MONTREAL – Gretzky, Fetisov, Kurri, Lemieux, Larionov—all on the ice at once for some of the best hockey ever played.
Marcel Aubut still hears about the time he turned the NHL all-star game into an international extravaganza.
The former president of the Quebec Nordiques was the driving force behind Rendez-vous 87, a two-game series between the NHL’s best players and the Soviet national team, which replaced the traditional all-star game 25 years ago.
An NHL squad led by Wayne Gretzky and several of his Edmonton Oilers teammates won the first game 4-3 on Feb. 11, 1987. The Soviet Union, headed by Viacheslav Fetisov, Igor Larionov and especially eye-catching youngster Valeri Kamensky, took the rematch 5-3 two days later.
But there was more than high-level hockey.
There were celebrities, politics, gala dinners and shows by the Bolshoi Ballet and the Red Army Choir, all amid the backdrop of Quebec City’s annual winter carnival.
“It was absolutely audacious, a bit crazy,” Aubut recalled this week. “But I said, ‘Let’s do it.’
“What I like the most is every all-star game I go to now they say ‘Hey Marcel, we hope for another Rendez-vous one day.’ It doesn’t die. It will never die. Even the young people know about the event.”
The Montreal lawyer, now the president of the Canadian Olympic Association, even managed to buy control of the event away from Alan Eagleson, the now-disgraced former head of the NHL Players Association. Eagleson was the tsar of international hockey that involved NHL players in those days.
That gave Aubut a free hand to do it all in his own blustery, over-the-top way. He pulled it off to near perfection while turning a tidy $2 million profit that went to charity.
What made Rendez-vous 87 unique on the Quebec Colisee ice was that unlike the 1972 Summit series between Canada and the Soviet Union, or Eagleson’s Canada Cup tournaments, this one did not pit country against country.
The NHL team was heavily Canadian, starting with superstars Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, but it also had Swedes Ulf Samuelsson and Tomas Sandstrom, Finns Jari Kurri and Esa Tikkanen and Americans Rod Langway and Chris Chelios.
Their advantage was playing before a home crowd on an NHL-size rink.
The Soviets’ edge was that they played together as a team for most of the year, unlike the NHL squad that was a mix of players from around the league (although it had six Oilers and would have had seven if Paul Coffey was healthy).
Gretzky centred Oilers teammates Tikkanen and Kurri, while the first power play had Gretzky with Mark Messier and Dale Hawerchuk, with Ray Bourque and Doug Wilson on the points. The Soviets countered with the high-speed line of Larionov, Sergei Makarov and Vladimir Krutov.
Game 1 had a Russian referee, Sergei Morozov, who called only one penalty (for too many men on the ice) against the Soviets and four against the NHL.
But Gretzky set up Kurri and Lemieux fed Glen Anderson for a 2-0 lead before the Soviets answered back through Alexei Kasatonov and Viacheslav Bykov. Kevin Dineen and Anatoli Semenov traded goals before Dave Poulin got the game-winner on a feed from Lemieux with 1:15 left in the game.
The second game, with Canadian ref Dave Newell, saw Messier score on a power play 3:22 in, but the Soviets dominated the second frame as 20-year-old Kamesky, who would later play for the Nordiques, put a mark on his international debut with two goals, while Krutov got the other.
Coach Jean Perron’s team got one back from Wilson, but Semenov scored and Kamensky fed Andrei Khomutov to put it out of reach before Bourque answered with a late effort.
Gretzky was the NHL’s MVP and got a car. Kamensky was named the Soviet’s top player and got a stereo. The Soviets were reportedly paid $80,000, while the NHL got $350,000 for the players’ pension fund.
The hockey was superb and was played at a pace that was a level up from regular season NHL fare. Goalies Evgeny Belosheikin and Grant Fuhr took turns making brilliant saves.
After trading jerseys on the ice with Fetisov, Gretzky said he had never experienced such a high pace and called for the NHL to enter more international events.
Technically, the Soviets won the series 8-7 on aggregate, but Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov said: “The NHL didn’t win and neither did we. The person that won was hockey itself.”
He called it: “Two of the greatest hockey games you’ll ever see.”
The Summit Series had broken the ice between the NHL and the Soviet Union and Eagleson was quick to cash in on the interest that created by staging Canada Cup tournaments in 1976, 1981, 1984 and, only six months after Rendez-vous, in 1987. The last Canada Cup was in 1991.
The NHL took over by organizing World Cup tournaments in 1996 and 2004, but with their players already taking part in Winter Olympics since Nagano in 1998, the World Cup quietly died away.
Rendez-vous 87 was special in its own way largely because of the big-time spectacle its organizers created. Top chefs from around the world put on lavish and expensive dinners. There was a show by a Soviet rock group called Autograph. Aubut said former Chysler boss Lee Iaccoco gave “his best speech ever” that week in Quebec City.
The event had its own mascot and a theme song composed by Canadian David Foster.
It took two years and $8.5 million to organize, but paid for itself by taking in about $11 million.
When he won the rights to the 1987 all-star game, Aubut approached NHL president John Ziegler about bringing in the Soviets and was directed to Eagleson.
“We decided to do something that it would be big enough to get the attention of the whole world,” Aubut said. “Not just hockey games. Bigger than that.”
He recalled Eagleson being quoted in newspapers saying Rendez-vous would flop, but Aubut still needed his blessing to get the NHL and Soviets to participate.
“When I went to see Alan, he’s my friend, and I said ‘I’ll make a deal with you,” Aubut said. “I’m going to buy with cash money all the rights you have. All the tickets, everything. Then you’re sure to make your money.’ I can’t remember the amount. I found the money and I paid him and he released us. From that day, he had nothing to say in the organization.
“One month before, when they saw it was going to be the event of the century, they all wanted tickets, and we said there are no tickets (left). He was frustrated as hell. Probably if you asked Alan today what was the deal you regret most in your life, he’s going to mention selling to Marcel as number one.”
The Soviet Union was waning at the time and would break up for good four years later. Leader Mikhail Gorbachev was opening relations with the west. Russian and other Soviet players would be playing in the NHL in only a few years.
But it was still the Soviet Union. Still a mysterious place for North Americans.
Aubut said and former Prime Minister Joe Clark met Eduard Shevernadze in Canada and he had a second meeting in Moscow with the Soviet foreign minister, who would later be president of the Republic of Georgia, to secure Soviet involvement.
The deal was sealed, but then came logistical problems. The Soviet entourage, including hockey players, singers, dancers and chefs, were to be picked up in London and Paris by Air Canada, but were refused permission to land because they arrived on military planes.
“Fortunately, the chairman of the whole Rendez-vous was Brian Mulroney, the Prime Minister, and he really helped me to arrange it,” said Aubut. “They came back with an Aeroflot plane. Air Canada sent two new planes to pick them up and they arrived on time.”
There were complaints at the time that everything was too expensive for the average fan and that the series overwhelmed the carnival, but Aubut said it was all worth it.
He called it the biggest event ever to hit the city.
“I would say it’s number one, modestly said,” Aubut said. “I don’t think there’s been anything that brought such attention to the world, because it was not only hockey fans.
“It was also because of the timing and about peace and communism and the Cold War and everything. That’s why it became so huge. Nothing (bigger) happened in Quebec City since. Nothing happened even close in the NHL as far as the magnitude of the event.”
Aubut claims it even did it’s part to promote world peace.
“I think we changed partly the world,” he said. “The precedent we created changed the whole world.
“That was the goal of Rendez-vous. Peace. The U.S. with the Soviet Union sitting down for cocktails and dinner all over the place. We were the reason for that. Canada brought them together. It was lots more than two hockey games.”