So many myths floating around about this current World Cup of Hockey. There are many things I like about it, and a few I abhor. There are already, in the “friendly” matches storylines I am enjoying more than I thought I would, and cliches I wish I could do without.
But loyalty plays big with me, it always has. Loyalty is earned, not a given. I try and be objective about every single thing in my life — even my own kids, and that’s difficult, because, well, they’re my two favourite children on the planet! But the Canada Cup/World Cup is something I’ve felt a loyalty ever since I was five years old during the 1976 inaugural tournament. Back then, it was so fascinating to have a pre-season best-on-best tournament, and yes, in kindergarten classes that fall, we’d all be discussing it. It’s been important to me ever since, and I’d still claim “1987 is our generation’s 1972” wherever I can, and given the talent playing in that tournament, it’s hard to dispute. I can put the DVDs of the entire tournament or the Canada/Russia three-game final on any occasion, and it still has a pulsing energy to it and it’s an instantaneous time machine back to a wonderful year and time.
That said, it’s been quite a long time since the Toronto Maple Leafs had a big impact on this tournament, regardless of its moniker. The tournament didn’t take place at all during Doug Gilmour’s time as a Maple Leaf, and it actually missed most of Wendel Clark’s healthy and productive years also. There hasn’t been an elite Canadian defenceman play for the Maple Leafs my entire life — we’re left to discuss the merits of Bryan McCabe and Ian Turnbull as maybe their best two. And even for Curtis Joseph, he’d rather not talk about the 1996 World Cup than talk about, if you get what I mean, and besides, he was an Edmonton Oiler then, not yet to be a Leaf.
In fact, this year’s tourney is the most “Leafy” this thing has felt since 1996 when Joseph was Canada’s starting goalie, and Sundin was not only Sweden’s best player but one of the best in the tournament, period. Amazingly, Sundin would be just as effective six years later in Salt Lake City, but that’s for another day.
Here’s some compressed looks at how involved the Maple Leafs have really been at the Canada Cup/World Cup since their captain scored the tournament winner in the first one forty autumns ago:
2004 World Cup
Bryan McCabe was about 18 months away from being added to the 2006 Winter Olympics version of Team Canada, but a 53 point season and decent two playoff rounds wasn’t enough to get him on the 2004 team. Perhaps, surprising selections of Scott Hannan and Robin Reghyr (who did play great helping Calgary to that spring’s Stanley Cup Final) left no room for McCabe. Even Chris Pronger withdrawing because of injury didn’t open up a spot for McCabe, as Jay Bouwmeester replaced Pronger on the eventual tournament champion blueline.
The international door had also closed on Curtis Joseph after his second and final season as a Red Wing, despite excellent playoff numbers, as Roberto Luongo ascended to become Martin Brodeur’s backup, and thanks to a Brodeur injury, Luongo had to start, and be very good in, Canada’s OT semi-final win over the Czech Republic, featuring both Robert Reichel and Tomas Kaberle’s contributions.
Former Leaf Frederik Modin was Team Sweden’s leading scorer with 8 points in 4 tournament games and played with Leaf captain Mats Sundin a number of times throughout the tournament, which ended with a bang for Sweden, in their 6-1 hammering to the Czechs in a Stockholm-based quarter-final. How suspect was Sweden’s goaltending at the time of the tournament? Mikael Tellqvist started three of the four games, and you guessed it (no, not Frank Stallone), Tommy Salo filled the net in the other game two years after his Olympic nightmare against Belarus.
Amazingly, the only Maple Leaf on ice at the Air Canada Centre for the Canada/Finland one-game final was Aki Berg on the Finnish blueline. Berg would return as a Leaf for 75 more games in 2005-06 after the lockout season before leaving the NHL for five more seasons in the Swedish Elite League.
1996 World Cup
As is sometimes forgotten (but stated often in this piece), Curtis Joseph wasn’t a Maple Leaf yet, that free-agent signing would come two summers later in 1998, several months after the Nagano Olympics. But it was his net, as Joseph bested both Martin Brodeur and an older Bill Ranford to start the majority of Team Canada games. Former Leaf Vincent Damphousse was a, surprising to some, survivor after cuts were made and scored two goals for Canada during the tournament.
Russia had a rare Leafs presence in defenceman Dmitri Yushkevich, just 24 and full of talent and promise as the tournament began, and Team USA featured recently-acquired Mathieu Schneider playing all 7 games and contributing 2 goals in their remarkable run to the trophy that fall.
But to me, the tournament belonged to Mats Sundin. If you can, hit up YouTube and watch how incredible Mats Sundin’s semi-final performance is against Team Canada. I’ve included the highlights but a few things stand out:
1. It’s the best I’ve ever seen Mats Sundin play a game of hockey.
2. The atmosphere was amazing on a Saturday evening — despite the game being in PHILADELPHIA. Full credit to Philly’s fans and those who travelled. Canada was playing there because they didn’t win their group after their 5-3 round-robin loss to the USA.
3. A game like this was also a great example of Eric Lindros at his most dominant. He was coming off a 115 point season in 73 games at the age of 23, and no one needed to be convinced it was a matter of time before he’d get a Cup ring. Though the Flyers would make the Cup Final the next spring, they’d be swept out by Detroit and Lindros wouldn’t ever get back. You need help, man. That’s all I can say.
4. Bit of a soft Cujo goal on the first Sweden marker to open up the game again after Canada had seemingly closed the door a bunch of times. My recollection is Sweden (led by Sundin) had far more chances in the overtime periods.
1991 Canada Cup
A quiet tournament, rather, on the Maple Leafs front, although it is noteworthy that unlike 1984 and 1987, tournament games were once again played at Maple Leaf Gardens — Harold Ballard had passed away in the spring of 1990, and given he’d been the issue at hand, now there wasn’t one.
The lone Leafs presence on the 1991 champs from the host nation was actually assistant coach Tom Watt, who’d finished as head coach during the dismal and tumultuous 1990-91 season which saw Doug Carpenter quickly fired, and basically half the Opening Night roster was traded following a ghastly 4-21-1 start to a season where the Leafs would finish 20th of 21 teams, and yet they’d surrender the third overall pick (expansion San Jose chose 2nd) to New Jersey after the prior year’s infamous Tom Kurvers trade.
Very little surprise that the final six-team edition of the Canada Cup featured no Maple Leafs players on any of the six rosters — yet Team Canada would have one ex-Leaf (Russ Courtnall) and four future Leafs (Eric Lindros, Larry Murphy, Shayne Corson, and Ed Belfour). Then-Chicago Blackhawks coach Mike Keenan put three of his own players on the team (Courtnall, Steve Larmer, Dirk Graham) at the expense of superstars like Joe Sakic, Steve Yzerman, and Adam Oates. Canada won the tournament handily despite the obvious nepotism.
Meanwhile, former Leaf Borje Salming suited up again internationally, after missing the 1987 Canada Cup — he came back at age 40 for Team Sweden a year after leaving the NHL, and played six games, often paired with a young 21-year old about to make his NHL debut that fall — Nicklas Lidstrom.
1987 Canada Cup
Some still call this Team Canada the greatest collection of talent ever — and it’s hard to destroy that particular thesis though the roster featured no Toronto Maple Leafs. It’s often forgotten but 20-year old Wendel Clark was a training camp invite and a late cut, as 34 players were pared down to 23 before the tournament started. Clark had scored 60 points in 80 games for a very young Leafs team that made it to Game 7 of the Norris Division finals before bowing out to arch-rival Detroit. The team was so deep Detroit’s own captain Steve Yzerman was cut (that Keenan guy again), along with Cam Neely and Patrick Roy. But Normand Rochefort made the team! Yes, yes, I know, team needs, etc.
Oddly, Toronto would acquire a player DURING the tournament itself as on September 3rd, Team USA’s Ed Olczyk was moved from Chicago to Toronto, along with Al Secord, for Rick Vaive, Steve Thomas, and Bob McGill. Team USA would disappoint, finishing fifth out of six teams and missing the semi-finals.
1984 Canada Cup
Again, sort of an easy excuse for a Maple Leafs fan to feel disengaged from this tournament, yet, given their own team’s domestic frustrations, it was fun to hop on the Canada bandwagon, and that fall, the team followed up a bountiful 1984 Summer Olympics performance by Team Canada (the Soviet Bloc boycott helped, let’s be honest) with a dramatic tournament win, highlighted by the Canada/Soviets semi-final classic and the overtime goal on a wrist shot from Paul Coffey, tipped by Mike Bossy for a 3-2 victory.
There were hopes Rick Vaive could find a place on Team Canada, and why not, given he’d finished tied for 5th in goals scored in the 1983-84 season with 52 (behind only Wayne Gretzky, Michel Goulet, Tim Kerr, and Glenn Anderson). But Vaive was cut in training camp along with the likes of Denis Savard, Sylvain Turgeon, Brian Sutter, and a very young (but mean) Scott Stevens.
1981 Canada Cup
Yes, this is what I am speaking of! All about the Soviets, really, this one was, despite the Canada Cup debut of Wayne Gretzky, something that we’d all looked forward to all summer long, given all he’d done was amass 301 NHL points by the age of 20 in his first two NHL seasons. The Soviets also were extremely motivated after the disastrous Miracle On Ice occurrence in Lake Placid at the Olympics 18 months earlier.
Amazingly, there’d be no Darryl Sittler to return and create the magic as he did on that star-laden 1976 team — Sittler was a training camp cut in favour of younger blood – he was hardly alone as Scotty Bowman was forced to cut his own 4-time Stanley Cup winner in Montreal, Steve Shutt, as well as Philadelphia’s Bill Barber, and “kids” like Rob Ramage, Mike Gartner, and Bobby Smith.
I’ve interviewed Sittler countless times and never asked him how close he felt to being on that team, but I’d be interested to know. He’d scored 96 points that year, tied for 15th in what was then a very high-scoring league (12 players that season topped 100 points — including Quebec’s legendary Jacques Richard! What a world!). But when your centres in 1981 are Bryan Trottier, Wayne Gretzky, Marcel Dionne, Gilbert Perreault, and (for checking and annoyance purposes only) Ken Linseman, where does a 30-year old Sittler fit? Certainly not on the wing — he needs the puck. I mean, Dave Taylor of the Kings got cut and he had 112 points and finished 5th in scoring. Maybe these were controversial omissions back then — but I was 10 and not involved in a genre (sports talk radio) that basically didn’t exist, so what do I know?
Borje Salming played for Sweden. As he often did. End.
Also, what were the Czechs thinking not putting Jiri Crha on their team instead of something called “Jiri Kralik”. That’s not a real person.
Actually, the Czechs knew better, given they finished 3rd in round-robin play and gave up only 13 goals in the 5 games.
1976 Canada Cup
I doubt you could have even gone to Las Vegas in the summer of 1976 and bet on this event, but imagine the odds. Would Canada have been an overwhelming favourite in the shadow of nearly losing the 1972 Summit Series? Would people have invested heavily on the Czechs, who we’d have seen so little of at that point, internationally? Would people have backed the Soviets only to find they left some of their more talented players (and “compete levels” back in Mother Russia)?
Well, in 1976, as well, the future of the Harold Ballard-owned Toronto Maple Leafs wasn’t necessarily, umm, well, checking in somewhere between “very bleak” and “apocalyptic”. The Leafs had won a playoff round and pushed back hard against the then-defending two-time Cup champion Flyers, pushing them to seven games in the league quarter-finals — the Flyers would be swept by Montreal in the Final.
Darryl Sittler was 25 and everything you’d hope a superstar captain could and would be. 22-year old Lanny McDonald was as prolific a young scorer as there was in the NHL, posting 37-56-93 in his second season. And the Leafs leading goal-scorer in 1975-76 wasn’t either of those future Hall of Famers — it was Errol Thompson with 25.
But, remember, the WHA was also in full swing which slightly diluted the NHL’s talent, even though the league had 18 teams (soon to be 17 with the Minnesota/Cleveland merger). 22 year old Ian Turnbull was awfully promising, but on a Canada blueline featuring Bobby Orr, Denis Potvin, Larry Robinson, Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe, and Carol Vadnais, Turnbull wasn’t getting a sniff.
Borje Salming had become a real crowd favourite in Toronto, and while suiting up for Team Sweden after his third Leafs season, it was properly expressed as he received a famous standing ovation in the pre-game introductions at the Gardens, before Canada properly whacked the Swedes 4-0. Did you expect differently? Don Cherry’s eventual favourite goaltender, Hardy Astrom, was the Swedish starter.
Where’s the love for Juha Widing?
Anyway, we all know what went down — Lanny McDonald actually was a healthy scratch in the first two tournament games against Finland and Team USA, before debuting against Sweden. But, he’d keep his spot in the lineup and assist on two goals in five games, including Sittler’s tournament winner.
Sittler would be one of four Team Canada players with at least four goals — Phil Esposito and Gilbert Perreault also did, and Bobby Hull scored five. But it was Sittler’s OT winner in Game 2 of the best-of-three Final against Czechoslovakia that kids all over Canada would imitate in driveways and rinks for years after — the fake slapper, and pulling the goalie wide and eliminating the nail-biting potential for a Game 3 against a nation many Canadians didn’t think could compete with us, much as we thought about the Soviets four summers earlier.
I’m not sure 1976 could go better for Sittler, with the exception of the Game 7 loss to Philadelphia. His 10-point night against Boston in February was followed up with a best-on-best tournament winner. Outside of the Paul Henderson goal from 1972, Mario Lemieux’s from 1987, and Sidney Crosby in 2010 – what Team Canada goal has been more memorable?
So do enjoy the World Cup. From the participation of Mike Babcock (we’re all still getting used to thinking of him as Leafs coach, trust me) to Morgan Rielly and Auston Matthews on the North America team, there’s lots to watch. Maybe things aren’t as promising yet as that first Canada Cup in 1976 for the Maple Leafs (yet) but it beats a Canada Cup or World Cup where it’s simply delaying an inevitably disappointing Maple Leafs season with little or no star power in the tournament soon to go from one Maple Leaf on the crest of the sweater to another.