It's the 30th anniversary of Canada's Miracle on Ice
Sean Burke doesn’t know where the three-foot-high, porcelain snowman trophy is hiding. Maybe one of his kids has it, or maybe it’s still in storage at his old lake house.
The hardware’s whereabouts don’t really matter to the modest former goalie, because he still has the memories of surprising the powerful Soviet Union en route to winning the 1987 Izvestia tournament and collecting MVP honours.
Three decades later, Burke is the general manager of the Canadian Olympic men’s hockey team. Dave King, the head coach of the ’87 team, is one of his assistant coaches. Together, they’ve returned to the scene of one of hockey’s greatest international upsets, since renamed the Channel One Cup, which this year is a tune-up event for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Burke and King have been back in Moscow many times, but this trip is special because they’re making it together on the 30th anniversary of their victory.
“It certainly was a terrific accomplishment,” King said prior to Canada’s uncomfortable 4-2 tournament-opening win over South Korea on Wednesday. “I still see lots of guys from that team and it doesn’t take long for our conversation to turn to 1987. It was a true David beats Goliath sort of accomplishment and it took place in a historic building.”
King and Burke had another reminder of the 1987 team with the news of Zarley Zalapski’s passing earlier this week at the age of 49. Zalapski was named the top defenceman of the tournament.
Canada’s unexpected win took place at the Luzhniki Arena, on the same ice surface where Paul Henderson scored his famous late-game clincher in the 1972 Summit Series finale.
But while Canadian hockey fans often celebrate memorable international goals by Henderson, Darryl Sittler (1976 Canada Cup), Mario Lemieux (1987 Canada Cup), Steve Larmer (1991 Canada Cup) and Sidney Crosby (2010 Olympic Games), the Izvestia win — “Canada’s Miracle on Ice” as my former Globe and Mail colleague Eric Duhatschek dubbed it — remains relatively unknown.
“I think the win is in its proper context,” King says. “Those other wins for Canada were best-on-best events. Hockey fans love best-on-best events.”
As King notes, those other tournaments were televised. There is no footage of Burke’s brilliant performance in net or the key goals scored. Just memories.
Burke is now the general manager of the Canadian men’s national team that will compete at the 2018 Winter Olympics. (Jeff McIntosh)
To give this event some context, the Soviets were an international juggernaut three decades ago. The Big Red Machine had the best five-man unit in hockey with Igor Larionov between Vladimir Krutov and Sergei Makarov up front, and Viacheslav Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov on defence. They were a few months removed from their heartbreaking loss at the 1987 Canada Cup and a few months away from winning another Olympic gold, at the 1988 Calgary Games.
Canada opened the six-country, round-robin Izvestia with a 3-2 loss to Sweden and a 3-1 win against Czechoslovakia to set up the game against the host country on Dec. 19. The Soviets jumped out to a 2-0 lead and they looked like they were on their way.
But late in the second period, Wally Schreiber pulled Canada to within one with a timely wraparound goal. In the final 20 minutes, Canadian forward Ken Berry scored with a long shot, exposing the Soviets’ weakness at the time, their goaltending.
Then Berry, this time in close, scored the go-ahead goal with 11:11 remaining, and Burke closed the door like he did throughout the tournament.
“Whenever you pull off an upset like this you need pretty good goaltending,” King says. “Sean gave us a chance because of how well he played.”
Dave King, centre, is now an assistant coach on the Canadian national team. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)
The atmosphere was ugly in Luzhniki that day. The home fans whistled their athletes off the ice. The Canadians were euphoric. But they still had two games to play, including the next day against West Germany.
Despite a sensational effort from West German goalie Josef (Beppo) Schlickenrieder, who stopped Schreiber and Marc Habscheid on breakaways and made his best save on Serge Boisvert from close range, Ken Yaremchuk managed to score the difference maker with less than seven minutes to play in Canada’s eventual 2-1 win. Two days later, the tournament victory was completed with a 4-1 win against Finland.
Burke recalls that forward Gord Sherven and defenceman Randy Gregg had purchased a bottle of champagne on the black market the night before the tournament finale for a memorable dressing room celebration.
“The things you learn the guys did afterward,” King says with a chuckle. “The coach is always the last to know.”
King plans to mark the 30th anniversary by visiting Luzhniki on one of his morning runs. Burke has no such plans. He has his memories.
“I’ll always remember that bunch of characters,” Burke says. “I still see a lot of them. I ran into Vaughn Karpan the other day and Gord Sherven not too long ago.
“It’s something you never forget — the sights, the sounds and smells. Time doesn’t seem to have diminished the memories.”