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There is this terribly unfair stereotype of the Russian—particularly the Russian authority figure—as a stolid, stone-faced, humorless technocrat. But here was Viktor Tikhonov, coach of the Soviet National Hockey Team, grinning impishly and joking with reporters last Friday night, addressing, through an interpreter, such matters of importance as: Would he be drinking champagne to celebrate? ("Perhaps, if you're buying.") Was his job as Soviet coach on the line tonight? ("From the question you're asking, it seems like you're trying to get rid of me.") Just how good were the All-Stars from the National Hockey League? ("If I had Team NHL, I would never lose a game.")
Really? That good? Hard to believe, considering Tikhonov's Soviet All-Stars had just whupped the pride of the NHL 5-3, overcoming both the players and the embarrassingly biased refereeing of Dave Newell, to halve the two-game series known as Rendez-Vous 87 at one game for each side. Two days earlier Team NHL had won 4-3, meaning the Soviets had outscored the NHL by one goal overall. Did the Soviets therefore consider themselves the winners of the Rendez-Vous, the coach was asked. "It is important that you know," replied the merry Tikhonov, "that 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."
So they were. And the fact that no tie-breaking procedure had been established if the two teams split was not the cop-out it once seemed, but rather the perfect ending to a near-perfect week. Co-winners. Why not? Where was it written there must always be a loser? There were winners all around—players, fans and, at long last, the NHL itself, a league that would do well to ride the coattails of the charismatic Marcel Aubut just as far as he would take them.
Aubut, 39, the president of the Quebec Nordiques and senior partner of Aubut-Chabot, a Quebec law firm, was the mastermind of Rendez-Vous 87 at Quebec City, a festival conceived to inject some life into the moribund carcass of the old standard NHL All-Star clash between those two great titans, the Wales and the Campbells. Few who watch the game know which is which, and fewer still care. Aubut is the rare mover and shaker within the stodgy NHL community. He was the first owner to actively participate in the defection of players from Czechoslovakia, spiriting away the Brothers Statsny, Peter and Anton, who have become the cornerstones of his franchise. It was Aubut who spearheaded the drive to play a five-minute, sudden-death overtime, and it was Aubut who was behind the creation of a second hockey network on Canadian television. He is a doer. And he is also an extravagant host. The genesis for Rendez-Vous 87 came in 1983 during a Board of Governors' meeting in Quebec City, at which Aubut rolled out the red carpet for his fellow owners. "We treated them like kings," Aubut recalls in a rich French-Canadian accent. "They wanted us to host an All-Star game as soon as possible. Then [ NHL president] John Ziegler told me since Quebec was one of North America's oldest cities, an international city, a winter carnival city, that maybe we should do something special. I ask him, let me think about it."
Aubut thought...and presented a proposal to the league governors during the 1986 All-Star break in Hartford that left them, well, stunned. "It shouldn't be a party just among us, the hockey fans," Aubut told them. "It should be an event where sports fans who otherwise have no interest in hockey have no choice but to watch and where even the people who are not interested in sports have no choice but to watch. That is the way to promote a sport."
When the league agreed to Aubut's proposal to invite the Soviet National Team and extend the All-Star break from two days to five, Aubut didn't stop there. Once he had the Soviet hockey team, Aubut wanted Soviet chefs, Soviet dancers, Soviet singers. He wanted businessmen, politicians and athletes from the entire realm of sport—this for a league that considers an evening with Anne Murray to be a knockout affair. Voil�! Rendez-Zoo was born. It would be an international festival of culture and sport.
Aubut also would have been happy to get NHL Players Association president Alan Eagleson off his back. Eagleson spent the weeks leading up to Rendez-Vous whining in the most public manner that the players' tickets weren't good enough, complaining that the hotels in Quebec were too expensive and threatening to lead a player boycott of the entire event if those matters weren't resolved. Eagleson, who organizes the Canada Cup and considers himself the kingpin of Canadian hockey, "hoped Aubut would fall flat on his face," according to one NHL governor.
"I used to ask myself why Eagleson was so nervous," Aubut told reporter R�jean Tremblay of Montreal's La Presse, gloating a little at Rendez-Vous's success. "Now I know. He was the king and master of the international hockey scene, the only one to have contacts in the Soviet Union and with the International Hockey Federation. Now I have these contacts too.... And I intend to keep cultivating them."
The only glitch of the entire week came at the opening press conference, when Eagleson—whose manners are akin to a burro's—brusquely interrupted Procter & Gamble's marketing services manager Greg Breen, who was making a presentation to Mario Lemieux for receiving the most votes in the fans' All-Star balloting. Eagleson broke in to introduce the Soviets, who had just arrived. Members of the press, who had been sitting through several corporate speeches so that they could eventually interview the Team NHL players, were then told that the players had to leave for practice. "In a matter of minutes, Eagleson alienated both a league sponsor and the press," remarked one NHL staffer.
While the league organized that little gathering, everything Aubut handled went smoothly and with �lan—beginning with Monday's sumptuous Gourmet Dinner, a 10-course, nine-wine, $350-a-plate affair for some 1,500 that featured the culinary skills of chefs from the U.S.S.R., the U.S. and Canada. The caviar wasn't Russian, but the beaver consomm� was a splash. And the huntsman who trumpeted as the pheasant terrine was served became a league hero when his mount piled horseapples alongside the media table. Once that course was cleared, on came the bison filet and the fiddleheads.