Commentary

Book Excerpt: Gretzky to Lemieux, The Story of the 1987 Canada Cup

Updated: October 21, 2007, 10:50 PM ET
By Ed Willes | Special to ESPN.com

[Editor's note: The 1987 Canada Cup is considered by many to be one of the best events in hockey history. As Russian players were still unable to pursue NHL careers, Team Canada hosted then-USSR in a three-game finals series, which Canada went on to win. A big highlight for fans was to finally see Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky play on the same team. At the time, The Great One had already won three Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers, while Lemieux, just 21, was still trying to play to his potential in Pittsburgh.

In his new book, "Gretzky to Lemieux: The Story of the 1987 Canada Cup", Vancouver Province columnist Ed Willes chronicles the relationship between two of the game's greatest players. The following excerpt is reprinted with permission from publishers McClelland & Stewart. Copyright 2007 by Ed Willes.

Ed Willes' new book "Gretzky to Lemieux: The Story of the 1987 Canada Cup is available now. To buy the book, click here.

This, then, was the Lemieux who showed up in Montreal for the start of Team Canada's training camp.

He was a once-in-a-generation talent to be sure, but something seemed to be missing, some variable which separated the good from the great; the great from the immortal. He would find that missing something on Team Canada and it seems the whole team, particularly Gretzky, made it their responsibility to show him the way.

[Mike] Keenan, as you might have guessed, has the most interesting take on the inter-relationship which developed between Gretzky and Lemieux, theorizing that, like a great actor, Gretzky shared the secrets of his craft with the one player who was capable of pushing him and his art to greater heights. By the end of the 1986-87 season, the game had become almost boring to Gretzky. He'd concluded a six-year run in which he won six straight scoring titles, averaging 203 points a season over that span. The Oilers had also won their third Stanley Cup in four years in 1987 and only Steve Smith's own goal against Calgary in the '86 playoffs prevented a fourth.

Then along came Mario, who seemingly could do everything Gretzky could do on the ice and was four inches taller and 30 pounds heavier. Keenan asserts that Gretzky took a long look at Lemieux and made the decision to do everything in his power to help him.

"Wayne had two reasons for doing it," Keenan says. "One, he saw Mario's talent and he knew he could make a difference on our team. He wanted to affect Mario's approach to the game as quickly as possible. The other thing is Wayne needed someone to give him a push. Whether it was on a conscious level or a subconscious level, he knew he needed a challenge and he knew Mario had the talent to be the best. From the moment Mario came into the league, Wayne knew what he was up to at every second."

Gretzky, for his part, has dismissed the notion that he had anything to do with Lemieux's breakout at the Canada Cup. Lemieux was always a great player, according to Gretzky, and he didn't need any help ascending to the game's highest level. But in the interview for this book, Gretzky admits he went out of his way to mentor Lemieux during the tournament for reasons other than Keenan suggests.

"I think it had a lot to do with the history of Canadian hockey," Gretzky says. "I remember hearing about the '76 Canada Cup and how Bobby Orr had taken [Guy] Lafleur under his wing. In '81, I was the kid and Lafleur was helping me out.

"Sitting there with Mario, it didn't seem like it had been that long since I was following Lafleur around. It's a special thing to be a part of. It's like a big circle."

Still, the two superstars had some practical considerations to iron out. During an earlier tournament game, Gretzky and Lemieux found themselves on a 2-on-1 when Gretzky, as he'd always done in Edmonton with [Jari] Kurri, fed Lemieux for a one-timer. This time, however, he was shocked when the puck came back to him, which led to a meeting of the minds.

"I said, 'I want you to be the shooter. You've got a heavier shot and a better release. I'm not used to being the shooter,'" says Gretzky. At the time, Gretzky was even more pointed in his directive to Lemieux. "I want him shooting because he's got those awesome wrists," Gretzky said. "He could snap a puck through a refrigerator door."

Gretzky and Lemieux
Bruce Bennett/Time Life Pictures/Getty ImagesMario Lemieux, left, and Wayne Gretzky led Team Canada to a Canada Cup win in 1987.

But Gretzky did a lot more for Lemieux in the Canada Cup than set him up for one-timers. The players and coaches on Team Canada say Gretzky didn't go out of his way to tutor Lemieux and Lemieux didn't attach himself to Gretzky during training camp and the pre-tournament games. But there was a bond there and while the exchanges tended to be subtle and understated -- a quick word here, a nod there -- they were noticed by all.

"You could [see] Gretzky dragging Mario into the fight more and more as the camp went on," says Bob Clarke. "He was so generous on the ice. He did things to bring Mario into it. He wasn't worried about competing with him. And that relationship made that team."

"My observation was they were excited about playing with each other and it was a challenge for both of them," says Larry Murphy. "I think the worst-case scenario for each guy was one of them played great and the other one wasn't so great. They knew they were going to be judged against each other. They weren't going to take that lightly, playing with each other."

Lemieux, as mentioned, has always credited his Canada Cup experience as a turning point in his career. He saw the Oilers and the way they conducted themselves on and off the ice. He saw the way they practiced and prepared. Mostly, he saw the deep and abiding respect Gretzky had for the game, how he never took anything for granted, how he never took a shift off. Lemieux might have been a high-school dropout, but he had an intuition about the game and he understood what Gretzky and his teammates were trying to show him.

"I learned so much about how the great players work and conduct themselves," Lemieux said. "Remember, I was only 21 years old at the time. To be around guys like Wayne and Mark Messier and Paul Coffey, guys who'd already had so much success and had won Stanley Cups, was a tremendous learning experience. It gave me an opportunity to start my career and really learn what it meant to be a champion and the best in the game."

And maybe the best part about Lemieux's transformation was the startling speed in which it took place. It took him six years to create the image of a hockey slacker, someone who would never meet his limitless potential. But in six short weeks, he changed the way he was regarded in the hockey world for all time.

"That was the first time I saw Mario play with emotion," says Serge Savard. "He had all this talent and all the moves, but he played the same way all the time. Now, he had the fire."

Says Mark Messier: "I remember watching those two and thinking, 'This is as good as it gets.'"

It also produced a remarkable moment in the game's history.

They were the two greatest forwards to ever play the game and, as Murphy says, the only meaningful yardstick by which they were measured was each other. That made them rivals, but it also made them allies. Writing in his memoirs, "Chronicles: Volume One", Bob Dylan reflected on greatness, what it means to have it, what it means to share it. He was writing about music, but he could have been writing about Lemieux and Gretzky.

"To do it," Dylan wrote, "you've got to have power and dominion over the spirits. I had done it once, and once was enough. Someone would come along eventually who would have it again, someone who could look into things, the truth of things -- not metaphorically either -- but really see, like seeing into metal and making it melt, see it for what it was and reveal it for it was with hard words and vicious insight."

Lemieux, like Gretzky, had that vicious insight. Of course, it helped that he could shoot the puck through a refrigerator door.