At this time when we’re all concerned about our families and loved ones, especially those cancer survivors whose immune systems might be compromised, our thoughts here at Game On Magazine turn to the greatest NHL-Jet of all time, Hall of Famer and cancer fighter Dale Hawerchuk. Not long ago one of our favourite contributors, Robin Short, the sports editor of the St. John’s Telegram, had a long, insightful chat with “Ducky,” a man who has always been frank and enlightening.
By Robin Short
Sports Editor/St. John’s Telegram
“They have Hawerchuk, Lemieux and Gretzky – all centre-icemen – and it looks as though Hawerchuk will draw the assignment against Bykov…”
The late, great Dan Kelly is poised, but around him, inside the two-year-old Copps Coliseum in downtown Hamilton, Ont., everything is happening, a phrase his play-by-play counterpart, Bob Cole, would famously coin years later.
“Hawerchuk wins it, and here’s Lemieux poking it to centre. Lemieux ahead to Gretzky. Has Murphy with him on a two-on-one …”
It’s the last game of a three-game Canada Cup final between the team with the red half maple leaf on the white jerseys, one of the finest hockey teams ever assembled, and the mysterious Soviets, Canada’s on-ice arch enemy dating back 15 years, at least.
Three months had passed since Ronald Reagan implored Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev to, “tear down this wall,” and it will be another four years before the hammer and sickle flag is lowered for the last time at the Kremlin.
So not a lot is known of the secretive Soviets, including their hockey team. Except this much: we know they can play hockey, and they play it well.
“Gretzky to Lemieux … in on goal. He shoots! He scores!!! Mario Lemieux … with 1:26 remaining.”
It’s not quite up there with “Henderson … has scored for Canada!” or “behind the net to Sanderson … to Orr … Bobby Orr!!!” But Kelly’s call stands as an iconic moment to a significant group in this country’s sports history, and likely the stuff of celebration four months from now on the goal’s 30th anniversary.
So we won’t let the fact that Lemieux’s goal shouldn’t have counted ruin a good story, a story in which Winnipeg Jets star Dale ‘Ducky’ Hawerchuk had a leading role.
The mere mention of it makes little sense, but it could be argued Hawerchuk is an underrated Hall of Famer.
Consider these facts:
He averaged well over a point per game through 16 NHL seasons, his 1,409 points 19th on the all-time list, ahead of Guy Lafleur, Gil Perreault, Bobby Clarke and Darryl Sittler, not to mention Jean Beliveau, Bobby Hull and Frank Mahovlich.
In 1982, he piled up 103 points as a rookie, one of only seven first-year players in league history to eclipse 100 points (with Teemu Selanne, Peter Stastny, Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Mario Lemieux and, you’ll never guess, Joe Juneau being the others).
Problem was/is Hawerchuk had his best years in Winnipeg and Buffalo. While the Jets were kings in the Peg, they were hockey’s answer to the Witness Protection Program to everyone else. It didn’t help Winnipeg ran into the Edmonton Oilers juggernaut every, single playoffs.
And Buffalo? Well, it’s Buffalo. And he spent no time, really, in Philly.
So you can understand Hawerchuk’s thinking when he shares that, outside of playing his first NHL game, the 1987 Canada Cup was a career highlight.
The greatest hockey team ever assembled – hands down, no argument – was the ’76 Canada Cup squad.
Eighteen Hall of Famers. Forward lines that boasted the likes of Hull, Lafleur, Perreault, Clarke, Sittler, Marcel Dionne, Lanny McDonald, among others.
A defence that had Orr, Denis Potvin and the fabulous Montreal trio of Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe.
Not that the 1987 squad was shabby. Not with 12 Hall of Fame inductees. Not with Gretzky and Lemieux, and a defence anchored by Raymond Bourque, a top five all-time rearguard. Then you can throw in Paul Coffey and Larry Murphy, Mark Messier, Doug Gilmour, Glenn Anderson, Michel Goulet and Mike Gartner.
Hawerchuk, coming off 100-point seasons in five of his first six years in the NHL, deserved to be there. But it wouldn’t be easy.
Steve Yzerman was cut from this squad.
“Pat Burns was one of the coaches,” Hawerchuk recalls. “He came up to me on the third day at camp and said, ‘I’ve got to tell you, Dale, we really didn’t have you pencilled in to be here. But after three days, there’s no way we can keep you off.’
“I was pretty determined to show what I could do.”
Hawerchuk and Gilmour didn’t see a lot of playing time early on in the tournament. But they didn’t sulk or complain. Dutiful soldiers, they dressed and sat on the bench, and when called upon, skated like madmen.
Eventually, as players got banged up or slumped, the two received regular minutes.
The first two games of the final were set for Sept. 11 and 12, and both ended in 6-5 results, for the Soviets (in double overtime) and Canada.
Game 3 was set for Sept. 15, and all 17,026 seats at Copps, which Hamiltonians hoped would be the answer to their very own NHL team, were sold.
The game was knotted 5-5 (one of the Canadian goals was scored by Hawerchuk; his four in the tournament trailed only Lemieux’s incredible 11 on the Canadian squad) heading into the dying minutes of the third.
With less than 120 seconds to go in regulation, the Soviets managed to get a faceoff in the Canadian zone.
As Kelly told viewers at the time, coach Mike Keenan opted to send out three centres for the draw. But Hawerchuk wasn’t supposed to be one of them.
Keenan wanted Messier on the ice, but the Oiler centre had just finished a long shift, having gotten caught on the ice, and was dog-tired.
“To me,” Hawerchuk said, “that was a time where the game really changed. We got to a point where we knew we had to go short shifts. You get tired, and that skill on the other side will beat you. And they were the same way. They get tired, and our skill would beat them.
“The game really changed to short shifts from that series.”
Unlike the KLM Line – Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov – or the all-world defence duo of Vyacheslav Festisov and Alexei Kasatonov, Bykov was somewhat unknown to most Canadians.
He would never play in the NHL, finishing off his career with eight years in the Swiss league when the Soviets eased up on letting their hockey stars play on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
But the Canadians knew the swift little centreman from the Red Army was strong on the faceoff.
“The only thing I was thinking about was tying the guy up, making sure I didn’t lose it clean,” Hawerchuk said.
“Of course, Mario and Gretz took over from there.”
Lemieux swooped in off the faceoff, and chipped puck up along boards, past defenceman Igor Kravchuk, who had pinched in. Lemieux evaded Kravchuk, fed the puck to Gretzky, who gained the Soviet zone and dropped puck back to Lemieux at top of faceoff circle.
You know what happened next.
The full house in Hamilton was whipped into a frenzy as Lemieux, Gretzky, Hawerchuk and Murphy celebrated with a group hug behind Soviet netminder Sergei Mylnikov, soon joined by Coffey.
Referee Paul Stewart, an NHL official who had been a former tough guy forward in the NHL and WHA, headed towards the scorekeeper.
At the Soviet bench, a seething coach Viktor Tikhonov was waiting for Kravchuk to tear a strip off the young defenceman for his ill-advised pinch.
No one was talking about the penalty that wasn’t called.
Watch the replay and you’ll see the Canadians on a three-on-one break, with Gretzky leading the charge. Hustling back to pick up the trailer, Lemieux, is Bykov.
And then you see Hawerchuk wrap his blade in around the Soviet player’s left leg and pull him down. Seconds later, Lemieux, who by this time almost certainly would have been caught by Bykov, rifles a wrister over Mylnikov’s glove.
Hawerchuk knows the subject is coming up, and has a mischievous grin on his face.
“Yeah, I was Public Enemy No. 1 in Moscow for a while.”
But he makes no apologies.
It was a different time, when players could get away with a lot of different things – kind of like today’s playoffs – only spread over a full hockey season.
And what he did to Bykov – pull him down and out of the play – had been going on the entire game by both sides in the bitter rivalry.
“You could hold guys up, you could hook a guy, but then you had to let go,” he said. “I just gave him a little tug just to break his stride. That’s the way the game was played back then, right?”
In 1972, when “our best” played “their best” for the first time, it was akin to a barroom brawl straight out of the Wild West for eight games.
Phil Esposito would say years later he honestly felt like he could have killed one of the Soviets. Bobby Clarke went all Paul Bunyan on Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle. Gary Bergman and Boris Mikhailov quite literally laid the boots to each other … while wearing skates.
“This is Canada-Russia, right?” said Hawerchuk. “You do whatever it takes to win, and you make no apologies.
“Was it a penalty? Like I said, it’s the way both teams played all game. Like a baseball ump with balls and strikes, you knew what the ref was or was not going to call. You knew the rules, you knew what you could and couldn’t do.
“That’s it. We won.”
Hawerchuk would cop another Canada Cup title in 1991. In that tournament, Canada beat the United States to win its fifth crown in six tries (the Soviets won in 1981).
However, the final was anticlimactic as Canada swept the States in two straight games.
The thrill that was evident in 1987, and in 1976 in Montreal, was gone.
And there were no questionable calls, or non-calls, the Americans could complain about.
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email email@example.com Follow him on Twitter @TelyRobinShort