The three-game final of the 1987 Canada Cup is widely regarded as the greatest hockey series ever.
Team Canada featured 12 future Hall of Famers, including all-timers Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux at or near their peaks. The Soviet Union was just as strong, with the venerable Green Unit of Slava Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov on defence and Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov up front.
It was the last best-on-best matchup between the two hockey powers before the collapse of Soviet communism — “the last hurrah for good versus evil” as defenceman Larry Murphy puts it — and it brought a legitimate hatred to the ice. It also ended with one of the most famous goals in Canadian hockey history: Lemieux’s wrister over the glove of Sergei Mylnikov after a pass from Gretzky.
On the 30th anniversary, players from both sides shared their memories about the series, the goal and the tournament’s legacy. The common refrain: This was hockey at its best.
Canada and the Soviet Union reached the final following semifinal wins over Czechoslovakia and Sweden, respectively. Coming off a 3-3 tie in their round-robin matchup, plus battles in the 1984 and 1981 tournaments, each team was well aware of its opponent.
Paul Coffey, Defence, Canada In the ’84 Canada Cup, I remember sitting there with Charlie Huddy, the old defenceman in Edmonton. He was on the team and we were at a morning skate, watching the Russians warm up. We both looked at each other and said, “We are going to get killed.”
Valeri Kamensky, Left Wing, Soviet Union In 1987, I think we bring all the best players. Canada play against us same way. If you see the names, it’s the best players this time.
Wayne Gretzky, Centre, Canada I played against them a lot and, to me, that was the best team that I played against. The KLM line was in the prime of their careers.
Grant Fuhr, Goaltender, Canada They played a little different brand of hockey. They seemed to wait for the perfect chance. Just because they had an open shot, didn’t mean they would take it. You had to learn to be a little more patient.
Yuri Khmylev, Centre, Soviet Union They understand the game. And they feed to each other. They know where they’re going to be — Makarov or Krutov. Larionov; great centreman. Such a smart player. When you have so much skill, I guess it’s easy to play, you know?
Coffey These guys are unbelievable — so skilled. But you can’t discount that we, being the Canadians, played the same way — and a little grittier.
The Soviet Union took the first game 6-5 on the strength of an overtime goal from Alexander Semak.
Gretzky We came off such an emotionally tough Game 1 loss. We lost by one goal in Montreal and our back was against the wall in Game 2.
Khmylev We were confident, but we knew it’s not over. We knew that Canada would try to win these two games. We were confident, but not overconfident.
The series shifted to Hamilton for Game 2 with Canada needing a win.
Gretzky We were all a little disappointed we weren’t playing at Maple Leaf Gardens the final two games because that was the Shangri-La for all of us. But, as it turned out, the atmosphere and enthusiasm at Copps Coliseum was probably as good as it ever was for any international event that Canada’s ever hosted.
The Canadians got off to a good start, taking a 3-1 lead into the first intermission, a tally that included a goal by young left-winger, Doug Gilmour.
Doug Gilmour, Left Wing, Canada First off, I was in the penalty box so I probably wasn’t going to get another shift if they would have scored [laughs]. I got out of the penalty box and [Canadian defenceman] Normand Rochefort went down and Gretz was on the ice, too. He passed it and I scored.
Coffey That team was a team from Day 1. Everybody got along. Everybody knew their roles. [Rick] Tocchet was a checker. Doug Gilmour was a checker. These guys are not checkers on their teams. Dale Hawerchuk was a checker because we were so strong down the middle.
Gilmour I didn’t know if I was gonna make the team going in there. The last cut was Dave Poulin or I. At the time, Dave Poulin was the captain of the Philadelphia Flyers. Guess who their coach was? [Editor’s Note: Flyers coach Mike Keenan was the head coach of Team Canada.] For some reason, they picked me. Being 24 years old, I’m in awe of the talent that was there.
With the clock ticking down in the third and Canada up by one Kamensky’s sixth goal of the tournament, a beautiful individual effort with 1:04 left, extended the affair.
Kamensky I was a young guy. Probably the first time for a tournament like Canada Cup ’87. I see all these famous players. I see the best hockey, I think, in my life. I want to play the best. I was so nervous.
Gretzky and Lemieux became regular linemates, and the Penguins star netted his hat-trick goal in double overtime on Gretzky’s fifth assist of the night to give Canada the 6-5 win and tie the series.
Fuhr I saw a lot of 6-5 games in Edmonton. It wasn’t a far change from the way we played. It was good hockey. You’re going to give up some goals in games like that. But you also know your team’s going to score some goals in games like that. It’s something that I was used to seeing.
Gretzky Maybe one of the most exciting international games ever played was Game 2. But that came at the expense of a lot of guys that played a lot of minutes because it was double overtime — myself, Mario, [Mark] Messier, Coffey, Ray Bourque had a ton of ice time. The games back then didn’t start until about 8:15. I believe Game 2 didn’t end until about 1:30 in the morning. [Editor’s Note: The game ended at 12:32 a.m.] I was staying at my folks’ house in Brantford during the tournament when we were in Hamilton. I remember ordering pizza and my dad and I having pizza. My gosh, I don’t think I got to sleep until 4 or 4:30 at the house. Everybody was obviously groggy [laughs] and physically tired to say the least — and mentally drained because the emotions were so high. At that point in time, some of us were physically and mentally spent.
It showed at the start of Game 3.
Coffey We were down 3-0 before people were in their seats. The Russians just came out hard.
Fuhr Once you’re down 3-0, you know you can’t make any more mistakes. That’s the biggest thing. At 3-0, you realize you still have a chance. At 4-0, maybe not so much.
Coffey That’s a credit to Mike Keenan for reacting as a coach, not doing for what he’s famous for doing, which is pulling his goalie. He kept Grant Fuhr in there. Nothing fazes Grant Fuhr. That’s what makes him a Hall of Famer and a top-100 player of all time. A lot of goalies would be devastated and wouldn’t know how to battle through. Mike had the patience to keep him in there.
Fuhr The fact that Mike trusted me to play all the games — one, that’s always a good feeling; but two, it also helps you get ready for the season.
Larry Murphy, Defence, Canada The good thing was that it was early in the game. He felt that we had the pieces, we had the players, we had the ability to get ourselves back into it. There was concern and desperation, but we had the ability to get back in. We needed somebody to step up big.
Khmylev We knew Canada would work until the whistle, until the final second.
In an attempt to claw back into the game, Keenan shook things up, giving his offensive stars a breather and rolling the depth forwards. Tocchet scored within 1:50 of the Soviet Union’s third marker and Brian Propp followed with a goal of his own a few minutes later.
Gilmour Tocc was a big part of it. [Brent] Sutter was a big part of it. Hawerchuk was a big part of it. We were all kind of third- and fourth-line guys. Whatever they could do, they were going to do. But there was no panic in that room whatsoever.
Gretzky Had those guys [the depth forwards] not stepped forward in Game 3 and got us back into the game, we would have never have got to that point in time to make it a classic that it became. Those guys were so imperative to get us back in the game.
Dale Hawerchuk, Centre, Canada Early in the tournament, myself and Doug Gilmour, we didn’t even really play that much. By the end of the tournament, [Keenan] couldn’t keep us off the ice. That’s just the way it worked. I think every shift we went out there, there was always purpose in what we were doing.
Gilmour It was more or less, excuse my language, don’t f— up and try to do something out there.
Gretzky Before we knew it, we were in a hockey game. You could see guys like Paul and Mark and Mario and myself sort of reinvent ourselves in the last half of that game. With the atmosphere in the arena you couldn’t help but overcome the tiredness.
Gilmour There was a lot of, “Boys, we’ve gotta pick it up.” Obviously, the skill in that room, the top guys, they knew they had to be a big part of it. But by no means was there anything in that room that they were scared or we weren’t going to come back. You just knew it.
Canada netted three second-period goals to take a 5-4 lead into the third. But Semak, the Game 1 hero, tied the score with 7:39 left in regulation.
Coffey Everybody to a man had been in that situation before. You’re down 3-0. You come back. You’re up 5-4. They score. Big deal. Let’s go.
Murphy We never thought it was going to be easy. There were so many ups and downs in that series. It was a case of going out and getting it done.
Gretzky We really believed as a team that the one clear advantage we had was that Grant was going to outplay their goaltender when push came to shove. Even if it was 9-9, Grant wasn’t going to let the 10th goal in. As it was, it was 5-5 and we had so much confidence. At that point in time, he was clearly, in our minds, the best goalie in hockey.
Coffey It’s funny; that era, nobody thought about what could happen. Everybody thought about what’s gonna happen – how great it’s going to be. There wasn’t the overanalyzing everything. There wasn’t the psychology part of it. We just went out and played.
With less than two minutes left in regulation, and the score still tied, there was a faceoff in the Canadian end to the left of Fuhr.
Coffey The faceoff’s in our zone and Mike Keenan’s got myself, Larry Murphy, Dale Hawerchuk, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux on the ice. Not a lot of coaches would do that.
Gretzky [Laughs.] I don’t know of any other coach — including Glen Sather — that would have done that.
Hawerchuk Mike Keenan pushed me over the boards to go take the draw because Messier was kinda tired.
Gretzky At that time, Brent Sutter and Mark Messier were probably the two best centremen on the team, the best defensive centremen in hockey. Mike decided to throw out the three most offensive centremen – myself, Hawerchuk and Mario. So, when we jumped over the boards, [laughs], the three of us sort of looked at each other and said, “Who’s going to take the faceoff?” [Laughs.] I don’t think any of us wanted any part of the faceoff.
Hawerchuk I looked at them and they looked at me, and they were like, “No. You take the draw.” [Laughs.]
Gretzky Mike had known Dale since junior hockey, so he had a great deal of confidence in Dale. I think one of the last things Dale said to me was, before he dropped the puck, “Get on your horse and get to that point.” So, I was probably cheating more than I’ve ever cheated on a faceoff. I was probably through that circle before they even dropped the puck — only for self-preservation. [Laughs.]
Hawerchuk All I wanted to do was tie up that faceoff; make sure they couldn’t win it clean.
Gretzky We’d worked too hard to get to that point. We didn’t want to be known as the three guys to give up the winning goal.
Just as Hawerchuk wanted, the draw was scrummed. Lemieux jumped in to push the puck free and Soviet centre Vyacheslav Bykov collided with Kamensky.
Hawerchuk [Soviet defenceman Igor] Kravchuk pitched in. He underestimated the reach of Lemieux. [Lemieux] poked it by him and away they went.
Murphy We had an outmanned situation. That’s the point where, as a defenceman, you get involved in the play.
Coffey I love it because Murph was such a smart hockey player. Not fast, but smart and could anticipate like nobody else. I didn’t have too many defence partners that could beat me up the ice, but Murph did on that one.
Murphy Once it got pushed over the blue line, for a defenceman, you keep pressing up because even if we don’t regain control of the puck, the zone’s still gotta clear before they can turn it back. Once it got over the blue line, that’s when I started pushing hard.
Lemieux moved the puck up to a streaking Gretzky, who was rushing with Murphy. Canada’s advantage increased thanks to some controversy.
Hawerchuk Of course, everyone talks about thinking the one Russian might have gotten back — I think it was Bykov — that I hooked him down or whatever. I say he dove. [Laughs.]
Coffey Dale Hawerchuk deserves a lot of credit. I mean he absolutely lassoed a guy at the red line to create the 2-on-1.
Kamensky Bykov tried to catch Mario, but Hawerchuk — I think they have like penalty for Bykov. But referee doesn’t call it. But it’s hockey, you know?
Hawerchuk It felt totally legal. That stuff was going on all night. There was way worse stuff going on.
Gretzky Back in those days, that was just sort of part of the game, you know? Whether it was right or wrong, that’s just the way it was back then.
Khmylev When the game’s 5-5 and two teams play. The referee lets [you] play. They not call a penalty on those things, especially the last minute.
Hawerchuk There was kind of an unwritten rule. You could hook a guy to break his stride and then you had to let go. A lot of times if you hooked the guy and then the guy went down, the refs knew it was a dive. They weren’t buying into that. That’s just knowing what you can and can’t get away with.
Gilmour Did he get away with it? I don’t know. But it was a good play [laughs] because we ended up scoring on it.
Lemieux, now free from a backchecking Bykov and with a step on Kravchuk, joined the play to make it a 3-on-1.
Gretzky I think in the Czech game, Mike decided to put Mario and I together. We hadn’t really played together up until that point in time. Halfway through the second period, we had a 2-on-1. I had given it to Mario and he gave it back to me. I remember sitting on the bench and saying, “Mario, you’re a much better goal-scorer than I am. When I take that time, I’m going to make sure you’re in position A. Don’t think of giving it back to me.” Once I got the puck, I knew what my play was going to be.
Coffey I always describe Wayne Gretzky as being the most unselfish player I’ve ever played with. He always would pass to a jersey, not to a face. It didn’t matter. If you were open, you got the puck. I always say, not on that particular play.
Gretzky Somehow, someway, I was going to give him the puck. There’s few guys in hockey — Jari Kurri, Brett Hull, Mike Bossy — that they just don’t miss when they get into that perfect position. You might as well just go back to centre ice. Mario, obviously, is one of those guys.
Coffey That’s just going with the odds.
Gretzky Murphy really made the play by going to the net. He really created chaos for the defenceman. I saw Mario. I never looked at him once, I don’t think. But I knew he was there. I kept looking at Murphy like he was going to get the puck. Over the years, people have asked me, “Did Murphy ever have a chance of getting that puck?” I’ll tell you the same thing I told Murphy, “You’re never going to see it.”
Murphy I don’t show up on the scoring sheet, but I feel proud that I had an impact on that final goal. I made a real strong decision to move up in the play.
Gretzky dropped the puck back to Lemieux in the slot just as Soviet defenceman Igor Stelnov slid in an attempt to block the passing lanes.
Khmylev Then, like Lemieux did so many times, top shelf, glove side. It was not good feeling, but now it’s history.
Murphy I was wide open. I was ready. I thought Mario was going to come to me. I’m sure if the corner wasn’t there, if the goalie had come out farther on him, he definitely would have had that option. And I’m sure I would have gotten the puck. I was ready for it.
Kamensky He do the perfect shot. He score like this probably 100 times. He’s the greatest player in the world, I think.
Hawerchuk I’m pretty sure the goalie thought, “For sure he’s sliding it over.” It’s almost like the goalie was trying to load to get over and never even got his arm up. Of course, Mario buried it.
Fuhr I had the best seat in the house to watch it.
Murphy It would have been exciting to be the one scoring the goal. Without a doubt. I think about that. But when I look at the big picture, I’m just glad I was there for it. I don’t dwell too much on it because that’s the way hockey works. I think about what would have happened if the puck came to me, but I don’t lose any sleep over it.
Coffey I do believe Murph would have put that in as well, but it might not have been the same story. Having 99 to 66 was pretty great.
Lemieux’s goal came with 1:26 on the clock. He and Gretzky embraced behind the net. Hawerchuk leapt into the celebration and a smiling Murphy joined in, too.
Murphy I think the look on my face was pretty typical of everybody in that building. The tournament was within reach. We’re close. We’re knocking on the door to win this thing.
Hawerchuk The crowd was so loud. We did not want to go into overtime again. We wanted to get this thing done. Two reasons: One, anything can happen in overtime. And two, everybody was starting to hit exhaustion. That was a grind-em-out three-game series. It’s a month-long tournament and it’s at the start of our year. It’s not like we’re in our best, peak condition. We didn’t want it to go any longer, that’s for sure.
Gretzky I just think our physical side of things was so depleted.
Murphy It was three games of pressure and a moment there of realization of this is within our grasp. It was shear excitement.
Canada held on to the lead, winning the country’s third Canada Cup in four tries.
Hawerchuk It’s such a good feeling of accomplishment. There was pretty good exhaustion. Not too many guys were looking to go into party mode. It’s the old saying sometimes, when you win it all, there’s less in the tank. You’ll see guys ice-bagging and maybe having a beer.
Gretzky Had they had [Vladislav] Tretiak as their goalie in his prime, it could have been a whole different series. Our goalie outplayed their goalie, clearly.
Kamensky Everybody wanted the better goalie, but we have what we have. If we have Tretiak maybe we win. But maybe we don’t have like Makarov, Larionov and Krutov, you know? But this time we have this goalie. [Laughs.] It’s true: If you have better goalie, you probably have better shot.
Gretzky I don’t know if the best team won the tournament.
Kamensky That’s history. There’s nothing you can do about history.
Gretzky Mike Keenan outcoached [Viktor] Tikhonov. It showed a weakness in their system in that they were stubborn not to make changes. We knew that they weren’t going to make changes. We knew they were continuously going to play four lines and three sets of defence and rotate them. Mike continuously tried to have matchups and shorten his bench. He clearly outcoached him.
Kamensky It’s great hockey and that’s it. Maybe after 30 years, maybe we try to play again – same guys. It would be so interesting.
Hawerchuk The greatest team I ever played with, for sure. Not only that, but probably the greatest competition we ever played against.
Fuhr There were some great teams in Edmonton, but you look at that roster of 24, 25 guys and it’s the best collection of players that you’ll see in an event like that. It was fun to be a part of that.
Kamensky It’s like everybody who play this series they said this hockey the best hockey in the universe, you know? If you see each player, personally, it’s like superstar everywhere in Russia or in Canada in the NHL.
Gretzky It was one of the great hockey highlights of my life, one of the great hockey highlights of every guy that was on that team.
Gilmour Of all the games I played, that was the most intense. The Canada Cup at the time with the Russians, it was different. It was like the Stanley Cup for us.
The Canada Cup was never better than it was in 1987. The tournament returned in 1991, but with a weakened Soviet team. The World Cup of Hockey took its place in 1996.
Gretzky I remember after the last game, being in the hotel in Hamilton, and there was already talk about the next Canada Cup. I was begging everyone not to do a Canada Cup, to do a Summit Series because selfishly I wanted to play four games in Russia. I’d never played there. We’d played ’81, ’84, ’87 all in Canada. I really felt that I’d done enough with the Canada Cups and wanted to do something different and unique. I wanted to be part of the team that was going to play a Summit Series, similar to that of ’72. That never came to fruition.
Hawerchuk Even in ’91, it didn’t have that same feel as ’87 — ’87 would be the last one before the old Iron Curtain [came down], so to speak. I think it’s pretty special that way.
Murphy It’s a lot different now. The Soviet Union was a strong hockey program. Everybody was always arguing over who was better. Now things are much different. Russian players are very much incorporated in the National Hockey League, but it was different at that time. Now the tournaments — the Olympics or the World Cup — it’s just NHL players put on different teams. There was a much different feel at the time.
Gretzky It wasn’t quite the Summit Series, but it was pretty close.
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