In honor of the 25th anniversary of the 1991 Canada Cup, let’s refresh our memories by looking back at five of the biggest stories.
As we finally say goodbye to hockey’s least interesting month, fans are turning their attention toward next month’s World Cup. We’re just a few weeks away from players hitting the ice for a rare best-on-best international tournament (kind of). It’s going to be lots of fun.
The World Cup, of course, is a direct descendent of the Canada Cup, a tournament that started in 1976 and ran every three-to-five years until being rebranded in 1996. The last tournament to carry the Canada Cup name came in 1991 – and it kicked off with the opening of the round robin games 25 years ago Wednesday.
The 1991 Canada Cup had an almost impossible act to follow, coming four years after the 1987 edition that many consider the greatest international tournament ever played. So maybe it’s not surprising that 1991, while entertaining, never really resonated with hockey fans in the same way that previous versions had. We all remember Gretzky-to-Lemieux, but 1991 sort of blends into the background with other tournaments.
So today, in honor of the 25th anniversary of the opening games, let’s refresh our memories by looking back at five of the biggest stories from the 1991 Canada Cup.
Spoiler alert: Canada wins
We might as well cut through the suspense and begin at the end. This edition of the Canada Cup ended the way almost all of them did: with Canada taking home the title. The home team swept Team USA in a two-game final to win the tournament for the third straight time and fourth out of five overall (the Soviets won in 1981).
That win wasn’t exactly an upset, given the strength of the Canadian roster. They were missing some big names, with Mario Lemieux out with a back injury, Steve Yzerman cut by Mike Keenan yet again, and Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy, Ray Bourque and Cam Neely also absent. But the roster was still stacked, featuring in-their-prime stars like Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Scott Stevens.
Canada got off to a slow start, managing just a 2-2 tie against Finland in the opening game. But they heated up from there, finishing the round robin undefeated and then knocking off Sweden in the semi-final to set up a showdown with the Americans. More on that in a second.
The biggest story on the Canadian roster was a rookie
Given how much talent was packed onto Team Canada, it seems odd to say that the roster’s biggest attraction may have been a teenager who’d never played an NHL game. But when you’re talking about Eric Lindros in 1991, all the usual rules kind of go out the window.
Lindros was fresh off of being taken by the Nordiques with the first overall pick in the draft. He refused to sign with the team, and was adamant that he’d never do so. There was still some skepticism lingering over whether he’d actually follow through on that threat, but it’s fair to say that he was already a controversial figure by the time the tournament rolled around.
That didn’t stop Keenan from putting him on the team, and the hockey world got their first look at Lindros against NHL-caliber talent. He didn’t disappoint, making an impact early on – literally. He crushed Swedish defenseman Ulf Samuelsson and Czechoslovakian winger Martin Rucinsky with clean hits, knocking both out of the tournament.
Lindros finished the tournament with three goals and five points in eight games, before heading back to junior to make good on his promise to never play for Quebec.
The tournament signaled a changing of the guard
While Canada’s eventual win was par for the course, the 1991 tournament ended up representing a shift in hockey’s international order. For decades, it had been Canada and the Soviets battling for the title of the world’s top hockey nation, with teams like Sweden or Czechoslovakia occasionally contending. Finland had rarely been especially competitive, while the USA was considered a future powerhouse who’d yet to truly arrive.
By 1991, much of that had begun to shift, thanks in no small part to political turmoil in Europe. The Czechoslovakians had a disappointing tournament, finish last with a 1-4-0 record, and Sweden won just twice. Meanwhile, Finland had its best showing ever, adding a pair of round robin wins to its surprise tie with Canada before bowing out in the semi-finals. And the Americans sent what was widely considered their best team ever, one highlighted by young stars like Brian Leetch, Brett Hull and Jeremy Roenick. Their appearance in the final was their first ever in a best-on-best tournament.
As for those Soviets, well, their performance probably warrants its own section.
The Soviets bombed out badly
Throughout Canada Cup history, the Soviet Union had almost always played a starring role. After all, the entire tournament had essentially been created to continue the momentum of the legendary 1972 Summit Series. The Soviets pasted Canada to win the 1981 edition, been part of that thrilling 1987 final, and run the table in 1984 before losing a semi-final upset to Canada thanks to Paul Coffey’s memorable poke check.
But by 1991, the national program was in tatters thanks to a changing international hockey landscape and ongoing turmoil at home. At one point, there were questions about the Soviets’ ability to participate in the tournament at all, and they ended up sending a relatively weak team that excluded names like Pavel Bure, Alexander Mogilny and Vladimir Konstantinov. (In some cases, players were allegedly left off the team because coach Viktor Tikhonov suspected they might try to defect.)
The Soviets dropped their first two games and ended up winning just one game in the round robin. They salvaged some pride with a 3-3 tie against Canada in their final game, but missed the playoff round in what was their worst ever showing in a major international tournament.
The event was the final appearance of a Soviet Union team; they competed as the Unified Nation at the 1992 Olympics before passing the mantle to the Russian Hockey Federation in 1993.
That Canada/USA final was perhaps best remembered for a cheap shot
By the time the final matchup between Canada and the U.S. had been set, the storyline seemed clear. You had the dominant favorite taking on the scrappy underdog, in a battle that pitted a modern hockey powerhouse against what many viewed as its inevitable replacement.
But that story was quickly overshadowed after a controversial moment in the opening game. Team USA defenseman Gary Suter plastered Gretzky into the end boards on an unpenalized hit from behind that knocked the Canadian star out of the tournament. The hit left Team Canada furious, and made Suter the country’s most-hated villain (a role he reclaimed years later when he knocked Paul Kariya out of the 1998 Olympics).
Ultimately, Gretzky’s absence didn’t slow Canada down. It won the opening game 4-1, then took the second game by a 4-2 final thanks to Steve Larmer’s short-handed goal midway through the third. Gretzky finished as the tournament’s leading scorer, and goaltender Bill Ranford was named tournament MVP.
The two nations kept that bad blood simmering five years later, as the Americans earned their revenge by beating Canada to capture the title in 1996. Of course by then, the Canada Cup was no more, replaced by the more inclusively named World Cup.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008, most recently for ESPN and Grantland. He spends most of his time making jokes on twitter, where you may know him as @downgoesbrown. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.