beat national teams from Czechoslovakia, Finland, Sweden, the United States and the Soviet Union in the fifth Canada Cup tournament since 1976. The competitions exert a powerful influence over both players and fans from coast to coast. The tournament games, a maximum of 20, are being held in five Canadian and three U.S. cities. Team Canada’s games will be sold out completely, according to tournament organizers, and will draw domestic television audiences of up to five million per game. Organizers also note that advance sales for games involving European teams have been much higher than in previous tournaments.

Mystique: Although the Soviets are still expected to provide the strongest competition for Team Canada, familiarity with the U.S.S.R. players—and the spectacle of threatened political disintegration in their homeland—have begun to erode some of the mystique that once surrounded them. Four members of the team, Sergei Fedorov, Alexei Kasatonov, Alexei Gusarov and Mikhail Tatarinov, played in the National Hockey League (NHL) last season. But after Team Canada narrowly defeated the Soviets in an exhibition game in Hamilton on Aug. 25, Canadian head coach Mike Keenan warned that the Russian team had several new and potentially powerful players. Overall, Keenan described the Soviets as “talented, fit, aggressive, tough and skilled.” And in the second Canada-Soviet exhibition game, on Aug. 27, the Soviets won 4-3.

Many of the European players competing in the Canada Cup will be familiar, and even well known, to Canadian hockey fans. Two of Wayne Gretzky’s former Edmonton Oiler linemates, Jari Kurri and Esa Tikkanen, are playing for Finland, while Czechoslovakia was counting on such established NHLers as the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Jaromir Jagr and the Calgary Flames’ Robert Reichel. And for one of the Swedish players, 40-year-old Boije Salming, the Canada Cup may seem more like a homecoming than a tournament. Salming was a star defenceman with the Toronto Maple Leafs for 16 seasons before leaving to play with the Detroit Red Wings in 1989-1990. He subsequently retired from the NHL and joined a Stockholm team in the top Swedish league.

Threat: Meanwhile, the Americans were expected to ice a team made up entirely of NHL talent, including some of the biggest names in professional hockey. Each of the 44 players invited to the U.S. training camp in Pittsburgh skated for an NHL team last winter. Leading the list is St. Louis Blues superstar Brett Hull, who scored 86 goals last season—a record for right wingers—and who was named the NHL’S most valuable player. Before the Canada Cup training camp opened in early August, many analysts picked the American team as the most serious competitive threat to the Canadians. Then, Team Canada upset that prediction by winning three and tying one of the five exhibition games against the Americans. On Aug. 18, the Canadians won by a score of 9-1.

Gretzky will lead the Canadian entry in the tournament. In fact, he has reigned almost unchallenged for the past decade as the NHL’s premiere superstar. Pittsburgh Penguins centre Mario Lemieux, who scored the tournament’s winning goal in a mesmerizing final against the Soviets in 1987, is sitting out the series to avoid aggravating a back injury that forced him to miss 54 games last season. However, Oilers centre Mark Messier had recovered sufficiently from a knee injury to join Team Canada on Aug. 29, the day the final cuts were made. Probably the most closely watched player in the Team Canada camp was 18-year-old Eric Lindros, the brilliant Torontonian who is attempting to skate directly from junior hockey to a tournament featuring the world’s best players before playing a single game in the NHL (page 34).

Team Canada drew large crowds for its pre-tournament tune-up games wherever they were played. About 9,000 people attended an Aug. 9 game in Ottawa and paid up to $60 a seat to watch two teams made up of Canadian players trying out for the team. Exhibition games between Team Canada and Team U.S.A. drew crowds ranging from 12,400 to 14,500 in Pittsburgh, Detroit and Chicago. Those same three cities will be the first U.S. centres to host Canada Cup games.

Crowds: Robert Morash, an account supervisor with Toronto-based Christopher Lang and Associates, the firm that is marketing the Canada Cup, said that selling tickets for Canadian games is rarely a problem. But some of the 1987 games involving Sweden and Finland drew only 3,000 to 4,000 fans, he said. As a result, advance tickets were sold in packages to encourage adequate crowds. In this tournament, Morash said, advance sales for a Labor Day game in Montreal between the Soviets and Sweden had reached 10,000. He added that Sweden and Finland will play before an anticipated crowd of about 8,000 at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens on Sept. 7.

Tournament organizers are also anticipating huge TV audiences, particularly if Canada and the Soviets meet in the best-of-three final. The first game would be played on Sept. 14 in Montreal, the second, two nights later in Hamilton, and the rubber match, if necessary, would be held on Sept. 18, also in Hamilton. The third game of the 1987 final, which Canada won 6-5 on Lemieux’s dramatic third-period goal, attracted 5.2 million viewers, the fifth-largest television audience ever for a sporting event in Canada.

Despite the evident public interest in the current tournament, some experts say that the Canada Cup has lost some of its original lustre. “I have a feeling they’re sending a bucket down the well too often,” said Montreal novelist Mordecai Richler, an avid fan who has produced some astute hockey journalism over the years. “I doubt if it will ever be the event it once was.” But Henderson said that the Cup is still capable of producing captivating performances. He noted that coaches have little time to scout unfamiliar opponents and usually have scant information about the strengths and weaknesses of players. As well, many of the younger Europeans are fired up for the challenge, Henderson said. The tournament can serve as their route into the NHL and a crack at the lucrative contracts now available to the world’s top professional hockey players. Clearly, there is more than just national pride at stake.