February 24, 2010

Hockey's Eternal Rivalry

The politics may have changed, but the cold war is back in full force.

As enjoyable as the Canada vs USA rivalry has become, for old fogies like me Russia vs Canada will always be the great rivalry.

It goes back to 1954, when the Soviet Union entered a hockey team at the World Championships and shocked the world by defeating Canada. Almost from that moment on, international hockey was their great domain, changing hockey for the greater in the process.

We wanted to get our best players, our NHL stars, to play them, so we'd show them how Canadians play hockey. Not very well, at least so it seemed after game one of the 1972 Summit Series. We'd storm back, winning the series with 34 seconds left in the final game thanks to the "shot heard around the world." Somehow what should have been an embarrassing period of Canadian hockey became its greatest moment. A moment that will live forever.

The Russians would gain revenge in the 1981 Canada Cup, handing us our worst loss ever. Mike Liut still has nightmares of Sergei Shepelev.

We get revenge at the 1984 Canada Cup. But it was the 1987 Canada Cup where the rivalry peaked. The two greatest teams each nation ever iced, battling it out to the dying moments . . . Gretzky . . . to Lemieux . . .

Political change would see the rivalry subside for much of the 1990s, with it returning to epic proportions at the junior level. But in recent years we have seen the national team rivalry heat up, with Russia eliminating Canada at the 2006 Olympics, and in the gold medal games of both the 2008 and 2009 World Hockey Championships.

Shades of '72? Maybe, but I was thinking more of 1984. That Canada Cup featured a Canada team that stumbled early in the tournament, just like now. Meanwhile Russia had dominated everything in international hockey, just like now. Canada unexpectedly ran into Russia in a playoff game rather than the final, just like now. The game was another dramatic classic, just like today's game promises to be.

In 1984 Canada pulled out a dramatic victory. Will that happen tonight? I have no idea, but I will predict another classic clash of the hockey titans.

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