Burke played with Russians during his NHL career and coached a Russian goalie, Ilya Bryzgalov in Phoenix, but back then, the Russian players were shrouded in mystery.
“There was no interaction between you and the other team, either before or after the game,” said Burke. “We looked at them as this robotic group of guys that were almost like machines. There was no expression on their faces – and the whole country felt that way.
“You had to peel back a lot of layers before you could get anything out of the Russian people. It was just totally different from everything we were used to and it was definitely an intimidating feeling, playing against those teams.
“It wasn’t just another country, it was another world almost. There was a smell in the building. They served tea in between periods. Everything was just so different.”
Within the Soviet Union, the Izvestia tournament was viewed as vitally important. It was played in a round-robin format, meaning the team with the best record at the end would win gold.
Canada was there to prep for the Olympics and began modestly, splitting its first two games. Almost singlehandedly, Sean Burke won the opener against Sweden which was played in a secondary venue, the Olympic arena, which had hosted gymnastics during the 1980 Summer Olympics and had been partitioned in half for the game.
Midway through the game, in which Sweden would hold a 40-14 edge in shots, the event on the other side of the partition began – a Uriah Heep concert. Heavy-metal music filtered through the divide, the unlikely soundtrack to that victory. King chose Andy Moog in to play the next game, a tight loss to Czechoslovakia, which set the stage for their match against a Soviet team still smarting from the narrow Canada Cup loss.
Canada had one advantage that night. The Soviets were trying to sort out their goaltending in advance of the Olympics. Sergei Mylnikov played for them in the 1987 Canada Cup and wasn’t great, so Tikhonov wanted to look at a rising young talent, Evgeni Beloshieken. But Beloshieken had had a poor outing against the Czechs, so Tikhonov switched to Vitaly Samoylov against Canada.
Nothing seemed amiss in the early going, as the Russians jumped out to an early 2-0 lead on goals by Sergei Svetlov and Larionov before Schreiber got one back before the end of the second period.
Then, early in the third, with Burke keeping Canada in it, Berry drifted in a long shot from the blue line that stunned the players and the crowd, tying the game at two. Five minutes later, in one of the few times Canada was able to exit their own zone, Ronning found Berry open at the side of the net and he tucked it in for the go-ahead goal. There was 11:11 to go in regulation.
“What I remember most about playing the Russians is being very, very aware that if we didn’t play extremely well, we could be embarrassed because of how good they were,” said Burke. “There was a real fear when you stepped on the ice and it brought the team together.
“But in that game, you could just feel our confidence growing as the game moved along. I knew we were going to have to hang on to win, but at some point, early in the third period, I remember thinking, ‘you know what? We can win this game.”
According to Sherven, Berry’s tying goal from long range “changed the game. You could just sense the trust in their goaltending wasn’t there anymore.”
King remembered it that way too.
“The Russians, they dialed it up late in that game,” said King. “There was no sweat in the first half. I think they were thinking, ‘we’ll get this done here, we’ll wear them down, it’s just a matter of time.’ But we hung in there. Burkie made a save every so often that should have been a goal to keep us in it and then all of a sudden, to watch the Russians in the last period, about five, six, seven minutes into the period, see them start to panic. To see Tikhonov, on the bench, start to get angry. To watch all the players push individually, but maybe not as collectively as they normally are.