Jan 252012
 

Usually - you know, when the league’s marquee player isn’t in a snit and boycotting the All-Star game – the narrative surrounding the NHL’s mid-season classic (in this case classic is defined as “tired tradition”) is as follows:

“How can we make this game suck less?”

Ironically, 2012 represents the 25th anniversary of the best hockey that’s ever been played during an NHL All-Star event.  Wayne Gretzky himself called it the fastest-paced hockey he had ever played in.

Rendez-Vous ’87 , which pitted a team of NHL All-Stars against a team from the Soviet Union, was the brainchild of then Quebec Nordiques owner Marcel Aubut. The teams split their two games (4-3 NHL, 5-3 U.S.S.R.), and although Russia outscored the NHL 8-7, the series is considered a tie. At the time, legendary Russian coach Viktor Tikhonov noted:

 “The NHL didn’t win and neither did we. The person that won was hockey itself. Both games were like holidays, like festivals, two of the greatest hockey games you’ll ever see.”

More than a two-game series however, Rendez-Vous ’87 was a celebration of North American and Russian culture held within the backdrop of Quebec City’s famous Winter Carnival.  Aubut spent $10-14 million ($20-30 million in today’s money) to bring Soviet chefs, dancers and singers to Canada. Gala gourmet dinners feted international businessmen, politicians and athletes. In short, it was much like the cultural Olympiad that surrounds today’s Olympic Games.  To some, Rendez-Vous ’87 was the first time the NHL truly operated like a professional big league sport.

Rendez-Vous ’87 was also not without controversy. For starters, costs associated with the event were astronomical for the times. A plate at the gala dinner cost $350 per person ($694 in today’s dollars). Only 5% of tickets for the two games at Le Colisee were open to the public. Some local media were critical that the hockey event was ursurping deserved attention away from the traditional Winter Carnival.

Alan Eagleson, head of the NHL Players Association at the time, was also against the event, worried Aubut would be successful and challenge his own place as the official kingpin of international hockey. Eagleson used the cost of local hotel rooms ($146-a-night) as a rallying point, threatening to pull players from the game. 

And yet, Rendez-Vous ’87 is barely remembered in hockey circles. Marcel Aubut’s goal of creating an “important date in hockey history” fell far short.

The question is: why?

Well it doesn’t help that not a single U.S. TV network carried the series. Sure, ESPN broadcast the games, but that was back in the days of America’s Cup and dog show programming for the future broadcasting behemoth. At the time, ESPN was just another SportsChannel America.

The legacy of Rendez-Vous ’87 hasn’t been helped by the Montreal-Quebec City rivalry either. At the time, there was an element of jealousy on the part of Montrealers – a jealousy they would naturally be loathe to admit. Nonetheless, the disappearence of NHL hockey from Quebec City less than ten years later has made forgetting all the more easy in Quebec.

Perhaps the greatest  reason that Rendez-Vous ’87 is but a footnote in history is what came immediately after it. The 1987 Canada Cup was one of the defining moments in Canadian hockey history. Despite the fact that Rendez-Vous ’87 was my first experience watching the Soviets, the 1987 Canada Cup was the pinnacle of the Canada-U.S.S.R. rivalry for my generation. And while Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky had first played together during Rendez-Vous ’87, it was at the Canada Cup that their chemistry bore fruit, leading to the greatest goal by the two greatest players of my childhood.

Less than three years later, Russians were playing in the NHL. The Cold War was coming to a close. Soon there would be a Russian players hoisting the cup; Russian players winning scoring titles and league trophies. The mystique and mystery of hockey from behind the Iron Curtain was gone.

This week, while the NHL trots out its latest gimmick – a fantasy draft - to put some life into the All-Star game, I’ll think back to Quebec City and Rendez-Vous ’87. To a time when the mid-season exhibition meant something more than appeasing corporate sponsors and players trying not to get hurt.

ONE THOUGHT ON THE FLY

Alex Ovechkin’s decision to not play in the NHL All-Star game is another example of why, at the end of his career, we may look at him as Pavel Bure 2.0 (an insanely-talented, but otherwise selfish, non-winner whose career did not live up to the hype). Rumours that he’s been out-of-shape this year don’t help the cause either. Meanwhile, everything about Evgeni Malkin these days screams “heart and soul” or  champion. The career journey of these two Russian superstars (who were once considered “bitter enemies“) shall be fascinating to watch.

Dec 112010
 

[Every weekend, Canucks Hockey Blog goes out of town as Tom Wakefield (@tomwakefield88) posts his thoughts on what's happening around the NHL.]

Bob Gainey, Montreal Canadiens

It’s hard to imagine Bob Gainey laughing.

A Google image search confirms even smiles are hard-fought, often-lost battles in the corners of his mouth.

Yet Bob Gainey has a lot to smile and laugh about.

This Montreal Canadiens team – a team he essentially re-built in the summer of 2009, then handed off to current GM Pierre Gauthier – is a pretty good one.

Making things all-the-more sweet is that Gainey essentially built this team in the face of constant criticism. Critics said his team was too small; that it wasn’t French enough; that Jacques Martin couldn’t coach offense; and that Carey Price could never find permanent success. Gainey said thank you very much, weathered the media storm and built a quick, counter-attack team full of character.

Today, this is a team that believes in each other, its system, and its coaching staff. They honour the great teams of Montreal’s past through their sacrifice, resilience and tempo of play. Mike Cammalleri’s Cup contender assertion is simply another indication that there’s a confidence amongst Habs players that hasn’t existed in some time.

Whether Cammy’s right or not remains to be seen. The team could use another game-breaker, and the loss of Andrei Markov is a significant one.

But there are some championship qualities to be found here if one looks closely enough.

And those are qualities Bob Gainey brought to the team before he stepped away.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • You would think the return of Mario Lemieux to the ice, even if it’s for an alumni game, would be exciting. But does anyone else remember how boring the Oilers-Habs alumni game was in the original Heritage Classic? After the initial player introductions and the magic of playing outdoors subsided, all we were left with was rusty retirees scrimmaging duly. Anyways, the Penguins and Capitals alumni are squaring off the day before the 2011 NHL Winter Classic. With Paul Coffey, Bill Guerin, Ron Francis and Bryan Trottier all playing, put your money on the Pittsburgh home team.
  • Puck Daddy reports 23 busloads of “Nordiques Nation” fans are making the trip from Quebec to New York to see the Islanders host the Atlanta Thrashers.
  • It will be interesting to see how losing Mark Stuart for 4-6 weeks will impact the Boston Bruins. He’s an underrated blueliner.
  • Yet another reason why the Leafs are struggling. Tomas Kaberle’s next goal will be his first of the year. If he’s not contributing offense, he’s not contributing anything.
  • The Buffalo Sabres are alive and well after a slow start to the year. One reason: Thomas Vanek’s found his A-game.
  • Speaking of the Sabres, Shaone Morrisonn is out for awhile with concussion symptoms. This is another opportunity for Chris Butler to show he belongs.
  • Word in Chicago is that injured players Marian Hossa, Fernando Pisani and Patrick Kane could all be back sooner than expected. To possibly fill the void until they return, the Blackhawks have signed former Canuck Ryan Johnson to a tryout contract.
  • Speaking of the ‘Hawks, why did they sign Marty Turco again? Corey Crawford is two wins away from tying the team record for most consecutive wins by a goaltender.
  • Slowly but surely, David Booth is coming around for the Florida Panthers. The thing is, for a team dedicated to rebuilding, is it smart to make a player with a history of concussions a franchise centerpiece?
  • No surprises here: the oft-injured Kari Lehtonen is having back trouble in Dallas. Good thing for them Andrew Raycroft has played pretty well this year.
  • Matt Duchene has created a Twitter account to generate interest in the team. Not to be cynical, but there’s a 50% chance that’s code for “meeting girls on road trips.”
  • Quietly, Jeff Woywitka has been a solid, defensive presence for the Dallas Stars.
  • If ever there was a time for Edmonton’s Sam Gagner to take the next step forward and demonstrate he can be an elite player in the NHL, it’s now, with Shawn Horcoff out for an extended period.
  • Excuse me, Part 1: What type of goal was that again, Craig Laughlin?
  • Excuse me, Part 2: Remember, you can’t actually buy waffles at the Air Canada Centre. You have to smuggle them in. Please let this become a tradition.
  • In honour of CBC’s 3D coverage this weekend, Down Goes Brown provides a technology guide for hockey fans.
  • Why the Ottawa Senators are a mess, reason #346: Tough to move under-performing, over-priced veterans in today’s salary cap era. Even if the team can find a buyer for Alexei Kovalev, Sergei Gonchar isn’t going anywhere soon.
  • The loss of Andy McDonald (concussion) probably kills the St. Louis Blues chances of making the playoffs. Reports suggest the team is looking to salvage the season through a trade, with Travis Zajac, Stephen Weiss and Matt Moulson the potential targets.
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