Moscow, in the winter of 1987, was a dreary inhospitable place for the start of the annual Izvestia hockey tournament. The Soviet Union was wheezing towards its political end, and in the last days of the Communist era, there was little to recommend to visitors in December. Consumer goods were in short supply. Fresh food was limited and whenever it appeared – in markets, on unexpected street corners – long lines formed, so people could enjoy an orange or two for the Winter Solstice.
About the only ray of light was its hockey team, the menacing Big Red Machine, featuring the Green Unit – Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov, Vladimir Krutov, Slava Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov – all at the peaks of their respective careers. Three months earlier, they had been involved in a much-revered meeting of hockey’s royalty, the 1987 Canada Cup, which produced three remarkable 6-5 classics against arguably the best Canadian team ever assembled, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux still in their primes, future Hall Of Famers such as Dale Hawerchuk cast in supporting roles.
Now, some three months later, after the NHLers had all returned to their day jobs, the Soviets were hosting their annual Christmas tourney, the last major event on the international hockey calendar before the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.
Internationally, Canada was (and is) usually cast as Goliath in hockey competitions, but in this seminal event, played mostly in the Luzhniki Arena, home of Paul Henderson’s memorable 1972 goal in the Summit Series, they played the part of David, a heavy underdog.
But that team, cobbled together from NHL castoffs, holdouts and draftees, went in and knocked off the Soviets at home, the first Canadian team to win there since the final game in 1972.
It was Canada’s own Miracle On Ice, and it has been cast into the back pages of hockey history by two factors: One, there was no video evidence of the victory, no Team Canada rewind that can be replayed constantly on television; and two, that three months later, the Russians exacted their revenge by winning gold in Calgary.
“That was the only downside,” said coach Dave King, who celebrated his 40th birthday on the day Canada unexpectedly clinched the gold medal. “By winning there, we kind of blew our cover.”
It was an upset of massive proportions and it had the Soviets second-guessing their own approach. How could they lose to what was clearly a secondary Canadian team, with King as coach, two young future NHLers, Sean Burke in goal and Zarley Zalapski on defence, and an engaging cast of characters up front: Ken Berry, Marc Habscheid, Gord Sherven, Claude Vilgrain, Serge Boisvert, Cliff Ronning, Bob Joyce, Wally Schreiber and others, most of whom would go on to have journeymen careers as professionals.
Sadly, the framing of hockey history is mostly based on seeing an event live or on television – and that didn’t happen.
“It was played in a vacuum,” said forward Gord Sherven. “There was no footage. There was nothing. There are maybe a thousand people in Canada who know the real story.
“I had played in the Izvestia tournament twice before – in 1983 and 1986. In 1983, we lost 8-1 to the Russians and the only goal we scored was on a fluke. In ‘86, we won the silver. We lost 5-1, but we were certainly more confident and we knew how to play them. By ‘87, the next year, Dave King had us believing we could beat anyone by playing a team system.
“From my experience, from where we’d come in ‘83, I mean, it really was a miracle.”
Russian players are commonplace in the NHL and Moscow is among the most cosmopolitan cities in the world now. But a quarter of a century ago, it was a completely different experience. Visiting hockey teams were deposited in the Sport Hotel, where cockroaches flourished, and you had a choice of two when it came to rooms: Either the temperature was unbearably hot (about 35C) or there was no heat at all. Food? Awful. That year, Schreiber’s food poisoning was so bad, he had to skip a couple of early games in the tournament.
“It was a different era altogether,” said King, who later went on to become the first Canadian ever to coach in Russia. “In those days, not only did you have to beat a pretty good hockey club, but you had to endure some difficult conditions – because this was old Soviet Russia and everything was very spartan.”