Sports

Hockey night in America

Canada’s longtime supremacy slips away

JAMES DEACON September 23 1996
Sports

Hockey night in America

Canada’s longtime supremacy slips away

JAMES DEACON September 23 1996

Hockey night in America

Sports

Canada’s longtime supremacy slips away

Like parents reluctantly sending their kids to college, Canadian hockey fans watched their game grow up last week. The old Canada Cup had become the World Cup, and a once-parochial tournament was suddenly being played in the capitals of Europe and in the spanking new mega-arenas of North America. CBC’s television images, so comfortable in the living-rooms of Canada, were also sent to more than a dozen other countries, including Russia and Japan. And when it came down to the final best-of-three series, that international audience saw a fiercely fought battle between the traditional favorite, Canada, and the country that appears to be its most serious long-term rival, the United States. The issue was not decided until a dramatic Game 3 last Saturday night in Montreal, when the Americans—backstopped by brilliant goalie Mike Richter—scored four late goals to win 5-2 and capture the Cup. “We came out and played well but Canada just blitzed us,” said U.S. winger Brett Hull, who tallied twice. ‘They took control the first two periods, and if it wasn’t for Mike we weren’t in the game at all.”

For all Richter’s heroics, America’s tri-

umph was no Miracle on Ice. Unlike the American Olympic team of 1980, whose anonymous overachievers scored a stunning victory at Lake Placid, this U.S. squad was a collection of NHL stars. Although they were outplayed through most of the final game, the Americans—and Russians and Swedes for that matter—had shown through the tournament that Canada’s unquestioned hockey supremacy had slipped away.

That was hardly comforting to Canadian fans who had already seen NHL franchises in Quebec City and Winnipeg— unable to survive the bottomline realities of modern professional sports—relocate to warmer and richer American cities. They were repulsed by a U.S. network’s use of a blue dot to track the puck on TV. And, perhaps belatedly, they saw in the World Cup that other countries are making serious claims on No. 1. But their opponents’ strengths did not surprise the Canadian players. “This is not new to us,” said the team’s warrior-centre Mark Messier, speaking of the Americans. “Those

guys are big and fast, they can score goals and they have great goaltending.”

In a sense, the World Cup was just a dress rehearsal for 1998, when for the first time the NHL will interrupt its season and allow its players to compete in the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. “The Olympics are so huge in the States,” Canadian captain Wayne Gretzky told Maclean’s. “If these same two teams can make it to the final game there, it will take hockey to a whole new level.” The Canadians clearly will not be favorites in Nagano—and one reason is simply a generational aberration. Although the country still produces more than 60 per cent of the players in the NHL, its current leaders—Gretzky, Messier, Paul Coffey—will all be in their late-30s in 1998. Meanwhile, the best players on the challenging teams— Russia’s Pavel Bure, Alexander Mogilny and Sergei Fedorov, Sweden’s Peter Forsberg and Mats Sundin, and the Americans’ Mike Modano and Keith Tkachuk— are all still in their 20s. “In 1998, you have to wonder if Gretzky and Messier and those guys can be the key players for Canada,” says Harry Neale, the Hockey Night in Canada analyst. “One of these years, they have got to be too old.”

Not everyone is happy with hockey’s brave new world. In Europe, some national federations argue that the lure of NHL cash is stripping their leagues of their top players and making it impossible to sell the sport.

But the loudest cries have come from Canada, where fans are dubious about major changes to their game as it rushes into the United States. American sports culture, particularly as it is defined by advertising, celebrates superstars without much regard to team play. Gretzky, however, is not worried, saying that true hockey success—the Stanley Cup and international championships—can only be achieved through unselfishness. “In the dressing room,” he says, “there is a lot of peer pressure to check your ego at the door.” Fears of Americanization aside, there was much about the World Cup to suggest that hockey is still Canada’s game. The style of play employed by both teams is essentially the same one that teenagers learn in majorjunior leagues across Canada and refine in the NHL. Eschewing the Russians’ intricate offensive schemes and the Swedes’ neutralzone defence, both finalists played up-anddown, physical—at times vicious—hockey, charging the net for rebounds and deflections. ‘The Russians and Finns, they are technically very good,” said U.S. coach Ron Wilson. “But in North America, we are brought up with the drive and desire to win.” The results were spectacular. Game 1 in Philadelphia, in which Team U.S.A. scored

with only seven seconds left in regulation to force overtime, was played at a breakneck pace throughout and ended only when Steve Yzerman’s sharp-angled shot fooled the otherwise stellar Richter. In Game 2, Canada suffered a curious second-period malaise and fell behind 3-1 before launching a rivetting, all-out attack in the third period that was thwarted only by Richter and the goalposts. The result was in doubt until the final seconds when, with two empty-net

goals, the Americans prevailed 5-2.

The final game was heartstopping. The Canadians attacked constantly only to be thwarted—partly by their own mishandling of the puck but more by Richter, who was named the tournament’s most-valuable player. They overcame the early U.S. lead when Adam Foote scored late in the third period, but the team fell into a futile defensive shell, losing the momentum to the Americans. Goals by Hull, Tony Amonte and Darian Hatcher stunned the Canadians and left the packed Molson Centre crowd shellshocked and, for the first time all night, silent.

Whatever the international pecking order, hockey is still No. 1 for Canadian fans. Prior to Game 3, people without tickets jammed bars and restaurants near the the Molson Centre—locally called the Keg. And during the game, the crowd of 21,273 waved flags and signs, chanted CA-NA-DA and roared approvingly when the eight-screened scoreboard above centre ice showed highlights from past Team Canada victories. (By contrast, the scoreboard in Philadelphia during Game 1 of the final played advertisements.) Despite Quebec’s unrelenting unity debate, the Montreal crowd loudly sang O Canada even while waiting in line for beer in the concourse.

The reaction across the country was equally strong. CBC officials estimate that up to four million Canadian viewers tuned into the final game, more than for Donovan Bailey’s 100-m victory in Atlanta. Even the semifinal game between Canada and Sweden on Sept. 7 drew a peak of 2.6 million viewers during the second overtime, which was played after midnight in eastern and central regions. In Europe, the tournament got big play in major newspapers, even in soccer-dominated Germany after their team upset the heavily favored Czechs. ‘We surprised the media when we made it into the second round,” said German coach George Kingston, a Calgary resident. “I think people realized that was a pretty significant moment for German hockey.”

In the United States, Cup games were available only on cable to an estimated 50 million homes, but NHL executives were encouraged by the news coverage—there were more than 500 international accreditations. “In the 1991 Canada Cup, the same two teams were in the final and no one in the United States knew it,” says Steve Solomon, the NHL’s chief executive officer. “That is definitely not the case now.”

None of that mattered to Team Canada’s players, who sat slumped in a joyless dressing room after the decisive game. But written on the wall above the Canadian lockers were the famous words that for so many years have propelled Montreal Canadiens to victory: ‘To you with failing hands we throw the torch, be yours to hold it high.” Canadians will see how high in 1998.

JAMES DEACON