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.”
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.
“Because there was always this thing – that their guys were like machines. So for me, it was the realization: ‘Hey, these guys are pretty normal. They’re just like we are when they start to lose.’ There are a few antics on the bench. There are a few problems on the ice. Everybody’s shrugging their shoulders and complaining to each other as they’re coming off. Watching them come unglued a like that – the human way to lose – was kinda neat.”
Vilgrain said that he was never more exhausted before or after a game than he was that day.
“The year before, when we played them, I wanted to ask the ref for a second puck because they wouldn’t let us touch the one they were playing with,” said Vilgrain. “But Sean Burke was unbelievable and we were blocking shots like crazy because we knew we were so close. When we won, we were so tired, even in the dressing room afterward, we just sat there. It was so quiet, so surreal. We knew we’d accomplished something unbelievable.
“The Izvestia was very important to the Russians and a lot of the fans went home mad. They whistled their team off the ice. They were so sure they were going to go on to win that they didn’t have the Canadian national anthem ready to play. So they played the Russian anthem instead.”
But even after that monumental victory, the tournament wasn’t over. Because of its round-robin format, Canada needed wins over Germany and Finland to win it all. King was only too aware that there could be a letdown after such an emotional win.
“The Russians had no respect for us and the Germans had total respect,” said King. “They just backed up and backed up. It was a tough game to play.”
Canada did just squeak past the Germans 2-1, leaving them in control of their own destiny.
On the night before the Finnish game, with their departure from Russia in sight, Sherven wanted to do what Canadian players of that era often did – exchange blue jeans and athletic gear on the black market for Russian souvenirs such as stacking dolls, champagne and caviar. He and defenceman Randy Gregg had been approached by a couple of Russians, who wanted to meet them outside, at night, in the parking lot behind the Sport Hotel. Sherven wanted to be prepared in case they had something to celebrate after the game against the Finns, so he planned to smuggle in some champagne in his hockey bag.
“It’s minus 30 outside,” said Sherven. “There’s frost on the windows of this little Lada, so you can’t see out the front. We got in, Randy Gregg in front, me in the back between two Russian guys. All of them were smoking, so the driver had the window rolled down. All of sudden, they started chattering because they could see shadows coming. It was the police, the KGB or something, so the driver throws it into gear and takes off, spinning in the parking lot on the ice. Randy and I were like, ‘holy s***.’ “This guy, the policeman grabbed onto the window that was open and we’re dragging him around the parking lot until he finally let go. They drive about two, three miles and park behind some apartment building and I’m thinking, ‘this is the end of us.’ Randy, his red hair was standing up on the back of his neck. But no, we made the exchange and they brought us back and it all was good.”
Sherven scored the first goal against the Finns and Vilgrain the insurance goal in what ended as a routine 4-1 win. In the dressing room afterward, Sherven popped open his bottle of champagne and managed to spray most of it up his nose. It’s what comes from not being used to celebratory moments.
King tried hard to downplay the win, by noting that they were the Canadian Olympic team, not the Canadian Izvestia team, and in some ways, he was probably right. By the time the Russians came over to Calgary to start the ‘88 Olympics, they’d lost yet another game to the Canadians – in Saskatoon, in the final pre-Olympic exhibition. Any element of surprise that the Canadians might have had evaporated there, in the mists of Luzhniki.
“Still, it was a special moment,” said Sherven. “We flew back to Canada right after the Finnish game. It was Christmas and right after, we were back on the road for an eight-game tour across Canada, so we never really had a chance to celebrate it. I remember landing in Toronto, and there was Alan Eagleson, wanting to be right in the middle of it all. That’s what ended up on the front page the next day – Eagleson, with the Izvestia trophy, which wasn’t even a trophy really, it was a clock or something.”
Burke, meanwhile, won the tournament MVP, which garnered him a fragile porcelain snowman – about three feet in length – that his sister stores for him in Toronto. On the flight home, Burke had an aisle seat – and the snowman was buckled in the middle, a seatbelt fastened around its waist.
“I moved around a few times and I didn’t want to have it get lost or broken, so it’s at her house and she keeps saying, someday when she comes out, she’ll give it to me,” said Burke. “The individual honors are great, you don’t forget them, but the feeling of any championship, in the end, it’s the guys you played with that you remember.
“And Dave King – he was like a second father to me and I’m still working with him after all these years. He was, to me, the biggest reason we were able to compete against those teams. We weren’t as talented, but we always had a chance with Dave because we were prepared.”
King still follows Russian hockey closely and during the 2005-06 season, when he was coaching Metallurg Magnitogorsk, caught up with Tikhonov during a trip to Moscow.
“That was an interesting time for the Russians,” said King. “A lot of the players had played so long for Tikhonov that his approaching was starting to wear thin. But when I talked to Tikhonov in Russia when I coached there, he told me his ‘88 team was his best team. He thought more players were in their prime than at any other time. So in his mind, when you have the most players in their prime, that’s your best team – and that makes sense.
“For us, it was a significant win. It just showed the Canadian mentality – a team that was overshadowed and outplayed territorially that did everything in its power to win.”