<
>

The Canada-Russia rivalry, which once produced the best hockey ever played, could use a kickstart

Wayne Gretzky and Canada beat Russia in Game 3 of the 1987 Canada Cup when Gretzky famously set up Mario Lemieux late in the third period for the winner. B Bennett/Getty Images

TORONTO -- Three games. One score.

The KLM line versus Mario and Wayne.

The greatest hockey ever played.

Russia and Canada get set to add another chapter to their rich rivalry Saturday night in the semifinals of the World Cup of Hockey (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2), some 29 years after that tournament -- then still called the Canada Cup -- produced a final series that still reverberates.

"It was about pure skill. All three games," Igor Larionov, the Hall of Fame center of the KLM line, told ESPN.com Friday. "We ended up losing, but the biggest winner was the game of hockey and the fans who were watching it. That's what I want to see tomorrow.''

Wouldn't that be something? Team North America's 23-and-under kids showed us the future of the game this past week but also brought us back in time this with their breathtaking style. Although Larionov realizes that's not typically how the game is played today, he hopes that the stars on both Canada's and Russia's rosters will be let loose on Saturday -- just like they were in 1987, when all three games were decided by a 6-5 score. Canada won Game 3 when Wayne Gretzky famously set up Mario Lemieux late in the third period for the winner.

"It's a great highlight. I think when you look at that play, I think it stands out in everyone's mind,'' current Team Canada star Sidney Crosby, a fervent student of the game's history, said Friday.

"It was almost 30 years ago, but I'd love to see the kind of hockey where we let the players play, let the players entertain," said Larionov. "That's what I remember from that series in '87, just the magnitude and skill level.''

The reality is that the winning goal, a 3-on-1 break with Gretzky, Lemieux and Larry Murphy bearing down, would be considered a monumental mistake in today's game. You rarely see those types of defensive breakdowns anymore, especially with the game on the line.

The idea that Russia and Canada will spend the game exchanging chances Saturday night? Well, it's wishful thinking.

"This is what I would tell you,'' began Team Canada coach Mike Babcock on Friday when asked about the idea of such a back-and-forth. "I don't like to feed my family on hope, I like to feed my family on know. I don't like surprises, not at Christmas, not on my birthday. I want it under control.''

And that quote might as well have come from any of the other 29 NHL coaches.

Still, it's Canada versus Russia with a lot at stake, and even in today's game, that's something.

"It's a rivalry that's been around for a long time. I think means an intense, emotional game," said Crosby. "Two proud nations when it comes to hockey.''

One could argue, though, that Team USA long ago replaced Russia as Canada's No. 1 hockey rival -- right around the time of the 1996 World Cup, in fact.

The last best-on-best encounter between Russia and Canada came at the Vancouver Olympics, when Crosby's Canadian crew demolished Alex Ovechkin's Russian side 7-3 in the quarterfinals. They haven't played since in a best-on-best tournament. It's a rivalry in need of a kick-start.

"Rivalries are built on great games," said Team Canada center Ryan Getzlaf on Friday. "So we're hopeful for one tomorrow.''

Just don't ask Getzlaf about the '87 Canada Cup.

"Man, I was two,'' he said.

Fair enough.

It's been almost 30 years. The time is here for another classic. Let's hope we're fortunate enough to see it Saturday night.