Gretzky still stoked about 1987 Canada Cup win

For American hockey fans, nothing tops the Miracle on Ice in 1980.

For Canadians, the 1972 Summit Series will never be passed in significance, both political and sporting.

But I will forever say this: Nothing, and I mean nothing, compares to the 1987 Canada Cup finals between the USSR and Canada for sheer hockey excitement.

"The entire experience was really overwhelming," Wayne Gretzky told ESPN.com in an interview last week.

"The Great One" has said it many times, that it was the best hockey he was ever part of.

"No question," said Gretzky, whose 21 points (3-18) in nine games led tournament scoring. "There’s no question, at the time, they were the best team in the world. They were that good."

It was 25 years ago this week that the Soviet side led by the legendary KLM line and Gretzky’s Canadian team locked horns in a three-game final series that will forever be remembered by those who watched it. All three games were decided by 6-5 scores. (TSN in Canada is showing all three games in prime time this week: Game 1 Tuesday, Game 2 Wednesday and Game 3 Thursday.)

Just to get to that final, Canada -- a team stocked with NHL stars Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey and Ray Bourque -- needed a little tough love from coach Mike Keenan to shake off the cobwebs.

"The start of ’87, we weren’t very good," said Gretzky, whose team opened the round-robin tournament with a 4-all tie against the Czechs. "It was tough sledding for the entire team. But we really came together as a team."

A key decision midway through the tournament was to put Gretzky and Lemieux on the same line. Everyone remembers the magic the world’s two greatest players delivered in the three-game finals, but it didn’t come immediately after they were put together.

"The reality was, we thought the game the exact same way," Gretzky said. "The first couple of games we played together, we found ourselves standing beside each other in open areas in the offensive zone; that’s where we both naturally would go. But when you’re playing against great competition, that’s not the thing you want to do, have two guys in the same spot. So it took us a little bit."

If fact, Gretzky remembers a 2-on-1 break with Lemieux that highlighted their initial issues.

"I gave him a pass and he passed it back to me and we didn’t score," Gretzky said. "I remember saying to Mario, 'You have a much heavier shot; you’re a much better goal scorer than I am. Make sure you get the shot.' And, of course, that’s what happened in Game 3 when we had the 3-on-1 and he took the [winning] shot. So I always remember distinctly telling him, 'Hey, don’t give it back to me.' In that third game when I gave it to him, I knew I wasn’t getting it back."

The three-game championship finals opened at the Montreal Forum and saw Canada rally from a 4-1 deficit only to lose in overtime when Alexander Semak snapped a shot top corner past Grant Fuhr. The series shifted to Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, Ontario, for the second and, if necessary, third and final game.

"It was depressing losing that first game," Gretzky said. "But the emotion and the excitement in the arena in Hamilton was pretty overpowering for everyone. Mario was just so good; everyone played so well in Game 2."

Lemieux’s hat trick goal in double overtime gave Canada a thrilling win in Game 2, Gretzky setting him up with his fifth assist of the night. But they wouldn't have won that game without Fuhr making save after save in the opening overtime period.

"Grant Fuhr let in five goals but he was so spectacular," Gretzky said. "If he wasn’t in net, we don’t come close to winning Game 2."

It set the stage for a dramatic winner-take-all Game 3 on Sept. 15, 1987.

And before you knew it, it was 3-0 for the Soviets, eight minutes into the game. That’s when Canada’s supporting cast came to the rescue.

"You don’t win with one or two guys; you win because of a team," Gretzky said. "I remember how Normand Rochefort played unreal for us. When we got down 3-0, guys like Brian Propp, Rick Tocchet, Dale Hawerchuk and Brent Sutter ... they’re the guys that got us back to 3-3. Mike even sat Mario and I down for 4-5 minutes after we got down 3-0 just to regroup. He double-shifted guys like Messier, Propp, Sutter and Tocchet, and before we knew it, the game was tied."

Fast-forward to a late-third-period faceoff in the Canadian zone, Dale Hawerchuk on the draw.

Take it from here, Dan Kelly.

"The funny thing is, Dale actually lost the draw but he made such a great play to get it out," Gretzky said. "He was playing with so much will and heart."

With 1:26 remaining, "Super Mario" scored one of hockey’s most famous goals. People joke that Gretzky never would have passed it to Larry Murphy on that 3-on-1 break, but Gretzky points out Murphy made a great play on the goal.

"If Larry hadn’t made the play he made, we maybe never score there," Gretzky said. "The first thing we teach young guys coming into the NHL, go hard to the net. Larry had the sense to go hard to the net, the defenseman had to play him, which gave us an opening for Mario. And Mario was so smart as an athlete to stay back and not get overanxious. Oftentimes, when a player goes hard to the net like Larry did, the other player follows him hard to the net, too. But Mario gave himself room; he was so patient."

The way they celebrated at Copps Coliseum that night will forever be etched in Gretzky’s memory.

"The atmosphere in the arena was staggering. For a non-NHL city, it was overwhelming how excited the people were," he said. "It was really, truly, an incredible experience."