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Eastern Europe saw major change in years after Cup

by Tal Pinchevsky

Hockey fans around the world hotly anticipated the 1987 Canada Cup because it featured the best teams from six of the planet's foremost hockey nations. Five-and-a-half years later, two of those countries -- Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union -- would no longer exist. For some players, certain hints of that eventual change first appeared at that historic tournament.

With some of Czechoslovakia's best players having defected west, its depleted team lost to Canada in the semifinal. And for the runner-up Soviet team, there were signs that change could be coming. It started with widespread speculation that Russian stars Slava Fetisov and Igor Larionov could be coming to the National Hockey League after being denied that opportunity for years.


The 1987 Canada Cup was an international hockey tournament which ran from Aug. 28 to Sept. 15 and involved teams from Canada, the Soviet Union, the United States, Sweden, Czechoslovakia and Finland. The three-game final contested between Canada and the USSR is considered by many to be the best exhibition of hockey in history. The tournament also was the only time in a meaningful contest that Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, the greatest players of their generation, played on the same forward unit. NHL relives the tournament with a five-piece look at an unforgettable tournament.

"With a guy like Larionov, there were rumors that he may have been meeting with certain people [about leaving the Soviet Union]," Canada goaltender Kelly Hrudey said. "Of course, those are just rumors."

Back home, the Soviet government was toying with greater openness and some Western ideas during the era known as Glasnost. But their powerhouse hockey team was still subjected to the kind of heavy surveillance they'd faced for decades.

"Security around their team was tight," Canada's coach Mike Keenan said. "My first introduction to that type of scrutiny was in 1979. I coached Team Canada at the World Junior Championships in Finland. The security around their team was so tight. They had people everywhere. On the same floor, in the dining hall. They had people there watching them."

Despite the surveillance, there were signs that Soviet players were able to enjoy some new freedoms, even if they were the kind of freedoms most Western players took for granted. Wayne Gretzky, whose ancestors were Russian landowners, even hosted Fetisov and Larionov for dinner at his parents' house. That kind of meeting would have been unthinkable just years earlier.

"I remember him [Gretzky] coming back and talking about what an interesting evening it was. It kind of humanized these guys more than just making them the enemy," Canada forward Kevin Dineen said. "I remember running into them on the street after a game. To see these guys walking down the street and us stopping to have a little chat was certainly an eye-opening experience."

Just two years later, a number of the top Soviet players, including both Larionov and Fetisov, would be on NHL rosters. Their legal transfers to North America made waves in their home country, which was on the verge of a revolution. But despite the rumors swirling around the team at the Canada Cup, nothing was discussed in the Soviet locker room.

"I know a lot of players think about that [coming to the NHL]. It wasn't public, though. They would never talk about it back then in Soviet Union," said Russian winger Yuri Khmylev, who joined the Buffalo Sabres in 1992. "When they came over to play in NHL, of course everybody started thinking about that."

At the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, the Soviet Union was no more, and a "Unified Team" representing a new Russia and its breakaway republics won gold. With neither Fetisov nor Larionov competing on that championship team, one of the world's great hockey nations was beginning a new era of historic change. No one could have foreseen these specific events during the 1987 Canada Cup, but there was certainly something in the air indicating that change was coming behind the Iron Curtain.

"That talk was around and the movement [of Russians coming to the NHL] was starting. It seemed like it was inevitable," Canada defenseman Larry Murphy said. "I ended up playing with [Fetisov] in Detroit, which is something I didn't expect [would happen] at the time. In the '70s and '80s, it seemed like they were on the other side of the wall. That's all gone now."

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