As the World Cup of Hockey ramps up and the battle for global on-ice supremacy ensues, it's hard to feel as if there's much at stake in these games. It's basically hockey at its highest, but it doesn't really matter as much, at least not as much as it once did.
For Canadian players and fans alike, winning something like the World Cup is akin to the defense of a birthright. Americans also want to topple the juggernaut from the North. The Swedes play with a lissome élan, the Finns have true pluck and then there are the Russians. For so long the baddies in these sorts of things, the country is now bent on reestablishing what that nation's hockey players can do.
It didn't used to be like this. When Russian players came to North American to compete – back when people simply referred to them as the Soviets, in the coldest days of the Cold War – international sports competitions went to a whole new mother of a level, so much so that the residual effect of those times feeds into the DNA of every player who competes on the current World Cup stage.
The drama kicked off in 1972, with the Summit Series – eight games that pitted a Canadian All-Star team with a handful of future Hall of Famers, in effect, against a Soviet squad that people expected would get blown out. No one knew much about the Soviets. Rumor was they trained hard. It was a left-handed compliment, a notion that they had a lot of desire but not the necessary skill. These were before the days when we thought all Russians were Ivan Drago super-athletes, mechanically designed monsters who could excel at a higher level than most normal humans.
The series kicked off in Montreal, the Canadian team scored quickly with a goal by Phil Esposito, everyone was all smiles on the bench - until the Soviets came back and utterly dusted the Canadians by a score of 7-3. In the political climate of the time, this was more than a hockey game, and for a spell, a nation tore into their hockey heroes, as if losing to the Soviets was boosting national debt and robbing people of jobs.
The series eventually shifted to Moscow, the Canadians prevailed by the thinnest of margins, but that was largely because Bobby Clarke, a man who would win three MVPs, was told to give Valeri Kharlamov, the Soviets' best player, a 'tap on the ankle." You've seen Slap Shot, right? A tap on the ankle being a directive to break bones with a vicious slash. "It's not something I'm really proud of, but I honestly can't say I was ashamed to do it," he later said.
Shit, you might say, was now on.
The Soviets took on a squad of players sourced from the upstart WHA league in 1974. You had the sense the NHL was done taking on the Russians – at least for the time being. The league eased back in again in 1975 and 1976. with exhibition games not between the Soviets and NHL All-Stars, but rather individual NHL teams taking on the Bulgakov-like Behemoth from the East. And things got gritty.
They also got damn artful, too, in a way that presages what you'll see at this year's World Cup. North American teams dump and chase. They grind. They cycle down low. They like it chippy, they relish the finished check, going to the net and grinding for goals, deflections and paying the price for positioning. The Soviets, meanwhile, have always been about flow, advancing geometric patterns, weaves, misdirection plays, the double drop-pass. These guys looked like the Jedi of the hockey universe. Chess on ice.
On New Year's Eve 1975 the Soviet Red Army team battled the mighty Montreal Canadians to a 3-3 tie at the Forum in Montreal, in what some still consider the greatest hockey game ever played. It's not. We'll get to that. But it reinforced just how well the Soviets could hang.
It says something about the hockey that as much as these games were framed as indicative of the Cold War, of different sensibilities and dueling ideologies, sport was transcending all of that, this need to be able to say, "Screw you, dudes, we are the best in the world, not you."
The Red Army team traveled to Philadelphia in early 1976 to take on the Flyers, who were captained by, wouldn’t you know, old friend Bobby Clarke. This was the Flyers era of the Broad Street Bullies, when they gooned it up and kicked the crap out of everybody. Up until that point, no NHL team had defeated the Red Army squad. The Flyers would, 4-1, by turning the contest into a mugging-fest, which had the Soviets protesting by taking to their locker room, only reemerging when told the agreed upon contractual fee wouldn't be paid. In hindsight, the Flyers won the game, but it was the Russians style of hockey, not Philly's that would have the most impact on the game as the years progressed. The way the flyers player looked primitive in many ways even back then. By today's standards, it looks downright illegal the way they played.
Later that year we have the first proper best-on-best tournament, the Canada Cup, basically the model for the World Cup. The hockey could be glorious, but the Soviets, with loads of in-fighting back home, sent a squad that had no chance. It wouldn't be until the second installment of the tournament in 1981 that they'd handle business properly, and crush a Canadian team led by Wayne Gretzky in the finals.
Doubtless, the events of Lake Placid from February 1980 were on Soviet minds, but it's paradoxical how the Miracle on Ice meant something here, to Americans, that it never really meant to the international game.
Is it the greatest ever sports moment? Good luck beating it. But it was a one-off, too, something that wouldn't have happened again if the two teams faced off twenty more times. Which is why it is so freaking cool, of course, something to pump you up and have you primed to run through a few walls. But it was the hiccup, the bad day for the Soviets, and everyone knew it. The U.S. knew it. Wouldn't happen again. It was an ego boost when the country needed it most, and it came from an unlikely team of kids playing what has always been the fourth most popular sport in America.
Canada rebounded in the 1984 Canada Cup, defeating the Soviets in an OT semifinal game that was better than that 1975 contest at the Forum. Then we come to 1987, and the three game Canada vs. Soviet finals, all of which ended 6-5, all of which featured Wayne Gretzky at his absolute peak, with Hall of Famers through the roof on both sides. Gretzky and Mario Lemieux playing together, putting on a clinic.
Any single game of those finals is conceivably the best ever played. There were fears at the time that the Soviets would defect, as some were gunning to shake off the yoke of Mother Russia and join the high-flying NHL. That came to pass before the decade was out, Soviet hockey went into some decline, Canada reasserted itself and the US began to make strides. Twenty years ago, at the 1996 World Cup, Team USA gave their Canadian counterparts their comeuppance, winning the tournament and informing a country of hockey fanatics and burgeoning hockey players that, hey, America can hang with anybody.
As you watch this year's World Cup, you'll probably not see any insane dust-ups with one player trying to maul another, and there will be none of that political posturing of "nanny nanny boo boo, our country is better than yours," but it's the same deal, in a way, this notion of needing, with no compromise, to scale the hockey Mount and kick the opposition tumbling down. Decades of skirmishes, with a lot of other people's agendas, can make for some amazing hockey when the tradition adds up and all that remains is the hockey itself.