Rendez-Vous 87: The NHL All-Stars, the Soviet National Team, and the Super Bowl of Hockey

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Twenty-five years ago this weekend, a team of NHL All-Stars faced off against the Soviet National Team in a pair of exhibition games in Quebec City. The games were two of the main attractions of Rendez-Vous 87, a week-long series of events held during Quebec’s Winter Carnival. The “Super Bowl of hockey” featured lavish meals, fashion shows, the Bolshoi Ballet, and even Ontario native Alan Thicke. Here’s a brief history of the spectacle.

The Idea Is Born

According to Sports Illustrated writer E.M. Swift, the idea for Rendez-Vous 87 was hatched at a 1983 NHL Board of Governors meeting in Quebec City. The league expressed interest in hosting an All-Star Game in one of North America’s oldest cities in the near future and Quebec Nordiques president Marcel Aubut began brainstorming ideas to spice up the typically boring midseason exhibition between the NHL’s two conferences. Quebec City was officially awarded the 1987 All-Star Game in 1984. Two years later, Aubut presented his idea for a two-game series between the NHL All-Stars and the Soviet National Team, which would serve as the centerpiece of a larger celebration and showcase for the city. “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,” Aubut said.

The Date Is Set

The league liked Aubut’s idea and moved to extend the All-Star break from two to five days, even before the NHL Player’s Association and Soviet Hockey Federation agreed to participate. “The players haven't said yes yet because they haven't been asked,” said Alan Eagleson, the executive director of the player’s association. “The Soviets haven't agreed because they don't know anything about the project. It is my guess that if the money is right – if the pile is high enough – there will be no problem.”

Eagleson used the series as a source of leverage during collective bargaining, but eventually gave his blessing. The Soviets were also on board. Each of the NHL All-Stars received $1,000 per game plus expenses, while the Soviet National Team earned $40,000 per game plus expenses. The dates for the series were set for Wednesday, February 11, and Friday, February 13.

Much More Than Hockey

Aubut was determined to make Rendez-Vous 87 hockey’s version of the Super Bowl. “If people think this is going to be just a couple of hockey games with a few other things thrown around it, they're wrong,” he said at a press conference. “That's not the case at all. This is going to be one of the big events of the decade.” Indeed, the hockey games were but two items on a jam-packed schedule of events.

Festivities began on Monday with a 10-course, $350-a-head dinner for 1,500, prepared by top chefs from the Soviet Union, United States, and Canada. Subsequent events included a variety show featuring local acts, the Soviet Red Army Chorus, and members of the Bolshoi Ballet; a business lunch with Chrysler president Lee Iacocca; brunch in a museum decorated by Pierre Cardin to resemble Maxim’s of Paris; and a $250,000 fashion show. United States President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Andrei Gromyko delivered video messages of peace during a black-tie gala. Guests included Joe Dimaggio, Gordon Lightfoot, Wilt Chamberlain, Pele, and Thicke, who wrote the words for the event’s official theme song.

Previous Series

Individual NHL teams and various all-star teams had played exhibition games against the Soviet National Team before, but Rendez-Vous 87 marked the first time that North America’s best professional players faced off against the world’s most dominant team. In the 1972 Summit Series, a team of Canadian players defeated the U.S.S.R. 4-3-1 in an eight-game series. The Soviets won two out of three games in the 1979 Challenge Cup held in New York, but that exhibition excluded World Hockey Association stars. The WHA merged with the NHL after the 1978-79 season, putting all of North America’s best players in one league.

Coaching Controversy

It was customary at the time for the coaches who appeared in the previous season’s Stanley Cup to coach in the All-Star game. Montreal hoisted the Stanley Cup in 1986, but the Canadiens’ bitter relationship with the Nordiques led many to wonder if their head coach, Jean Perron, would be selected to lead the NHL’s team of stars. Aubut, whose dislike for Perron was well known, wisely removed himself from the process for picking the coaching staff. Perron, Nordiques head coach Michel Bergeron, and Calgary Flames head coach Bob Johnson were eventually tapped to lead the NHL team.

Picking the Team

Picking the players was almost as controversial. The NHL team’s starting lineup, save for the goalie, was determined by fan vote, while eight NHL executives picked the rest of the squad. Many fans cried foul when Mario Lemieux beat out Wayne Gretzky for the starting center spot, despite the fact that the Great One’s scoring stats were far and away the best in the league. These fans accused the Nordiques organization of being, as one reporter put it, “tastelessly aggressive in the manner in which it has distributed and collected all-star ballots.”

Ten days before the first game in the series, Lemieux offered Gretzky his starting spot, but the Great One politely declined.

The Oilers had an NHL-best seven players selected to the team, but only one – Ontario native Paul Coffey – was voted a starter by the fans. (Coffey would sit out the series with an injury.) The final roster was comprised primarily of Canadians, but also included four Americans, two Swedes, and two Finns.

The Hype

A few months before the event, a report emerged from Moscow that, while the Soviets supported the series publicly, they were privately against it, fearing the embarrassment that would come with potential defeat. “It is ridiculous to say one side or the other does not want to play because it may lose,” said Gennadi Kasnachev, the Soviet consul in Montreal. “The game, the two sides meeting; that's what's important, particularly now with the political situation being so dangerous.” Pundits argued over who should be favored. The NHL All-Stars would only have a couple of days to prepare as a team, which was one of the main reasons that Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider ripped the series. “I think it's terrible,” Snider said. “(The Soviets) have all the advantages and we have all the disadvantages. They've created this illusion of being supermen. But all they do is maneuver and manipulate to always get the edge in sports, just like they do in everything else.” On the other hand, the Soviets would be jet-lagged.

The Ticket Fiasco

A month before the first game in the series, Eagleson threatened a player boycott. Aubut made 500 of the 15,000-plus tickets for each game at Quebec’s Colisée available to the public. Most of the rest were reserved for Nordiques season-ticket holders, corporate sponsors, and government officials. The 75 tickets Aubut set aside for the players and NHL officials was “unsatisfactory” to Eagleson, who asked that each player receive two tickets and the right to purchase two more in the best section. Aubut eventually caved and averted a crisis, providing Eagleson with 500 tickets no more than 20 rows from the ice. The ticket fiasco was only one of the headaches leading up to the event. Toronto pulled out of the parade, which was supposed to feature a float from every NHL team, because its owner didn’t like the Soviets. Eagleson and Aubut also haggled over hotel rates.

Game 1: NHL All-Stars 4, U.S.S.R. 3

After the Red Army Choir, Harvard Glee Club, and Quebec Symphony Orchestra Choir sang the national anthems of the Soviet Union, Canada, and United States, the NHL All-Stars jumped out to a 2-0 lead on goals by Jari Kurri and Glenn Anderson. The Soviets came back to tie the score at 3-3 in the third period, but Dave Poulin’s goal off a deflection of a Lemieux shot with 75 seconds remaining gave the NHL team a stirring victory. “We can’t win every game,” Soviet coach Victor Tikhonov told reporters after putting his team through a rigorous practice the following day.

Game 2: U.S.S.R. 5, NHL All-Stars 3

The Soviets got a strong performance from goalie Evgeny Belosheikin and overcame an early 1-0 deficit. Before the event, the two sides agreed that co-champions would be declared if the teams split the series. Given that his team had outscored the NHL All-Stars in the two games, Tikhonov was asked if he considered his squad the champions. “It is important that you know that the NHL didn’t win, and neither did we,” he said. “The person that won was hockey itself. Both games were like holidays, like festivals, two of the greatest hockey games you’ll ever see.” Tikhonov praised the performance of the NHL All-Stars. “If they were my team, they'd never lose a game,” he said. “ …Of all teams, this is the one I admire the most.”

A Success

For all the consternation leading up to Rendez-Vous 87, the event was a success. At least 125 million people in more than 20 countries watched the games, with Game 2 drawing a 50 percent audience share. CBC produced the telecast and controlled the Canadian rights to the broadcast, while ESPN owned the rights everywhere else except the Soviet Union. Aubut would later report that the event, which cost $9.4 million, turned a $1.9-million profit and generated at least $18.5 million in economic spinoffs. Aubut returned $500,000 to the public purse as “an exemplary gesture.”

Postscript

Hockey hasn’t had another event like Rendez-Vous 87, partly because the Soviet Union collapsed. In 1989, Sergei Priakin became the first player from the Soviet Union permitted to play for a professional team in North America when he signed with Calgary. Today, there are Russian stars throughout the league. Aubut remained president of the Nordiques until 1995, when he sold the team to an American company that relocated the franchise to Denver. Today, he is the president of the Canadian Olympic Committee. Eagleson, who fought so hard for those tickets, was later convicted of fraud and embezzlement, disbarred, and removed from the Hockey Hall of Fame.

February 10, 2012 - 11:16pm
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