The Top Shelf
Gretzky to Lemieux: The Story of the 1987 Canada Cup
McLelland and Stewart
In the town that I live in, I frequently talk some hockey with one of the young fellows who run the family news stand here.
One day our conversation turned to a discussion about the 87 Canada Cup, well, it turns out that I did most of the talking, as he had scant knowledge of that mighty battle in the famous Canada - Soviet Hockey Wars.
Now he comes by his lack of knowledge honestly, he probably wasn’t more than five or six years old at the time of that exciting hockey from Copps coliseum, so he’s excused for his lack of the moment.
But, if he wants to catch up to those of us that lived those fascinating moments of shinny, he needs to pick up a copy of Ed Willes latest book, Gretzky to Lemieux: The Story of the 1987 Canada Cup.
It’s a study of that magical 3 game series, which featured some of the most electrifying moments that the game has seen. A time when hockey was played at a most remarkable pace, the players both Canadian and Russian at the peak of their excellence.
The names roll off the pages like a Hall of Fame roster call.
There were Gretzky, Lemieux, Messier, Goulet, Gilmour, Coffey and Fuhr, icons of that era of North American hockey.
From the Red machine came the fearsome Fetisov, Larionov, Krutov and Makarov, names then only a curiosity to Canadians, but ones that were soon to be household names around the rinks of North America.
When I last finished off an Ed Willes book, it was after a wild journey through the fascinating world of the World Hockey Association. That book, The Rebel League travelled around the rinks of that rag tag league that brought the NHL to its knees in the late seventies, changing the more established league forever.
It was a display of hockey not known for its artistic touches, steeped in an era of hockey brutality and questionable characters. Sprinkled with many talented players who must have wondered what they had skated into.
A Blue collar league that highlighted the physical and violent aspect of the game at times, it was a great read about a historical time for the game.
So if that book was closer to the accounts of a Beer league on steroids, then Gretzky to Lemieux is more like a trip to the Bolshoi Ballet.
An examination of a game played in a physical manner but one that highlighted the artistic high bar that the league today can’t seem to get even close to.
Willes recounts the landscape of the NHL at the time, one of imminent change that few would see coming. From the break up of the Oilers to the downfall of Alan Eagleson all of the components for that turbulent time seemed to be forming like thunder clouds during this series.
We learn of the new names like Lemieux, Hawerchuck and Gilmour players that would soon begin to dominate the NHL season, and Willes examines the rise of Iron Mike as a coach, chronicling the famed aloofness that Keenan brought to the International arena.
The preamble to the series is full of characters and events.
From controversial selections and back room disputes, Team Canada would take shape and prepare to do battle once again with a much respected opponent. Those that survived the cut and prepared for the Russians had one thing in common as they took to the ice each day, a hatred of their coach.
It was a loathing that went so far as to have two high profile players (held anonymous to this day) approach Eagleson to have Keenan fired.
Into this mix Canada set out to capture Eagleson’s baby, the Canada Cup.
Once the series was underway, the turbulence over the coach eased. While Mark Messier acted as a peace broker between the percolating players and their mercurial coach who was becoming known by his moniker of Iron Mike.
If things were a tad anxious on the Canadian bench, life for the Russians wasn’t much different.
The Original Iron coach of hockey, Viktor Thikinov at 60, was still the Iron fist on the Russian bench.
A system chafing at the rigid structure still in place and Willes shows us the chinks in their system that would soon change quite dramatically.
It would be one of the final tournaments for the famed KLM line, one of the last moments before the soon to come Russian wave of players would eventually land on North American shores.
Part feared; part mysterious, but always talented they were the heroes of a hockey machine that had kept Canadians intrigued for years.
The book outlines the inner frictions of those teams and how the Soviet grip was coming to an end like at no other time as the 87 series got underway.
The tale of Wayne Gretzky as the Henry Kissinger of hockey gets a telling, as the Canadian icon shows his fascination with the members of the Soviet squad, hosting a Canadian style BBQ for a few of the Russians prior to the first match.
While Gretkzy was working his version of Glasnost with the Russians, another familiar name in Canadian hockey was keeping his name in the spotlight. Alan Eagleson would find that this Canada Cup would prove to be the moment when the move to investigate his behind the scenes events in hockey first began to gain movement.
It’s that underlying drift in which the most exciting of three game finals would eventually take place.
The pivotal game two is covered in full detail, including the key moment that the series was won, making Game three a showdown for the hockey ages.
Game 2 has been called one of the most exciting games Canada has ever played in International hockey, a bold claim, but one Willes backs up with much documentation.
The Mario and Gretzky combo was a continuation of that long time tradition of the veteran taking the youngster under his wing. At 21 Mario would credit the series as turning his career around.
As the final moments of Game three countdown, Willes takes us to the magical last minutes, where perhaps some of the most exciting hockey ever played took place.
Using famed broadcaster Dan Kelly’s call to frame his recreation, one of the most documented of Canadian goals takes place.
Gretzky sends the pass to make history to Lemieux, who makes no mistake with his shot for the win. A hard fought and sometimes frantic display of hockey that left everyone spent by the time the crowd left Copps coliseum.
From the conclusion of the series we learn of the changing landscape of both the NHL and the Russian system, as the first cracks in the Oiler dynasty begin to appear.
First there is Paul Coffey holding out for a better deal and eventually finding himself traded to Pittsburgh, that was followed by the high drama of the Gretzky trade an event that shocked the entire nation and changed the nature of hockey, as Oilers suddenly became nothing more than Peter Pocklington poker chips.
Four years later Messier, Anderson, Fuhr are all gone and the Oilers dynasty is no more.
Gretzky features in another major milestone in the NHL, as a conversation with a Boston area writer named Russ Conway would become the catalyst for a ground breaking examination of Alan Eagleson and his running of the NHLPA.
Conway’s newspaper articles would be turned into a book called Game Misconduct and eventually become a major bit of research for the subsequent trial of Eagleson. An investigation that eventually would ground the Eagle.
By 1991, he was a caged one as well serving time in an Ontario prison with his days as a union leader now behind him.
Revolution was brewing in Russia as well, as the Russian players became tired of their autocratic system.
As Willes winds down the highly entertaining recollection of the seismic shifts in hockey he details how the Russian players fought for and eventually won their releases and headed for North America.
But freedom did not come without struggles, threats, lies and blackmail.
Willes points to 1989 when Alexander Mogilny shocked Russian hockey and disappeared at the World Junior championships in Anchorage, eventually to surface in Buffalo. The first of the new generation of Russian stars to leave for other skating ponds.
We learn of the struggles of the first wave of Russians to adapt to the North American game, having spent much of their energy in the service of Russia there was little left in their tanks by the time they arrived in the NHL.
The Stanley Cup plays a pivotal role as well in the changes in Russian hockey, during a Russian tour with the Cup by the Russian members of the Stanley Cup Red wings, the Cup is showcased to a fascinated public, but one person is conspicuous by his absence.
Viktor Thikinov, was still of the belief that the exodus of his prized students was nothing less than desertion. It would be a belief that would take a long time to be exorcised from his soul.
The book wraps up in 2006 with a group of NHLer’s squaring off on Red Square with generations of the famed Russian teams.
It’s a magical one time game of shinny that seems to have celebrated the game of hockey, much like an amazing series did in 1987.
You can check out the official McClelland and Stewart web page listing for the book here.