Larry Murphy played in four Stanley Cup finals and won them all. Starting with him on the blueline, you could probably form a team just with the Hall of Famers with whom he played over the course of his career. He played in the World Championship three times and the Canada Cup twice.
So when Murphy says the three-game final of the 1987 Canada Cup was the highest level at which the game has ever been played, you’re inclined to believe him. But all you had to do was watch those games – which culminated with Canada’s stirring 6-5 victory over the Soviet Union 30 years ago tonight – to know that. The only hockey event that even approaches it in my mind was the 2010 Winter Olympics and it’s a really close race between the two. But the tipping point for 1987 was that you had two of the greatest natural talents ever in Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux playing together at the apex of their talents. Add to that the fact that the Soviets were as powerful as they had ever been and were on the verge of breaking up with the NHL and the impending fall of Communism providing the wedge. And it was a different game, one that flourished prior to the Dead Puck Era™, one that was based more on speed and creativity than systems.
Within two years, the Soviets’ entire top unit of Sergei Makarov, Igor Larionov and Vladimir Krutov at forward and Slava Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov on defense would all be playing in the NHL with many more on that roster to follow. It was a chaotic, absolutely stunning spectacle to behold, with the Soviets taking the first game 6-5 in overtime in Montreal before Canada coming back with a 6-5 double overtime of its own in Game 2 in Hamilton. That set up the Game 3 dramatics that included the Gretzky to Lemieux goal with 1:26 remaining.
“It was kind of the last Good vs. Evil matchup, for lack of a better term. There were a lot of stories there,” Murphy said. “You didn’t know if there was ever going to be another opportunity and as it turns out there never was. So it was kind of like, ‘Which country is the king of hockey?’ It was a perfect storm for both teams to be that great.”
Murphy, who assisted on the overtime winner in Game 2 and was the trailer on the series clincher in Game 3, brings up a good point. The hockey world and the world itself started to change pretty rapidly after that. By the time the event was held again four years later, the Soviet Union was in turmoil and on the verge of collapse. It left a number of its top young players home for fear of defection. The Soviets went 1-3-1 and didn’t even make the playoff round.
In Game 1, the Soviets blew a 4-1 lead only to see Canada pull ahead on a goal by Gretzky with 1:59 remaining in the game, only to have the Soviets tie it 32 seconds later and win in overtime. Great stuff. In Game 3, the Soviets blew another early three-goal lead and Canada again coughed up a 5-4 lead in the third period before scoring one of the most famous goals in Canadian hockey history. But there are many, present company included, who believe that Game 2 of that final was the finest game of hockey ever played. This time it was Canada’s turn to blow a 3-1 lead, then gave up another late goal when Valeri Kamensky tied the game with a breathtaking end-to-end rush with 1:04 remaining. When Gretzky and Lemieux connected for a goal after more than 30 minutes of overtime, it gave Lemieux a hat trick and Gretzky five assists on the night.
“Best game I’ve ever played in,” Murphy said. “After losing the first game, I just remember there being a tremendous amount of pressure. In the overtime, one mistake and it would have been all over.”
All told, there were a mind-boggling 12 Hall of Famers on the Canadian team. But what made it so remarkable is that the Soviets were every bit Canada’s equal in the tournament. The two teams tied 3-3 in the round-robin portion of the tournament and were separated by one goal in the final.
“I think of that big line and how Krutov and Makarov used the full ice,” Murphy said. “I think of those two guys and I think of them going down the wings and I think of them switching sides and each of them going from one board to the other on a 2-on-2. I remember seeing that and I had never seen that sort of speed and creativity.”
And there’s a good chance we never will again.
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