Remembering a Play: Gretzky and Lemieux Author Canada’s Favorite Moment Against the Soviets

Sports Remembering a Play
Remembering a Play: Gretzky and Lemieux Author Canada’s Favorite Moment Against the Soviets

Many believe Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux to be the two greatest hockey players of all time. Gretzky has the GOAT title broadly locked down, and the only reason that Lemieux’s success does not resonate more outside of the hockey world is because he had the misfortune of overlapping his career with The Great One.

However, back during one famed night in 1987, Mario Lemieux had the good fortune of playing with Gretzky in one of the most notorious hockey games ever played.

Seven years prior, the United States had taken down the juggernaut Soviet Union at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics in the Miracle on Ice. This was a big deal both because of how big of underdogs the Americans were, and because the only time people in the West could watch Soviet-born players was at international competitions like the Olympics.

The Soviets not only were a great team, but because they existed mostly in the lore that made it through the Cold War blockade, their reputation achieved mythical status in the West, which was reinforced the handful of times we were lucky enough to watch them destroy nearly every team put in front of them.

The Canada Cup was the only other serious tournament outside of the Olympics which featured The Red Machine during this era. The first instance of this World Cup-style international hockey tournament began in 1976, when the Canadians beat Czechoslovakia in the Final. They lost in the Final the next time in 1981, as the Soviet Union recaptured some of the magic it lost in the 1980 Olympics by becoming the only country other than Canada to ever win the Canada Cup.

Canada won again in 1984, with a dramatic 3-2 overtime victory over the Soviets in the semifinals providing a measure of revenge and evening the hockey cold war that unfolded over the course of the 1980s at 1-1. This set up an historic meeting in the 1987 Canada Cup Finals where the Soviets and Canadians faced off yet again, this time in a best-of-three series to decide the larger best-of-three series the two countries played over the course of six years.

The Soviet Union won the first game 6-5 in overtime, and Canada staved off elimination in double overtime by the same score, setting up a Game 3 for all the marbles. Just as it looked like the two star-studded teams would go to yet another overtime, the two players who defined a generation authored one of the most famous plays in the history of the sport.

This play is such a great demonstration of the greatness of Gretzky and Lemieux. Dale Hawerchuk immediately ties up the faceoff so Super Mario can swoop in. After beating his man to the spot, Lemieux had the presence of mind to poke the puck past the pinching defender and now Canada was off to the races with numbers.

Young Lemieux knew that the smart play in open space was always to give it to Gretzky, and after handing it off to The Great One, he glided down the ice into the slot. Gretzky took a wide angle so his supercomputer hockey brain could process the entire ice, and he picked the perfect moment to subtly deke Vladimir Malakhov to the ground and slip a simple pass right to the future Pittsburgh Penguins legend as he entered the slot, who then ripped a shot high glove side and etched his name into the history books before his career even really got going.

It may not be the flashiest play, but it’s filled with incredibly high hockey IQ and serves as a glimpse into the NHL’s future while putting a cap on an historic era of hockey. This was the only time the two greatest players in the world would ever play on the same line together, save for the 1997 All-Star Game where they had a fun little moment beating perhaps the greatest goalie of all time in Patrick Roy.

This series is widely considered to be the best hockey ever played. Lemieux’s goal capped a dramatic 3-0 comeback in Game 3 by Canada, and this would be the last knockout round game these two historically great teams would ever play against each other.

The Soviet Union would fall four years later, the same year as the final Canada Cup, with the final Red Machine managing a draw against Canada in their last round-robin game they needed to win while they were unsure of what kind of country they would return home to.

It’s very apropos that the Canada Cup ended along with the Soviet Union, as its primary impact was circumventing the political constraints around the globe and bringing the very best the sport has to offer to the home of hockey. This was a clash of civilizations in more ways than one.

Wayne Gretzky had an especially brilliant 1987 Canada Cup, and the best player in the world was by far the best player on the ice, as Mike Kelly’s extremely cool in-depth dive into the last two games of the 1987 Canada Cup Final revealed this week.

I mean this is just silly. The world’s best hockey players all found themselves on same sheet of ice and Gretzky still made them look like amateurs in comparison.

Gretzky had 22 slot pass completions in games 2 and 3 of the 1987 Canada Cup, with Mario Lemieux second with 8 and Vyacheslav Arkadevich "Slava" Bykov third with 4

The Canada Cup was succeeded by the World Cup of Hockey in 1996, which never came remotely close to the cultural importance of the Canada Cup and is only tentatively scheduled to be played again in 2028. There are surely those who remember the 1991 Canada Cup fondly, but for all intents and purposes, the galactic rivalry which unfolded over the course of the 1980s between the two best hockey teams functionally ended on this goal created by the two greatest players ever, settling the most serious challenge that Canada has ever faced to their hockey supremacy right before the Soviet Union began its collapse.

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