Zaugg: Small rinks, big thrills

Rendez-Vous ’87 and this tournament show North American ice can produce fine hockey

10.05.2008
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Rendez-Vous’87 showed how great international hockey can be in the provincial capital. Photo: HHoF/Paul Bereswill

QUEBEC CITY – It’s 21 years after the famous Rendez-Vous ’87 series. Quebec City still has the same charming old buildings, fine restaurants and warm people who speak their own distinctive French dialect. And the Colisée is one of the last real hardcore hockey arenas. It doesn’t look and feel like an airport, like so many of those modern arenas around the world. You can still smell hockey in this famous old building here.

Quebec City is a good place to stop and contemplate, looking back and looking to the future.

On February 11, 1987 the NHL All-Stars faced off against the Soviets and won 4-3. Two days later, the Big Red Machine turned the tide and prevailed by a 5-3 count. Rod Langway and Doug Wilson played in Rendez-Vous ‘87 without helmets. The infamous “Good Friday” brawl between the Quebec Nordiques and the Montreal Canadiens had happened just three years before and was still fresh in our minds.

Hockey, born in Canada, wasn’t yet dominated by American money, and Canada had seven NHL franchises. The world was divided into East versus West, into Good versus Evil (depending whose side you were on). And the Soviets and Canadians ruled the world of hockey, and it looked like they would do it forever. Some of the best international games of all time, the 1987 Canada Cup finals, were just a few months away.

It was the good old days.

Has hockey changed since then? Is hockey at the 2008 IIHF World Championship a better game?

Well, there is no new Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux at this tournament, and no new KLM Line.

But it is a better game now. The Russians still have the most talented players. But the Finns, the Czechs, the Swedes, the Canadians and sometime even the underdogs are able to play on the same level, with the same speed. The Canadians may have more courage and pride than any other players. But they can’t intimidate the other countries the way they did in the past. Even some of the European underdogs can be as tough as the Canadians on a given night.
 
The globalization of hockey has lifted the game up to a new level.

In 1987 it was impossible for Switzerland to beat Sweden. At the World Championship in Vienna that year, Sweden steamrolled the Swiss 12-1. Cut to 2008, and you see Sweden losing 4-2 to Switzerland.

Now, this World Championship is the first ever to be played on the smaller North American ice rinks and the smaller neutral zone.

There have been discussions in the past about enlarging NHL rinks to the European size. The idea behind this would be to give the offensive superstars more space and time to show off their skills. The owners have refused this idea mainly because they don’t want to take out some of their best expensive seats.

But I believe that the 2008 IIHF World Championship could end up being one of the moments that changed the game.

Here we finally have a tournament with 16 national teams on the small rinks, and the level of the game is better in all aspects. The intensity is higher. There is more action, and the action is closer to the net. A mistake is costly, and it's almost impossible to dictate the games with a mechanical defensive strategy. Just remember how great the 1987 Canada Cup finals were - on the small rinks in Montreal and Hamilton.

In my opinion, the Europeans should start to think about switching over their rinks to the smaller North American size.

The European owners would love it because they’d get more seats in their arenas.
 
And the fans would, too. Hockey is definitely a better show on a smaller rink.

KLAUS ZAUGG

Klaus Zaugg is a Swiss hockey journalist who has covered the IIHF World Championship since 1981. The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the official views of the IIHF.

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