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Canada - Russia GDT: Showdown!

Canada - Russia. Say it aloud, let the words linger, then lick your lips and taste the anticipation. Canada - Russia. Are there two words which in combination are more likely to quicken the pulse of a red-blooded fan in either of these great hockey nations? 

Ask a Canadian and s/he will likely default to the 1972 Summit Series. Other best-on-best favourites include the classic three-game final of Canada Cup '87 or the epic semi-final of the '84 Canada Cup. Another epic encounter was the thinly-disguised meeting of national teams when Moscow Central Red Army played the Montreal Canadiens. A younger fan might remember some of the shellackings Canada put on Russia in the finals of the World Junior.

Ask a Russian though, and I'd wager the memories flood first and foremost from the Winter Olympic Games, considered by most to be the biggest showcase for athletic excellence on a global stage. The motherland blew into the international hockey arena on the winds of change in 1954, winning the world title on their first appearance, then following up with gold at their first Olympics, on the outdoor ice at 1956 Cortina d'Ampezzo. International hockey had changed forever.

Parsed through the quadrennial competition of the Olympic Games, hockey could be considered to be in its third major era:

1920 - 1952: Canadian Era
1956 - 1992: Soviet Era
1998 - present: Open Era

All but one of the ten meetings between Canada and what we now consider Russia occurred during the Soviet Era, so the list of previous match-ups between these rivals is one-sided indeed. Here are the scores of those match-ups, with tournament results for the two shown in brackets): 

1956: Canada 0, Soviet Union 2 (bronze, gold)
1960: Canada 8, Soviet Union 5 (silver, bronze)
1964: Canada 2, Soviet Union 3 (4th, gold)
1968: Canada 0, Soviet Union 5 (bronze, gold)
1980: Canada 4, Soviet Union 6 (6th, silver)
1984: Canada 0, Soviet Union 4 (4th, gold)
1988: Canada 0, Soviet Union 5 (4th, gold)
1992: Canada 4, Unified Team 5
1992: Canada 1, Unified Team 3 (silver, gold)

2006: Canada 0, Russia 2 (7th, 4th)

All but the last two were group or medal round robin games. In '92 Canada met the post-Soviet "Unified Team" (also known as the "Confederate of Independent States" or some such) in the gold medal game. Since then the two have wound up in opposite groups for five Olympics running, and it wasn't until Turin in 2006 that they met in a sudden death medal round game. Then, as now, in the quarterfinals, so inappropriately early but indescribably tense. As in Turin, a loss here and a medal of any colour is out of the question.

Unfortunately that whole list is one of loss. Canada's combined Olympic record against its bitter rival is pretty pathetic: 1 win, 9 losses; 19 goals for, 40 against. 5 friggin' shutouts in 10 games. What we call a rivalry, a Russian would consider domination.

As one who has witnessed every one of these Olympic showdowns since 1964, I have personally suffered through 8 Canadian losses in a row to these guys, and I'm bloody sick of it. We never got closer than in that 1964 game (which I actually listened to on the radio, we saw highlights on TV after the fact) in which the announcer insisted Vyacheslav Starshinov's tying goal was offside, but the Soviets scored again in the third to win outright a game in which a tie would have wrapped up the gold. Burned once by the always-capricious international officiating, Canada got shafted a second time when the IOC/IIHF had an emergency meeting to define (!) tie-breaker rules to decide the three-way tie for second, and by the time they were done Canada had been pushed off the podium entirely. According to Andrew Podnieks in Canada's Olympic Hockey History 1920-2010:

What would the Olympics be without some controversy to cloud the athletic endeavours of the competitors? All throughout the tournament, it had been understood by Canada that in the case of a tie in the standings the victor would be decided based on goal differential versus games involving the top four teams only. Thus, on the final day of competition, a problem was foreseen when Sweden was beating Czechoslovakia, creating an inevitable second-place tie among three teams - the Canadians, Swedes and Czechs.

According to the agreed-upon system, the Soviet Union, with a perfect record of 7-0-0, would gain the gold. Sweden the silver (11 goals for, 10 against, +1 in games versus the Canada, Soviets and Czechoslovakia), and Canada (-1 differential) the bronze. The Czechs, -5 in those games, would finish fourth. Such was not to be. During the third period of the Sweden-Czech game, the IIHF directors, led by Bunny Ahearne, met and changed the rules, deciding the tie break would be goal differential against all teams, thereby pushing the Czechs into third and dropping the Canadians to fourth.

Even then, however, no official announcement was made. That night, the Canadian team, bedecked in its national colours, paraded smartly to the Ice Palace for the awards ceremonies, learning only then that they had been robbed of a medal. "Come on, fellas," said Father Bauer, "Let's get out of here. We're not getting anything."

It was a travesty, a source of great outrage in this country, and a precursor to Canada's withdrawal from international competition for 7 years including the 1972 and 1976 Olympics. The IIHF's open favouritism to European countries, especially the "shamateurs" beyond the Iron Curtain, leaves a bitter taste to this day. While the Soviets were only indirectly responsible for that fiasco - damn that offside goal anyway! - that loss triggered the mess, and every subsequent loss has stung that much more. Each time the two met, the Big Red Machine not only won the game, but finished higher in the Olympic standings. In my experience, Canada has only ever finished ahead of the Russians by avoiding them, and that rankles to say the least.

Today of course, all that history doesn't really mean a whole lot, other than as a source of motivation. The only previous Olympic meeting of any relevance at all is that quarterfinal in Torino 4 years ago, their one meeting in the Open Era, the only "best on best" encounter in the five-ring circus, and the only one openly advertised as Canada-Russia. Recalibrating: 0 wins, 1 loss; 0 GF, 2 GA. I still don't like it.

At bottom (I hope, been having trouble loading it) is a short video clip of the decisive goal from that encounter, Alexander Ovechkin's powerplay marker which broke open an ultra-tense scoreless tie early in the third and stood up as the game winner (Alexei Kovalev scored a near-meaningless insurance goal in the dying seconds). Funny thing about that goal is that most replays start with Viktor Kozlov in possession of the puck, holding it, opening up the passing lane as Ovechkin charges into the slot to take Kozlov's pass and fire it home. What is mostly forgotten is the fabulous play Ovechkin made in the first place, diving for a loose puck that seemed destined to be safely cleared, chipping it over to Kozlov, regaining his feet and circling in to finish the play. To me that pokecheck epitomizes Alex Ovechkin, the unwillingness to give up on a play, the extra effort, only then the talent to make the most of the opportunity. What a stud.

Alex Ovechkin is the central figure on the current Russian team, but he's hardly the only one who has experienced success against Canada. Kozlov is back. So is Evgeni Nabokov, the man credited with both the win and the shutout in that game in Turin. Ilya Kovalchuk, who scored the winner against Canada in the gold medal game of the 2008 Worlds, is here. So is Alex Radulov, who scored the winner against Canada in the gold medal game of the 2009 Worlds. Canada-killers, every one of them. Add in Stanley Cup winners like Sergei Fedorov, Pavel Datsyuk, Sergei Gonchar, and defending Smythe Trophy-winner Evgeni Malkin and this team is loaded for bear.

For the good guys, Sidney Crosby gets his crack at these Olympics after being a controversial omission from the Turin Games. While he too has lots of able help, it's hard to disagree that Crosby, like Ovechkin, is the central player on his national Olympic team. The two have already developed a storied personal rivalry at the level of their (American! grrr) club teams, including a terrific 7-game showdown in the 2009 Eastern Conference semi-finals (pictured, above), in which one game featured a hat trick by each guy. Last time they met, Crosby scored a pair to give Pittsburgh the lead, but Ovechkin responded with a hat trick to send the game to overtime and then an assist on the game winner. These two seem to inspire each other in a high-stakes game of one-upmanship.

The stakes don't get a whole lot higher than they are today.