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Gretzky, Lemieux, Messier, Coffey, Fuhr, all on the same team — in their prime. The greatest collection of hockey talent ever assembled, playing the games of their lives.
Three epic 6-5 contests between Canada and the Soviet Union decided the ’87 Canada Cup.
Canada evened the series, after the Soviets won Game 1, when Gretzky’s fifth assist of the game set up Lemieux’s hat trick, ending Game 2 in double overtime. Game 2 is widely considered one of the greatest hockey games ever played.
With time running out in Game 3, after Canada battled back from a 3-0 deficit, Team Canada coach Mike Keenan sent the Gretzky / Lemieux / Hawerchuk line on the ice for a faceoff in Canada’s end. The rest is history as Gretzky, Lemieux, and Larry Murphy rushed up the ice, Gretzky skating on the left wing, setting up Lemieux’s game-winner in the slot with 1:26 left in the game. Gretzky’s pass to Lemieux, followed by Lemieux’s goal, is one of the most memorable plays in hockey history.
Gretzky to Lemieux captures the on-ice drama that led to the historic three-game final, and the stories behind it. Ed Willes adds depth and weight to the games by revealing the rebellion among Soviet hockey stars in the early days of Glasnost and a crumbling Soviet Union; the trouble brewing for Alan Eagleson; the ascendancy of Mario Lemieux; and the end of the glorious Gretzky era in Edmonton.
Packed with interviews of players and coaches, Gretzky to Lemieux tells the full story of the greatest hockey ever played.
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Ed Willes started his journalism career in 1982 at The Medicine Hat News. After four years there, he moved to the Regina Leader Post, then to the Winnipeg Sun, where he was the hockey writer for eight years. In 1997—98, he worked as a freelancer out of Montreal and ended up writing for the New York Times. That summer he was offered the sports columnist job at the Vancouver Province, where he’s been ever since. He is the author of one critically acclaimed book, The Rebel League. He lives in North Vancouver, B.C.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
It is the final minute of the second period in Game 2 of the 1987 Canada Cup final and the Canadians and Soviets have been battling like Carthage and Rome for two hours. This game, the greatest hockey game ever played, will continue for two more hours, ending midway through the second overtime period when Wayne Gretzky sets up Mario Lemieux for his third goal of the game, giving Canada a 6—5 win and tying the series at one game apiece. Gretzky records five assists this night. Canada has forty-five scoring chances, the Soviets thirty-eight. Four times the Soviets fall behind and claw back to tie, but they can never get the go-ahead goal behind the unflappable Grant Fuhr in the Canadian net. Canada also plays the game with ten forwards, and head coach Mike Keenan will use twenty-nine different line combinations.
Gretzky calls the 1987 Canada Cup the greatest hockey of his career and this shift is a tiny, perfect microcosm of those glorious three nights in September. Gretzky has been sprung on a three-on-two rush courtesy of a surgical breakout pass from Paul Coffey. Lemieux is on his right. Michel Goulet is on his left. Defending for the Russians are Viacheslav Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov, the best blue line pairing in the world. As he gains the Russian zone, Gretzky, a left-handed shot, veers to his right, taking Fetisov with him, and everyone at Copps Coliseum is expecting a pass to Lemieux, including Lemieux, who’s scored on a textbook two-on-one with Gretzky just three minutes before. But, as Fetisov overplays to Lemieux’s side, Gretzky lays a no-look, backhand saucer pass to Goulet, who is all alone in front of Russian goalie Evgeny Belosheikin. The pass, made while Gretzky is moving at top speed, is so soft and delicate it almost melts into the ice. It also puts Goulet a shade too tight to the Russian goalie and Belosheikin, who will die by his own hand twelve years later, has no trouble making the save.
But the play is not over. The puck is scrambled out near the Russian blue line, where Russian star Vladimir Krutov is trying to gain clear possession. Gretzky re-materializes in front of him, steals the puck, then chips it past Kasatonov, who is about to head up-ice. Again, Gretzky is on the attack, with Lemieux on his right. Again, he drives toward Lemieux, taking the Russian defence and Belosheikin with him.
With all eyes on Gretzky, however, a whipped Goulet has limped to the Team Canada bench, where twenty-four-year-old Doug Gilmour leaps over the boards and charges into the play. This time Gretzky is on his forehand before he executes a slight pivot and leaves the puck for Gilmour, who is unchecked and looking at three-quarters of an empty net. The crowd is on its feet again. Gilmour fires, and, out of nowhere, Krutov frantically slides into Gilmour’s shooting lane and deflects the puck over the glass.
The whole sequence, from the moment Coffey starts the rush from behind the Team Canada net, takes twenty-five seconds in real time. At its conclusion, Gretzky hobbles to the Team Canada bench and leans over, spent. Lemieux slumps by the far post next to Belosheikin. The crowd at Copps is on its feet. To this point, they’ve already been up and down twenty times, saluting each highlight with a standing ovation. They will be on their feet twenty more times before the game finally ends at about one in the morning, after an exhausted Gretzky wets himself on the Team Canada bench, after Fuhr keeps Canada in the game and the series with an epic performance, after Gretzky sets up Lemieux for the game-winner and finally they float out of Copps only to return two nights later to a game that isn’t quite as artistic but is every bit as dramatic.
It’s now almost twenty years after the fact but this hockey still throbs with an energy so great it takes your breath away. Rick Tocchet, the Team Canada forward who will announce his presence to the game during the tournament, still has tapes of those Wnal three games that he watches when his conWdence needs boosting. “It still gives me tingles,” he says.
In Detroit, Igor Larionov, the magical Russian centreman who played on the greatest five-man unit the game has ever seen, still marvels at this tournament. “You can talk about the ’72 series,” Larionov says. “That was the first page of the history. But ’87 was like pure hockey. There were no systems. There were no traps. We just played wide-open, instinctive hockey. You can’t really say the Canadians won and the Russians lost. Hockey won in that series.”
Keenan, of course, isn’t quite as philosophical about the final outcome but even the veteran coach, who’s never been confused for the sensitive type, turns poetic as he recalls the series. “If Gary Bettman wants to change the face of hockey, someone should show him that series and tell him, ‘This is what we’re trying to achieve.’” Keenan says. “The speed, the cadence of what was happening at ice level was unbelievable. You didn’t have the time to be reflective while it’s going on. You had to be in the moment and even a little ahead of the moment. But sitting here in my office now I can say, ‘Wow, that was incredible.’”
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