Canada's 'Miracle On Ice'

Charron looks back on underappreciated Izvestia Cup triumph

GREGG DRINNAN / Kamloops Daily News
December 24, 2012 01:00 AM

When Canada won the 1987 Izvestia Cup, Eric Duhatschek was there. He was in Moscow, covering the tournament for the Calgary Herald.

"I've long maintained," Duhatschek, who now is with The Globe and Mail, wrote in a Hockey Canada newsletter, "this was Canada's Miracle on Ice - winning, on the road, against a Russian team that played three 6-5 games against the Canadian team of Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Dale Hawerchuk three months earlier. A special, if underappreciated moment in Canada's hockey history."

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here have been many memorable moments for Canadian teams on the international hockey scene.

Yes, it all starts with the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union.

There also have been many memories made by Canada's national junior team. And the 1961 Trail Smoke Eaters have to be included on anyone's list.

But what of the 1987-88 Canadian national team?

This team, under head coach Dave King, deserves its own place high on that list . . . really high.

All Canadian hockey fans know that Paul Henderson's goal on Sept. 28, 1972, scored in the Luzhniki Ice Palace in Moscow, won the Summit Series for Canada. What you may not know is that over the next 15 years not one Canadian team was able to win even one game against the Soviets in the Soviet Union.

And it wasn't for a lack of trying, because Canada was a regular participant in the Izvestia Cup, a pre-Christmas tournament that was sponsored by the Izvestia Daily newspaper. (The tournament now is the Channel One Cup and is sponsored by a television company.) The purpose of the tournament, which began in 1967, was to get the Soviet national team some top-notch competition before the following spring's World championship.

Prior to 1987, Canada's Izvestia take amounted to silver medals in 1969 and 1986, and a bronze in 1978. But Canada had never won gold.

That drought ended in December 1987.

"It wasn't as known or important to a lot of people," Guy Charron, the head coach of the WHL's Kamloops Blazers and an assistant coach on that Canadian team, says. "People don't know and don't care that Canada won the Izvestia tournament. But it's the only Canadian team that has ever won Izvestia."

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As Canada headed for Moscow in December 1987, the 1988 Olympic Winter Games were on the horizon, scheduled for Feb. 13-28 in Calgary.

"Izvestia is something that was always on our schedule, and especially the season of the Olympics," recalls Charron, who worked under King and alongside fellow assistants Tom Watt and Dale Henwood.

"Guy was a critical part of the team," says Vaughn Karpan, a forward on the Canadian team who now lives on the Lower Mainland and works as a pro scout for the NHL's Montreal Canadiens. "Dave was tough and he was on 24/7; he had to be. He led the charge. He got the most out of every one of his guys.

"Guy was the guy the players could go to. He was good at it. I can't say enough good things about Guy."

The team was stationed in Calgary, where it spent most of its season practising. But there were jaunts to various locales for games and tournaments. And this would be a big one.

The 1987 Izvestia Cup would allow the competing teams to get a read on where everyone stood with the Olympics just two months away.

"It was the biggest competition prior to the Olympics," Charron says, adding that it would allow the Canadians to see where they were at "and how can we compete with the Russians, knowing that they were going to be a big machine in the Olympic Games."

Ahh, yes, the Soviets.

This was before the Iron Curtain fell. The Soviet Union was one gigantic nation. Czechoslovakia hadn't split in two. West Germany had a hockey team. Times were a whole lot different.

"We had gone there a number of times," Charron recalls. "We played Izvestia every year. Getting into that rink was always very special. I have great memories.

"They had key ladies . . . you had a designated room and we always had the same key lady. I remember her saying my name in Russian . . . 'Welcome Guy!' I have great memories of going to Russia even at a time that was much different from now."

For example, there was the hotel.

"Our accommodations were the pits," Charron says. "I had to sleep with the lights on so the bugs wouldn't crawl down the wall. I'd walk into the room and say, 'I'm back!' "

He's laughing now, but you can bet it wasn't funny 25 years ago.

"You got accustomed to it," he adds. "It was always a great experience and Dave always brought us to different places to learn about their culture. I just wish I had had the opportunity to go into a family home."

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There was no doubt that the Soviets would win the 1987 Izvestia Cup. After all, they had won this event eight of the previous nine Decembers, the exception being 1985 when Czechoslovakia had shocked the hockey world.

In 1987, as in most appearances at this tournament, the Canadian amateurs were seen as cannon fodder.

"We didn't have the names," Charron says. "With the exception of some of the players, we were an amateur team. Some of those players played in the NHL afterwards but this team was not made of NHL players."

Goaltender Andy Moog was between NHL jobs, while defenceman Randy Gregg had played in the NHL. But it's safe to say there were more household names on the Soviet roster than on Canada's.

The Soviets had the KLM line - Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov - and it was magic on ice. More often than not, those three were on the ice with defencemen Vyacheslav Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov. In fact, those five were known in the hockey world as the Green Unit, thanks to the green sweaters they wore in practice.

The Soviet roster also included a young Alexander Mogilny, as well as the likes of Evgeny Belosheikin, Vyacheslav Bykov, Sergei Yashin, Valeri Kamensky, Anatoly Semenov and Sergei Starikov. The team was under the thumb of legendary head coach Viktor Tikhonov.

The Canadians? Along with Moog and Gregg, the roster featured Gord Sherven, Ken Berry, goaltender Sean Burke, Karpan, Marc Habscheid, Zarley Zalapski, Cliff Ronning, Serge Boisvert, Brian Bradley, Chris Felix, Bob Joyce, Serge Roy, Wally Schreiber, Tony Stiles, Claude Vilgrain, Craig Redmond, Ken Yaremchuk and team captain Trent Yawney.

The Canadian team was just that - a team in every sense of the word. Hey, even the coaching staff did grunt work.

Charron uses the word "camaraderie" to describe what he experienced.

"Here I am, I've played in the NHL and we're unloading the bus and I'm carrying sticks with Dave," he says. "I remember a couple of times we had guest coaches and they couldn't believe that Dave and I were carrying luggage and sticks and bags.

"For me, it was the Olympic team and everybody had to chip in."

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The 1987 Izvestia opened on Dec. 16 with the Soviets pounding West Germany 10-1, Czechoslovakia getting past Finland 2-1, and Canada edging Sweden, 3-2.

The next day, the Soviets and Finland played to a 3-3 tie, while Sweden beat West Germany 3-2, and Canada dropped a 4-1 decision to Czechoslovakia.

The Izvestia Cup's world was unfolding as it should.

After a day off, the tournament resumed on Dec. 19 with the Swedes beating Czechoslovakia 2-1 and Finland dropping West Germany, 8-2. The day's big game, however, featured Canada and the Soviet Union.

"As an underdog, you go into those games competing, making sure you don't embarrass yourself with one of the best teams in the world," Charron says in describing Canada's mindset. "I'm not sure we went into the game thinking, 'We can beat these guys.' But we had momentum and we felt good about ourselves. We said, 'Let's go out there and play, play hard, play the best we can.' "

As the game progressed, the Canadians started to believe, maybe not in miracles, but that they could win this game.

Just talking about it 25 years later causes Charron's voice to tremble a bit.

"Wow! All of a sudden realizing we can win this game, there was lots of emotion, lots of intensity," Charron remembers. "It was like a big-time game when you have a sense that you can win this game. There was a lot of tension and a lot of intensity, a lot of big-game feelings at that game."

Karpan, a native of The Pas, Man., had to sit out the game because of a high ankle sprain suffered against the Czechs. He got it taped and later played in Canada's last two games.

But he remembers that "Sean Burke and Cliff Ronning were the stars for us that night" against the Soviets.

Berry came through, too, scoring a pair of third-period goals as the Canadians skated to a stunning 3-2 victory.

"I can vividly recall the smells and sounds in the arena," Burke wrote in a Hockey Canada alumni newsletter, "and how in beween periods we were served hot tea. The crowd sitting in wood seats all dressed in greys and blacks and whistling their disapproval at the Russian stars, realizing they might actually lose in their homeland to a bunch of unknown Canadians.

"I can still see Ken Berry scoring from long range and the immediate thought that we were going to have to hold on for dear life to win the game . . .

"And then I remember the euphoria of our dressing room and the faces of guys that had worked so hard for this moment. We all knew we still had to beat the Finns to win the tournament, but how could anyone stop us if we just beat the most feared team in the world?"

A lot about Canadian hockey had changed after our first really sustained look at the Soviets in the eight-game series of 1972. Practice habits were different now, and there was more of a European influence in the flow of the game being played in North America.

The Soviets, however, hadn't changed.

As Charron puts it, in 1987 he was glad "they didn't pick up on our way of doing things sooner."

"It didn't matter how the game went on, he rolled four lines," Charron says, referring to Tikhonov, the great Soviet coach. "If the fourth line was up for the power play, the fourth line played the power play. He wouldn't double-shift the KLM line."

Charron remembers watching the Soviets play earlier in the tournament and feeling the urge to yell at Tikhonov.

"Even watching against other countries, I was shocked," Charron says. "I'd say, 'Gawd, put that line back out there.' But it was the fourth line's turn, so . . ."

Charron also remembers one other thing about the Soviets from that era, something that is oft-mentioned by hockey observers from back in the day.

"There was no emotion from them," Charron says. "The energy that Canadian teams have when they sense they can win something . . . that was something I noticed and I thought if they could ever have brought emotion. . . . Now they do."

Charron noticed quite a difference when he was on Team WHL's coaching staff when it played a Russian team in a Subway Super Series game in Kamloops in 2010.

"I could see the (Russian) kids in the hallway having fun, playing games," he says. "I thought, 'Wow, that's different from what I was used to seeing in those years.' "

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Beating the Soviets put the Canadians in control of their destiny. But the Canadians still had to play West Germany and Finland.

Even after the high of having conquered the great Soviet team, there wouldn't be a letdown.

"We knew what we were on the verge of accomplishing," Karpan says.

On Dec. 20, the day after beating the Soviets, Canada got past West Germany, 2-1, while Sweden and Finland tied 2-2, and the hosts beat Czechoslovakia, 5-3.

Two days later, the tournament concluded with Canada beating Finland 4-1, West Germany getting past the Czechs, 4-3, and the Soviets disposing of Sweden, 4-1.

But even after the tournament ended, the games didn't stop.

"The Russians always won," Karpan says, adding that the hosts loved the tournament-ending trophy presentations. "They didn't win this time, so they had a trophy made up for the team that had won the most Izvestias."

Years later, in the alumni newsletter, Sherven, a forward from Weyburn, Sask., admitted he was really looking forward to the presentations.

"As it was my third Izvestia," Sherven wrote, "I remember really looking forward to hearing our national anthem at the closing ceremonies, instead of the Russian anthem. Unfortunately, they never had a recording of our national anthem, so we had to listen to the Russian anthem again. I guess they didn't expect us to win."

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This Canadian team would beat the Soviets again, also by a 3-2 count, this time in Saskatoon in a tuneup game a week before the Calgary Olympics began.

As Karpan points out, this was the same Soviet team that Mario Lemieux and Team Canada had beaten in the third game of a best-of-three series to win the 1987 Canada Cup in September. After the Soviets won Game 1, Lemieux scored the winning goal in each of the next two games, one in double overtime and the other with 1:26 to play in the third period.

"We had two wins in our three games against them," Karpan says.

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"We won Izvestia, which was a great thing for Canada," Charron says. "But looking back, winning a medal in the Olympics probably would have been more important to all of us."

There would be no medal for Canada in Calgary. Canada placed fourth, with the Soviets winning gold, Finland taking silver and Sweden bronze.

"It gave us a good feeling going into the Olympic Games," Charron says of the Izvestia victory, "except I'll never forget Dave's comment after we won. He said, 'We just won too early.' "

gdrinnan@kamloopsnews.ca

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