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Canada, Soviet Union eye `World Series' of hockey. Host team's exciting Canada Cup win leaves both eager for more

Canada edged the Soviet Union by the barest of margins in the 1987 Canada Cup tournament, but the real outcome of this six-nation competition was to demonstrate once again that these are clearly the best two hockey-playing countries in the world. Indeed, the way the tournament went this year served to reinforce the growing sentiment that the time has come to accept this reality and stage a regular ``World Series'' of hockey involving just these two nations. Such a competition could replace the Canada Cup tournaments, the latest of which only served to whet the appetite of fans everywhere for more such showdowns.

In the opener of the best-of-three final series last Friday, the Soviets won a 6-5 overtime thriller in Montreal, but only after Canada had come back from a 4-1 deficit to take a 5-4 lead. Veterans Wayne Gretzky and Raymond Bourque keyed the Team Canada comeback, but Andrei Homutov tied it with 2:27 remaining. Then just 5:33 into the extra period, Alexander Semak sealed the issue with a blistering snapshot over Grant Fuhr's glove hand.

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Sunday night's Game 2 was no less exciting. Canada took an early 3-1 lead, but, as they often do, the Soviets stormed back, tying the game at 3-3, then 4-4 and again at 5-5 with only 1:04 remaining to force a second consecutive sudden-death overtime game. Almost 31 minutes of overtime had passed when Gretzky took a pass from Larry Murphy, forced goalie Yevgeny Belosheikin to commit to his left, and then fed Mario Lemieux on the far side of the crease for an easy goal. It was Lemieux's third goal of the game and his second hat-trick of the tournament (all three goals came off Gretzky passes).

Then came Tuesday's decisive finale, and, amazingly, another 6-5 outcome - this one in regulation time, though barely. Again it was a see-saw battle. Canada overcame early deficits of 3-0 and 4-2 to go ahead 5-4 only to have the Soviets tie it 5-5 midway in the final period. It looked like overtime again, but with 1:26 left Lemieux and Gretzky worked their magic one more time - the former scoring his 11th goal of the tournament (and his second game-winner of the championship series) while the latter collected his 18th assist and 21st point.

Thus Canada proved what it set out to prove - that it can still handle the fast-skating, relentless Soviet team, and can back up its claim to being No. 1 as long as every team is able to use all of its top players. This is the whole point of the Canada Cup.

Because National Hockey League players have traditionally not played in the Olympics, and because the world championships are held at a time when many of the best NHLers are battling in the playoffs, neither is considered a fair test of national hockey welfare.

It is also fair to say that the Russians are not completely satisfied by their triumphs in tournaments that do not pit them against Canada's best.

And while the occasional meetings of the Soviets and NHL All-Star teams are exciting, they seldom really prove much either. Last February's Rendez-Vous '87 in Quebec City, for example, occurred during the NHL All-Star break, leaving the players little time to prepare and still preoccupied with their own league season.

So, when a Canada Cup Tournament is announced, it breeds a great deal of excitement among Canadians. It is the rare chance to see Gretzky, Lemieux and the rest of Canada's best take on the the USSR and other European hockey powers that beat Canadian teams so regularly in the other tournaments.

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The cup's history dates back to 1972, to the famous inaugural ``Summit Series'' between the USSR and a Canadian team made up of NHL stars. This was when Canadians got their first true taste of the speed and excitement of European-style hockey, and it appealed to them. They also found out, to the surprise of many North Americans, that the Soviets were up to their level in overall ability. Indeed, the USSR led the series after the first four games in Canada, and the Canadians had to go all-out in the concluding four contests in Moscow to eke out a 4-3-1 series win.

The stage was set for a rematch, and in 1974, the Soviets overwhelmed an All-Star team from the fledgling World Hockey Association in a second series.

It was from this background that the Canada Cup was born.

The tournament, which like the Summit Series was the brainchild of hockey agent and entrepreneur Alan Eagleson, was designed to be the so-called World Cup of hockey. As such, Eagleson decided, it had to expand beyond the Canada-USSR rivalry to include the other major hockey powers: Czechoslovakia, Sweden, Finland, and the United States.

The cup was first held in 1976, then in '81, '84, and now for a fourth time this year. Canada won the first tournament, defeating Czechoslovakia in the final, with the Soviets finishing third. The 1981 series, however, was a nightmare for Canadians, and a laugher for the Russians (who were still reeling from their 1980 Olympic loss to the United States). Canada had placed first in the round robin segment with a 4-0-1 record, but the Russians were ready when it counted, overwhelming their foes 8-1 in a one-game final. In 1984, Canada took back the Cup by downing Sweden after a 3-2 overtime win over the Soviets in the semifinal. And now it has successfully defended its title, though obviously there is little to choose when two teams play a three-game series and the final goal tally comes out 17-16.

The way Canada and the USSR dominated this year's tournamment makes a Summit Series a distinct possibility in the not too distant future. Had a team like Sweden or the United States or Czechoslovakia come up with a big tournament, it would have made it more difficult to exclude them from anything that claims to be the decisive hockey series. But the way things went in this tournament, few can argue that a Canada-USSR meeting would indeed bring together the nations that play the best, most exciting hockey in the world. Quotable quotes

Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles when asked if he'd still like Ken Hatfield, the school's football coach, if the Razorbacks won only half their games: ``Sure I would. I'd miss him, too.''

John McEnroe on his relationship with the media: ``I can't rationalize talking to those people because they aren't rational.''

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