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

Image courtesy of GreatestHockeyLegends.com

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.

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9 Scandals that Rocked the Figure Skating World
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images

Don't let the ornate costumes and beautiful choreography fool you, figure skaters are no strangers to scandal. Here are nine notable ones.

1. TONYA AND NANCY.

Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding
Pascal Rondeau, ALLSPORT/Getty Images

In 1994, a little club-and-run thrust the sport of figure skating into the spotlight. The assault on reigning national champion Nancy Kerrigan (and her subsequent anguished cries) at the 1994 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Detroit was heard round the world, as were the allegations that her main rival, Tonya Harding, may have been behind it all.

The story goes a little something like this: As America's sweetheart (Kerrigan) is preparing to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team bound for Lillehammer, Norway, she gets clubbed in the knee outside the locker room after practice. Kerrigan is forced to withdraw from competition and Harding gets the gold. Details soon emerge that Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, was behind the attack (he hired a hitman). Harding denies any knowledge or involvement, but tanks at the Olympics the following month. She then pleads guilty to hindering prosecution of Gillooly and his co-conspirators, bodyguard Shawn Eckhart and hitman Shane Stant. And then she's banned from figure skating for life.

Questions about Harding's guilt remain two decades later, and the event is still a topic of conversation today. Recently, both an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary and the Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya revisited the saga, proving we can't get enough of a little figure skating scandal.

2. HAND-PICKED FOR GOLD.

Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner at the podium
Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

Usually it's the top three medalists at the U.S. Nationals that compete for America at the Winter Olympics every four years. But in 2014, gold medalist Gracie Gold (no pun intended), silver medalist Polina Edmunds, and ... "pewter" medalist Ashley Wagner were destined for Sochi.

What about the bronze medalist, you ask? Mirai Nagasu, despite out-skating Wagner by a landslide in Boston and despite being the only skater with prior Olympic experience (she placed fourth at Vancouver in 2010) had to watch it all on television. The decision by the country's governing body of figure skating (United States Figure Skating Association, or USFS) deeply divided the skating community as to whether it was the right choice to pass over Nagasu in favor of Wagner, who hadn't skated so great, and it put a global spotlight on the selection process.

In reality, the athletes that we send to the Olympics are not chosen solely on their performance at Nationals—it's one of many criteria taken into consideration, including performance in international competition over the previous year, difficulty of each skater's technical elements, and, to some degree, their marketability to a world audience. This has happened before to other skaters—most notably Michelle Kwan was relegated to being an alternate in 1994 after Nancy Kerrigan was granted a medical bye after the leg-clubbing heard round the world. Nagasu had the right to appeal the decision, and was encouraged to do so by mobs of angry skating fans, but she elected not to.

3. SALT LAKE CITY, 2002.

Pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia perform in the figure skating exhibition during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games at the Salt Lake Ice Center in Salt Lake City, Utah
Brian Bahr, Getty Images

Objectively, this scandal rocked the skating world the hardest, because the end result was a shattering of the competitive sport's very structure. When Canadian pairs team Jamie Sale and David Pelletier found themselves in second place after a flawless freeskate at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, something wasn't right. The Russian team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze placed first, despite a technically flawed performance.

An investigation into the result revealed that judges had conspired to fix the results of the pairs and dance events—a French judge admitted to being pressured to vote for the Russian pair in exchange for a boost for the French dance team (who won that event). In the end, both pairs teams were awarded a gold medal, and the entire system of judging figure skating competition was thrown out and rebuilt.

4. AGENT OF STYLE.

Jackson Haines was an American figure skater in the mid-1800s who had some crazy ideas about the sport. He had this absolutely ludicrous notion of skating to music (music!), waltzing on ice, as well as incorporating balletic movements, athletic jumps, and spins into competition. His brand new style of skating was in complete contrast to the rigid, traditional, and formal (read: awkward) standard of tracing figure-eights into the ice. Needless to say, it was not well received by the skating world in America, so he was forced to take his talents to the Old World.

His new “international style” did eventually catch on around the globe, and Haines is now hailed as the father of modern figure skating. He also invented the sit spin, a technical element now required in almost every level and discipline of the sport.

5. LADIES LAST.

In 1902, competitive figure skating was a gentlemen's pursuit. Ladies simply didn't compete by themselves on the world stage (though they did compete in pairs events). But a British skater named Madge Syers flouted that standard, entering the World Figure Skating Championships in 1902. She ruffled a lot of feathers, but was ultimately allowed to compete and beat the pants off every man save one, earning the silver medal.

Her actions sparked a controversy that spurred the International Skating Union to create a separate competitive world event for women in 1906. Madge went on to win that twice, and became Olympic champion at the 1908 summer games [PDF] in London—the first “winter” Olympics weren't held until 1924 in France, several years after Madge died in 1917.

6. AGENT OF STYLE, PART 2.

A picture of Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie
Keystone/Getty Images

Norwegian skater Sonja Henie was the darling of the figure skating world in the first half of the 20th century. The flirtatious blonde was a three-time Olympic champion, a movie star, and the role model of countless aspiring skaters. She brought sexy back to skating—or rather, introduced it. She was the first skater to wear scandalously short skirts and white skates. Prior to her bold fashion choices, ladies wore black skates and long, conservative skirts. During WWII, a fabric shortage hiked up the skirts even further than Henie's typical length, and the ladies of figure skating have never looked back.

7. TOO SEXY FOR HER SKATES.

Katarina Witt displaying her gold medal
DANIEL JANIN, AFP/Getty Images

A buxom young beauty from the former Democratic German Republic dominated ladies figure skating in the mid- to late 1980s. A two-time Olympic champion, and one of the most decorated female skaters in history, Katarina Witt was just too sexy for her shirt—she tended to wear scandalously revealing costumes (one of which resulted in a wardrobe malfunction during a show), and was criticized for attempting to flirt with the judges to earn higher scores.

The ISU put the kibosh on the controversial outfits soon afterward, inserting a rule that all competitive female skaters “must not give the effect of excessive nudity inappropriate for an athletic sport.” The outrage forced Witt to add some fabric to her competitive outfits in the late '80s. But 10 years later she took it all off, posing naked for a 1998 issue of Playboy.

8. MORE COSTUME CONTROVERSY.

For the 2010 competitive year, the ISU's annual theme for the original dance segment (since defunct and replaced by the “short dance”) was “country/folk.” That meant competitors had to create a routine that explored some aspect of it, in both music and costume as well as in maneuvers. The top Russian pair chose to emulate Aboriginal tribal dancing in their program, decked in full bodysuits adorned with their interpretation of Aboriginal body paint (and a loincloth).

Their debut performance at the European Championships drew heavy criticism from Aboriginal groups in both Australia and Canada, who were greatly offended by the inaccuracy of the costumes and the routine. The Russian pair, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, were quick to dial down the costumes and dial up the accuracy in time for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but the judges were not impressed. They ended up with the bronze, ending decades of Russian dominance in the discipline. (With the glaring exception of 2002, of course.)

9. IN MEMORIAM.

While not a scandal, this event bears mentioning because it has rocked the figure skating world arguably more than anything else. In February of 1961, the American figure skating team boarded a flight to Belgium from New York, en route to the World Championships in Prague. The plane went down mysteriously (cause still questioned today) as it tried to land in Brussels, killing all 72 passengers. America's top skaters and coaches had been aboard, including nine-time U.S. Champion and Olympic bronze medalist-turned-coach Maribel Vinson-Owen and her daughter Laurence Owen, a 16-year-old who had been heavily favored to win the ladies event that year.

The ISU canceled the competition upon the news of the crash and the United States lost its long-held dominance in the sport for almost a decade. The United States Figure Skating Association (USFS) soon after established a memorial fund that helped support the skating careers of competitors in need of financial assistance, including future Olympic champions like Scott Hamilton and Peggy Fleming.

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Marvel vs. DC: This Map Shows Each State’s Favorite Comic Universe
Disney/Marvel Studios
Disney/Marvel Studios

Which comic book company is the best: Marvel or DC? This is a perennial argument on middle-school playgrounds and Reddit threads, but this map, courtesy of USDish.com, might just give us a definitive answer. The information here is broken down by state, using information provided by Google Trends to give us a clear winner of not only the most popular comic book company but also the most popular individual hero in each state (let’s show a little respect to Indiana for championing the Martian Manhunter).

According to the map, Marvel is the most popular publisher in 37 states, with DC trailing behind at eight, and five additional states coming to a 50/50 stalemate. The totals weren’t a blowout, though. In certain states like Mississippi, Iowa, and Pennsylvania, the favored company only won by a point. And just because a state searches Google for a specific publisher the most doesn’t mean an individual character from the opposing team isn’t its favorite—Hawaii is listed as favoring Marvel overall, yet they love Aquaman on his own. Same with DC-loving Maryland showing Black Panther some love (helps to have a big movie coming out). Take a look at some of the most notable state preferences below:

So how did Marvel amass so many states when there are just as many DC TV shows and movies out there? Well, according to Andrew Selepak, Ph.D., a professor in the department of telecommunication at the University of Florida, and director of the graduate program in social media, the answer lies in the depth at the House of Ideas.

“While Superman and Batman may be dominant characters,” Selepak said in a statement, “the DC Universe offers few other well-known heroes and villains and when these other characters are presented to the audience in film and on TV, they often are less than well-received.” This is opposed to Marvel, which launches new heroes on the big and small screen seemingly every year.

Does this map tell the whole story? That’s up for debate. When it comes to comics sold, DC and Marvel are always in a close battle: In January 2018, DC had six of the 10 best-selling comics of the month, placing four of the top five. Marvel, meanwhile, had three, while Image Comics had one with The Walking Dead. In terms of overall retail market share, though, Marvel eked out DC 34.3 percent to 33.8 percent.

This is a battle that's been raging since the 1960s, and for an industry that thrives on a never-ending fight between good and evil, we shouldn't expect the Marvel vs. DC debate to be settled anytime soon.

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