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All that's left now for the Soviet Union's relentless Big Red Machine to do is to pick up the revered old Montreal Forum, skate it across Ste. Catherines Street, down through Old Montreal and dump it into the St. Lawrence River, and the National Hockey League along with it. This time was supposed to be different. Team U.S.S.R. was supposed to be done for. It would be Team Canada's and the NHL's day. Eighteen months ago the Soviets had dropped from sight, stunned by a ragtag U.S.A. Olympic team not overly talented but too young to know it. And for the past two weeks, playing in a thing called Canada Cup II, the Soviets had looked more like just another Team Sweden or Team Finland than a vaunted international power.
But last Sunday night in the Canada Cup finale, meeting a Canadian team of NHL pros that everyone was calling Team Awesome, the Soviets took the ice at the Forum and outskated, outchecked and outfinessed Canada, ultimately scoring a crushing 8-1 victory. Eight goals. Oh no, Canada.
Other Team Canada/NHL embarrassments at the hands of the U.S.S.R. could be written off with one excuse or another. In 1972 Team Canada was hopelessly out of shape, lost some face but still won the series. In 1979 the NHL had only two days to summon up the Challenge Cup team that was routed 6-0 by the Soviets in the decisive game. But this time Team Canada seemed to have everything in order. It had tremendous scorers, a mobile defense, role players. It had enthusiasm. It had a full month of training camp to get in shape, to iron out any wrinkles. And on Sunday, Team Canada had only to beat a Soviet team that four nights earlier it had annihilated 7-3 in a preliminary game.
"This was just a one-game deal," said Canada Defenseman Brian Engblom after Sunday's debacle, "and they came up better than us."
What happened before 17,033 mostly silent fans was that the NHL finally ran out of excuses for losing "big" hockey games to the Soviet Union. As Canada Cup II proved once again, the Soviets play for the sickle better than the NHLers do for the buck.
What Canada Cup II was supposed to be was an extravaganza of nationalism designed so that Canada could regain its hockey supremacy. What it turned out to be was a bust, except for the Soviets, of course. Instead of being a hotly contested two-week tournament pitting the world's six strongest hockey nations—Canada, the U.S.S.R., Sweden, Finland, Czechoslovakia and the U.S.—it was a one-game war. After the Soviet Union and Canada, you see, there's a talent gap that even a friendly referee would find impossible to bridge.
This year, for instance, Sweden was represented by an odd amalgam of 16 NHL pros and seven amateurs who hardly knew each other and played as if they didn't care to. Finland went winless, and in its five games was outscored 31-6. While Team U.S.A. was greatly improved over the 1976 Canada Cup I edition that earned the nickname "Team Useless," the Americans didn't have a genuine goal scorer, something a hockey team, well, needs.
And the timing for Canada Cup II wasn't exactly perfect, either. Pretournament exhibition games began in mid-August, when even a Rocket Richard would prefer to be on a beach. When Canada squeaked past the Soviet Union in a tune-up at Edmonton a few weeks ago, one sardonic Montreal newspaperman was quick to call the game "the greatest hockey thriller ever played in August."
Certainly, the six exhibition games and the 15-game preliminary round robin to qualify four teams for the semifinals, not to mention the $25 tickets, didn't fool Canada's sophisticated fans. At first Quebec City was scheduled to host three games, including one of the semifinals, but after only 4,055 Quebeckers turned out to see Canada play the U.S. in an exhibition game, Cup organizer Alan Eagleson gassed Quebec and moved the other two games to Ottawa, which then packed in all of 7,500 for the Soviets' 4-1 semifinal win over Czechoslovakia on Friday night. Until Sunday night no Canada Cup game had been a sellout. The Soviets and Team Canada did draw 16,001 to the Forum Wednesday night, but a Team Canada intrasquad game last month attracted an even larger crowd. At Winnipeg, only 3,688 watched Sweden play Finland. "Yeah," said New York Islander General Manager Bill Torrey, an adviser to Team Canada, "but 1,300 of them were NHL scouts."