Rendez-vous ’87 was hockey at its highest level

International hockey is the focus of some interesting hockey discussions right now. The NHL is still mulling over whether to send players to the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, while last fall’s World Cup of Hockey tournament is having a major impact on the current NHL season because of the resulting compressed schedule. But 30 years ago this month, the two-game all-star series known as Rendez-vous ’87 was all anyone was talking about.

At a time when amateurs still played in the Olympics, Rendez-vous was the successor to 1979’s Challenge Cup series, in which a team of NHL all-stars played a squad from the Soviet Union. This time around, there were games on Feb. 11 and 13 in Quebec City, replacing the 1986-87 NHL All-Star Game. To top it off, the games were held in the middle of Quebec’s annual Winter Carnival celebration, which organizer (and Quebec Nordiques president) Marcel Aubut hoped would turn the series into hockey’s version of the Super Bowl. TV coverage on CBC and ESPN brought the games into homes worldwide.

The NHL All-Stars were led by Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, while the Soviet National Team featured plenty of future NHLers (we were still two years away from the first Russian player signing with an NHL squad, Sergei Priakhin) including Slava Fetisov, Igor Larionov and Valeri Kamensky.

A fan vote determined the Team NHL starters, which was somewhat controversial because Lemieux got the starting center over Gretzky, despite the Great One having a better statistical season to that point. The team was led by a slew of Edmonton Oilers, who were in the midst of their dynastic ’80s run of five Cups in seven years. In addition to Gretzky and Lemieux in their primes, the team had Mark Messier, Ray Bourque, Jari Kurri, Dale Hawerchuk,  Grant Fuhr and Michel Goulet. The team was coached by Jean Perron, who coached the Montreal Canadiens to the 1985-86 Cup, with assistants Michel Bergeron of Quebec and Bob Johnson of Calgary. The Soviet squad was helmed by the legendary Viktor Tikhonov.

Game 1 went to the NHL All-Stars by a 4-3 score, with Dave Poulin scoring the game-winner late in the third. The Soviets took the second game 5-3, led by Kamensky’s two goals and an assist. Gretzky and Kamensky were named their team’s respective MVPs. But this was no exhibition series. There was hard hitting, spectacular offensive playmaking and stellar goaltending. The series also set the stage for the next Canada Cup tournament, which was held in the fall of 1987 before the NHL season started. The round-robin saw Canada play the Soviet Union in the three-game final series. Each game finished with a 6-5 score: The Soviets won Game 1 in OT, Canada won the second game in double OT (with Lemieux netting a hat trick and Gretzky finishing with five assists) and the clincher was won by Canada thanks to a Gretzky-to-Lemieux play with 1:26 left in regulation.

There have been memorable international series before (1972 Summit Series, 1980 Winter Olympics, 1976 Canada Cup) and after (1987 Canada  Cup, 1996 World Cup, 2002 and 2010 Winter Olympics), but Rendez-vous definitely upped the ante.

Never a dull moment in Bruins-Habs rivalry

There are plenty of great things about hockey, but one of the greatest is the rivalry between the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens. Which is why it was so entertaining this week when the Habs suddenly announced that head coach Michel Therrien was fired and being replaced by Claude Julien, who had been fired by the Bruins last week.

At first, it might seem strange that the first-place Canadiens fired their coach with less than two months left in the regular season, but on closer inspection, it makes sense. For the second straight year, Montreal started the season strong, but has struggled mightily. Last year after reeling off nine straight wins to begin the season, goalie Carey Price strained a knee ligament and the team went off the rails, missing the playoffs. This season, Price is healthy, but Montreal has the worst record in the NHL since January, so GM Marc Bergevin undoubtedly decided not to wait for disaster to strike twice.

Meanwhile, the Bruins were also in the midst of a disappointing season when team brass announced that Julien, the winningest coach in team history, was fired and assistant Bruce Cassidy was taking over. Of course, GM Don Sweeney chose to make the announcement when the Boston area was sky high after the New England Patriots’ amazing Super Bowl win, scheduling the press conference right smack dab in the middle of the Pats’ victory parade. If Sweeney was hoping nobody would notice, he was sorely mistaken; Bruins fans already bummed out by the team’s performance the last few years (the Bruins were blown out in their final game of last season to miss the playoffs) lashed out against the move to depose the well-liked Julien.

If this all sounds like history repeating itself, it is: Julien’s first NHL coaching gig came in 2003, when he was hired to coach Montreal, replacing the fired Therrien. He spent parts of three seasons with Montreal, coached most of the 2006-07 season in New Jersey (where, ironically, he was presiding over another first-place team before being unceremoniously jettisoned with a week left in the season) and then was Boston’s bench boss for the past nine-plus seasons. In addition to winning the most games in Bruins history, Julien also led the team to the Stanley Cup in 2011, breaking a 39-year drought.

It’s a bold move: Montreal management definitely chose to go with a known entity in Julien, but he was the best coach available and will undoubtedly be hungry to turn an underachieving Habs team around. His defense-first style could rankle fans at times, but you can’t argue with the results. And mid-season coaching changes can have big benefits, as we saw with Pittsburgh last season and more recently with the Bruins, who have won three straight since Cassidy stepped in, including an emphatic 4-0 trouncing of Montreal that sealed Therrien’s fate. Still, Bruins fans can’t be thrilled to see their longtime coach get hired by their hated nemesis.

Sadly, the Bruins and Canadiens don’t have any regular season games left against each other, but wouldn’t it be great if they met in the playoffs? Revenge can be quite the motivator.