Ottawa Hockey History: The First Canada Cup Game Was Actually Played in Ottawa
Put up your hand if you remember the Canada Cup Hockey Tournament. Okay, now put up your hand if you can remember when the first Canada Cup tournament took place. If you said it was 1976, you would be right. Do you remember which countries were in the final of that first Canada Cup? I'm guessing you might be able to recall Darryl Sittler coming down the wing and faking the slapshot, then skating around the befuddled goalie who came out to cut down the angle on Sittler’s slapper, and firing the puck into the open goal to win the tourney for Canada. But what country did Canada beat in that 1976 final? And who was that goalie? If you said the Soviet Union and Vladislav Tretiak, you would be incorrect. No, the Canadians defeated Czechoslovakia in that inaugural Cup tournament. And the goalie? That was Vladimir Dzurilla. First off, don't be hard on yourself if you didn't get those answers right. Especially if you aren’t old enough to have seen that game or that tournament which took place more than forty years ago now. Do you know where the very first game of that inaugural Canada Cup tournament took place? At Ottawa’s Civic Centre. It absolutely did. A game between Canada and Finland kicked off the whole hockey festival. But how did we get to this game and this tournament? What conditions in the hockey world allowed us to get to this point where we could have the world’s first six-team best-on-best tournament? What happened in that game in Ottawa?
It’s important to realize that the atmosphere for all of this began to form in the 1930s and 1940s as the Soviets began to take the sport of hockey seriously and they began to transform their field game of “bandy” into the game of hockey. Following World War II, the Soviets were determined to use sport as a propaganda tool and they became obsessed with achieving athletic success on the world stage. That meant winning medals and placing well in World Championships and Olympic Games. Of course, here in Canada, where hockey success was (and in many places and cases still is) paramount and expected, our national ego was stroked by showing the world that Canadian hockey players were the best. In the 1940s and 50s, though, as the Soviets developed their hockey program, and Canadian amateur hockey players began to lose titles to their Russian counterparts, the realization began to form that Canada’s hold on the top of the podium was becoming precarious. This began to intensify as Soviet-bloc countries began to employ “military members” and other industrial “employees” to perform their sole function as hockey players, thus creating a force of full-time hockey players but masking their “amateur” status. This was something that players in North America could never do, and it became evident that the rules of the International Ice Hockey Federation allowed the “amateur” players from the communist countries to devote their entire focus on hockey and become increasingly better than the amateurs from Canada and the United States. After 1956, when the Russians won their first Olympic hockey gold medal and as the 1960s unfolded, the Soviet “amateurs” became more and more proficient in hockey and became dominant in World Championships and Olympics, and IIHF rules prohibited Canada from sending their best (professional) players to those same tournaments, the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association felt that the only reasonable action was to pull out of events that were IIHF-sanctioned. The whole issue came to a head in 1970 when the CAHA did just that. The IIHF boss at the time, John “Bunny” Ahearne, was not willing to amend the federation’s definition of the word “amateur” for Canada’s or the United States’, or their ability to send their best players to Olympics or World Championships. But there were factions in the IIHF that knew that without Canada, the international events were lacking lustre. It took a couple of years before the thought of Canada’s best playing against the best of the Soviet Union came to fruition as we saw in the Summit Series in 1972. Internal squabbles in Canada led to the inclusion of only NHL players and the exclusion of great NHL players who had defected to the rival upstart World Hockey Association. The biggest omission, of course, was that of Bobby Hull. Canada came out on top in the eight game set by winning four games, losing three and having one game end in a tie. Because the NHL had their big series in 1972, the WHA felt the need to copy that and they held an eight-game series between their best Canadian players and the Soviets in 1974. In that one, the Russians emerged victorious. What was intensely clear was that the gap between Canada’s best players and the best players from the Soviet Union was becoming a very narrow one. Some intelligent (and entrepreneurial) people looked at what had happened in the late 60s, and the early and mid 70s and saw that there was an appetite in Canada (and North America, really) for some kind of regular meeting between the best Canadian hockey players and those of their now-rivals from the Soviet Union. It was around this time, 1973 and 1974 to be exact, that the executive director of the NHL Players Association, Alan Eagleson, began negotiations with the American, European and Soviet hockey federations to get together on the formation of some kind of tournament that would allow each country to send their best players to see which country could stand alone atop the hockey podium. It could also make some people an awful lot of money. Those negotiations took about two years and resulted in a bunch of different agreements. The most visible and immediate of those was to create the Canada Cup Tournament for the fall of 1976. But what they also did was to get Canada back into the international hockey landscape in 1977 by getting back into the World Championships. They also laid the groundwork for a Challenge Cup between the best NHLers and the Soviets and a Super Series of games between NHL club teams and Soviet club teams that would take place in the winter of 1975-76. The famous game between the Montreal Canadiens and Soviet Red Army on December 31, 1975 was a part of that series. Once he got the international hockey bodies on board, Eagleson had to get the NHL players to go along as well. He got their support by promising increased payments to the players' pensions. Next up was trying to get the NHL owners to agree to allow their players to participate in the tourney. Eagleson promised them a split of the gate receipts from the games. Almost every team was willing to go along except for the Philadelphia Flyers. Team ownership was concerned about injuries to their key players. Eagleson offered the Flyers the right to host two of the tournament games, both involving the American team as host and he gave them half the gate for those two contests as well. The Flyers fell into line. The tournament was set. The games were scheduled. Never before had anything like this been put on or seen before. The top six hockey nations would all be in one place, each with all of their best players, regardless of amateur or professional status, regardless of which league they played in. Games would be played in Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, Quebec City and Philadelphia. They were all going to be together in the respective venues and everyone would be able to see which country could lay claim to being the one true best hockey nation. The first game of the inaugural Canada Cup was to be held in the nation's capital, Ottawa at the Civic Centre. Finland would play Canada. Tickets went on sale in the summer of 1976. I was 16 years old at the time and, thankfully, I recognized the historic importance of what was about to happen. I was working part-time at the Dominion grocery store at the St. Laurent Shopping Centre in the east end of Ottawa and making $2.15/hour. A ticket in the nosebleeds was $15. I got one because I felt I had to be there. (Years later when my son was old enough to understand money and its value, I told him to try to imagine working seven or eight hours to go to a game or a concert or some event that was important to him. $15 sounds like nothing now, but in 1976, that was indeed something. Sorry for sounding like an old man. Back to our story.) The game unfolded just as any Canadian fan would have hoped. The host country jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the first thirteen minutes of the first period. Bobby Hull had a pair of goals and an assist in that time. By the end of the second period, it was 6-1. Bobby Orr had three assists to that point. The game finished with Canada winning by a score of 11-2. Richard Martin put up a hat trick and added two helpers. Guy Lafleur also had three assists. Canada outshot Finland 42-24. And even though the Canadians had heavily outplayed the Finns that day, goalie Rogatien Vachon was brilliant that night as well. He made one save that, while lying on his back and the Finns trying to launch a shot over his prone body, he stuck his catching glove up and snagged the puck out of the air as if he did that every day. Any goalie could truly appreciate a stop like that. Late in the game, I felt the urge to leave my nosebleed seat and walk down toward the ice surface. The rules and conventions of the hockey arena in 1976 were so very different from the rules of today. There was no glass behind the benches back then like there is today. There were no omnipresent security people in those days. I was able to walk down from the upper level and position myself behind the Canadian bench. I could have tapped Bobby Orr on the shoulder if I wished. I would absolutely never have done that though. I would just not have done such a thing. As I sat on the concrete stairway behind the bench, I gazed in awe. There in front of me was perhaps the greatest assembled team to ever play the game. Eighteen members of this 1976 Team Canada roster have been inducted into the Hockey Hall Of Fame. I never realized that as I sat there and looked out over the bench and on to the ice, that I was wearing my hockey team jacket. There were two men near me and one pointed at me and directed the attention of the man he was with toward me. That man was the city alderman for our ward (they weren’t city councillors then, they were aldermen). He saw my Overbrook jacket and smiled at me. I ran out of there and back up to my seat, not wanting to get into trouble or to be seen in a place in which I didn’t belong. I had seen my Canadian hockey heroes play well and win. They would go on to finish at the top of the standings after the round robin portion of the schedule. In that round robin part, there was one game that stood out. It was a game that some have said was one of the greatest hockey games ever played. Canada played the Czechs. Each team had played three games to this point. Czechoslovakia had won twice and tied once. Canada was undefeated with three wins. As the game transpired, the teams went back and forth but neither could get a puck past the other team’s keeper. Both Vladimir Dzurilla and Rogie Vachon were brilliant in goal for their respective teams. The game was scoreless after two periods. Fifteen minutes into the third period, it was still 0-0. Finally, Milan Novy scored on Vachon at the 15:41 mark of the final period. The game ended 1-0. It was a masterpiece. The top two teams in the six-team standings would play off in a best of three final series. Canada and Czechoslovakia finished numbers one and two. In game one, Canada jumped out to a 4-0 first period lead and eventually won 6-0. Bobby Orr had two goals and an assist, Denis Potvin had a goal and a helper and Guy Lapointe had two assists. It was a great day for the blueliners. Game two was a much tighter affair. Denis Potvin set up a couple of first period goals and Canada held a 2-0 lead after twenty minutes. The Czechs tied the score at 2-2 in the third minute of the third period. Bobby Clarke made it 3-2 before the halfway mark of the period but the Czechs put two goals past Vachon within 59 seconds before the sixteen minute mark to put themselves ahead and in a position to tie the series. That was when the Philadelphia Flyers line of Bill Barber, Bobby Clarke and Reggie Leach combined to tie the score with just 2:12 left in regulation. The game went to sudden-death overtime. In the twelfth minute of extra time, Darryl Sittler performed his heroics and skated around Dzurilla to put the puck into that yawning cage. Marcel Dionne and Lanny McDonald got the assists on the goal. The Canadians came out on top of the first Canada Cup and fans in the country were obviously happy. But there was a small amount of hollowness in the victory. There were fans who felt that winning would have been sweeter if Canada could have defeated the team from the Soviet Union in the final. The tournament final between the Canadians and Czechs was great but lacked the electricity, intensity or acrimony that would have accompanied a Canada-Russia final. There would be four more Canada Cup tournaments after 1976. In 1981, organizers and fans got what they had wanted in the first tourney: a Canada-Soviet Union final. This time though, the championship would be decided in a one-game final at the Montreal Forum. The Soviets embarrassed the Canadians by an 8-1 score. On their way out of the rink, they tried to spirit the Canada Cup trophy out of the country in a hockey bag. They were caught and the trophy stayed on this side of the ocean. In 1984, they went back to a best-of-three final series. In this tournament, the final was between Canada and Sweden. Canada won in a two-game sweep. John Tonelli was the most valuable player of the tournament. But one of the enduring moments of that final was the jersey exchange between Larry Robinson and Mats Naslund. The two Montreal Canadiens teammates played against each other and the image of Robinson wearing his teammate’s much smaller jersey was something everyone should see. The 1987 tourney gave us one of the greatest hockey finishes of all time. There is a generation of Canadians who believe that the final Gretzky to Lemieux goal (with Larry Murphy as the decoy) was their Paul Henderson/1972 moment. And for those people who never got to see the goal in 1972, who can argue with them. And of course, the fact that this tournament had Canada defeating the Russians in the final, it checked off all the boxes that were required to make it gratifying for Canadian fans. By 1991, we saw the end of the real Canada-Russia rivalry. The hockey enmity had been carried from the Cold War to Perestroika. It was replaced by a new international antagonism. This Canada Cup tourney saw the very early beginnings of the Canada-USA hockey conflict. The 1991 final series was played in Montreal on September 14 and Hamilton on September 16. The Canadians defeated the Americans in a two-game sweep, but the seeds were planted for more intense and important games to be played between the two countries over the following decades. Not just by the highest caliber professionals but by each country’s junior hockey players and their finest female players as well. The Canada Cup tournaments over the years gave all of us some of the greatest hockey moments of all time. There is no doubt that, in their time, those tourneys ushered us all into a new age of hockey. We went from a time when nations played hockey in isolated bubbles to a time when players from all over the world could play together in the same leagues and on the same teams. We have seen a time in which hockey styles that were once separate and distinct could come together and coalesce at the highest levels of the sport. By the time of the last Canada Cup, that isolation was gone and what was once exotic, the sight of players from behind the Iron Curtain, had now become commonplace. That commonplace aspect of the competition meant that it was no longer necessary or relevant. Subsequent efforts to replace the intensity and importance of those original Canada Cup tournaments have fallen well short of replicating what we all saw back in those first meetings. But one thing will always be true. The story of the Canada Cup tournaments all started in Ottawa.
By Howie Mooney