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My Canada Cup: Jean Perron

Tuesday, 28.08.2012 / 12:01 PM / 1987 Canada Cup
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My Canada Cup: Jean Perron

MONTREAL – Backing Team Canada’s bench for the historic clash in 1987, former Habs head coach, Jean Perron, reminisces on the experience.

After winning the Stanley Cup a year earlier, leading the NHL All-Stars against the Russians in Rendez-vous ’87 and coaching the Canadiens all the way to the Conference Finals the same season, Hockey Canada extended Perron an invitation to join their coaching staff led by Mike Keenan.

Coaching a “who’s who” of many of the NHL’s all-time greatest players might sound like an intimidating mandate to some, but the Saint-Isidore, QC native had no qualms stepping up to the plate.

Jean Perron was one of Mike Keenan’s assistant coaches for Team Canada in the 1987 Canada Cup.

“I wasn’t in any way nervous thinking about the challenge of coaching all those big-name players for the Canada Cup – I had already coached most of them at Rendez-vous ’87,” explained Perron. “That’s where I had my first experiences working with Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Mario Lemieux and Raymond Bourque. But I’ll be honest – I was definitely intimidated that first time around. Luckily they’re all very down to earth guys.”

Armed with a surplus of star power, Team Canada’s management and coaching staff organized a week-long training camp in Banff, AB to help narrow down the field of candidates. After that, it was off to Newfoundland to warm up with a couple of exhibition games before whittling down the final 23-man roster that would be representing the country at the tournament. It was also during those first days in the Maritimes that one member of the group took it upon himself to help expedite the selection process, making one of his own cuts to the team.

“Towards the end of one of out practice sessions, Ron Hextall told Sylvain Turgeon to keep his shots down because they were coming too close to his head,” recounted Perron.

“Sylvain decided it would be a good idea to send another shot high, right by the goalie’s head. Furious, Hextall took off after him, chased him down, swung his goalie stick and broke his wrist! After that, Turgeon clearly wasn’t able to make the team.”

The decision to release the injured forward may have been an easy one, but the cuts that remained to be made proved infinitely more difficult. There was no way to keep every player fighting tooth-and-nail for the chance to don the maple leaf. Such was the case for a certain 22-year-old center who would go on to enjoy an illustrious career that saw him raise the Stanley Cup three times, be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and assemble Canada’s gold medal winning team at the Vancouver Olympics.

“When we cut Steve Yzerman he cried like a baby,” confessed Perron, recalling the difficult final cuts to the roster. “That’s the reason you’ll never see Steve Yzerman turn down a job with the national team these days. He really took that to heart.

“We were forced to let go of some truly excellent players because we wanted to make sure we had a team composed of many different styles,” he underlined. “We kept guys like Rick Tocchet, Brent Sutter and Claude Lemieux; guys who were physically imposing and ready to put their opponents into the boards. A lot of people were wondering why we hung onto those guys. We already had two fantastic top lines, and we wanted our other two lines to really be able to compliment them.”

Treated like national heroes wherever they went, Team Canada sailed through the tournament’s round robin without hitting any major stumbling blocks, posting a record of three wins and two ties in their first five games. Despite their chemistry on the ice, the vibe in the room was far from harmonious. The Canadians may have been dominating the competition, but coach Mike Keenan never stopped pushing his players to their limit. Perhaps even too far in the eyes of some.

They call Keenan “Iron Mike” for a reason, and it wasn’t long before the team’s veterans lost their patience with his extreme style of coaching and decided to take matters into their own hands.

“There was a point when guys got fed up with the treatment Mike was giving them. The team basically rebelled against him to the point where our general managers Serge Savard and Bobby Clarke had to get involved,” said Perron, noting that with Keenan, there was only one way to do things – his. “Clarke [who was Keenan’s boss in Philadelphia] told him to watch the practices for the next two days from the stands to try and keep things from reaching a boiling point with the players.

“So Keenan was basically forced to distance himself from the team for a couple of days and John Muckler and I took over in his absence,” he explained. “From that moment on, it felt like a certain team spirit had really been established and Mike was a little more relaxed with the guys when he came back.”

With a team now united and all marching to the same beat, Canada toppled Czechoslovakia in the semifinals to earn themselves a winner-takes-all, best of three championship series against classic rivals, the U.S.S.R.

Down by three goals in the opening game of the final series, Keenan, Perron and the rest of Canada’s coaching staff all agreed that some changes would have to happen if they hoped to have a chance at staying in the match. The suggestion was made to unite two of the best players in the history of the game together on the same line.

“We started noticing towards the end of the preliminary round that Lemieux didn’t seem completely comfortable playing alongside Messier,” recalled Perron, adding that Lemieux was having a tough time playing on the wing. “Keenan might have his faults, but when he’s behind the bench, there’s not a whole lot that guy misses.

“He made the decision to pair Gretzky with Lemieux at the start of the second period of that first game against the Soviets,” he continued. “From that moment on, the U.S.S.R. was completely thrown off their game and couldn’t contain their line.”

The Canadians might have dropped the first match of the series in overtime, but the Gretzky-Lemieux duo was just getting warmed up. Perron expressed how awed he was watching the talents of both players in action as they combined to propel their team to victory in the second game, pushing the series to a do-or-die Game 3.

After closely studying Soviet goaltender, Sergei Mylnikov, Perron knew that it would be easy for Mario Lemieux to beat him top-shelf to score the game’s winning goal.

Falling behind by three goals early in the deciding match, Canada roared back to close the gap over the course of the second period. With the game deadlocked 5-5 in the dying minutes of the third period, the Canadians’ top tandem struck again, mounting a 3-on-1 rush on the Soviet netminder.

“When I saw Gretzky make that pass to Lemieux, we knew right away he was going to score,” shared Perron, reminiscing on one of the most celebrated goals in Canadian hockey history. “We had studied the Soviet goaltender, Sergei Mylnikov, closely and thought we had him pretty well figured out. Mario knew that to score, he needed to go top-shelf.”

Mission accomplished. “The Great One” and “Super Mario” closed out the three games of that final series having combined for five goals and 11 assists. It was Team Canada’s time to breathe easy again after overcoming every obstacle in their path en route to victory. Perron’s efforts earned him his third championship in less than a year.

“It was an incredibly hard-fought tournament,” concluded Perron. “The offense put on a show in each and every game. I’d rank the experience just behind winning the Stanley Cup in 1986.”

Hugo Fontaine is a writer for canadiens.com. Translated by Justin Fragapane.

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