This is a very subjective list depending on where you’re from. A writer in, say, Kazakhstan would have the one time they beat Canada at no.1. Belarus? The win over powerhouse Sweden with that crazy knuckleball of a shot. Getting to 15 might be a bit of a challenge.
The Finns and Swedes have an ongoing rivalry. The United States and Russia still carry a tinge of the Cold War hatred of Uncle Sam and the Evil Empire. But the center of the modern hockey world is likely near the Canada-U.S. border on the east coast of North America, so there’s a lot of North American games on this list. The list also reflects the changing face of hockey, primarily the changing of the guard in the preeminent rivalry in the hockey world. For decades it was Canada and the Soviets/Russians. In the 21st century, the Big Red Machine has been supplanted by the United States.
It is dominated by international games, with the heightened drama and trauma of the larger stage more memorable.
The list also includes a women’s game (also Canada and the States) and an outdoor game, the only regular season game that made the cut. The only other one to come close was Darryl Sittler’s unreal, unbroken record 10-point game in 1976.
What are the criteria the games on the list meet? Some are magical moments. Others are monumental upsets or comebacks. One is about a record that hasn’t even been approached in nearly a century. Most deal with the joy of victory. But there are some that are all about the agony of momentous defeat.
Interestingly, only three occurred in the current century. There are three that happened so long ago, their inclusion is based on accounts of the time. There are few still around, if any, who were in the arena at the longest game in 1936. It is also a tiny sample of fans from the time before ubiquitous television who can recall firsthand the Stanley Cup finals of 1950 or the Gold Medal game of the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, California. One positive thing of the digital era is that a lot of these games are available on the internet and so the experience of seeing the iconic goals of Henderson and Eruzione; the sight of Guy Lafleur streaking down the right wing, the one-time partnership of Lemieux and Gretzky playing together will always be there and not consigned to the replays of the mind, that can fade with time.
15 U.S.A vs. Czechoslovakia, 1960 Winter Olympics
It’s called The Forgotten Miracle, the ragtag collection of amateurs and college kids who won Olympic Gold in Squaw Valley 20 years almost to the day before the Miracle on Ice. Along the way they beat Canada, who was still sending an all-amateur team as well and the Soviet Union, who were still just developing the formidable Big Red Machine.
There were echoes of hockey history to come.
One of the Canadian players, Harry Sinden, never played in the NHL but would become the coach of Team Canada at the legendary Summit Series of 1976. Herb Brooks, the coach of the Miracle on Ice team was a late cut from the U.S. squad.
The U.S. trailed 4-3 entering the third period, then stormed the Czechs with six unanswered goals to win going away.
14 The 2003 Heritage Classic
Neither national pride nor the fate of the hockey world had fans on the edge of their seats. It was just a regular season game between the Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens. But it was the first of the outdoor classics, a Canadian Field of Dreams that could only happen on a frozen rink in below zero weather. It evoked the purists’ idyllic memories of hockey on frozen ponds wearing toques in bitter cold even though those of the 57,000 frostbite-defying fans who played hockey growing up probably did so in heated suburban arenas with artificial ice.
The event may have lost much of its cache, but the first one was a big deal.
13 Edmonton Oilers vs. Los Angeles Kings, Game 3, 1982 Playoffs
Also known as the Miracle on Manchester, from the Smythe Division semi-finals. At once, one of the greatest comebacks and upsets of all time, named after the boulevard on which the old L.A. Forum stood.
The Oilers were in full star-studded juggernaut mode. They racked up 111 regular season points behind the 92 goals of a kid named Gretzky. The Kings tiptoed into the postseason with just 63.
By the end of period two, it was 5-0 Oilers and the only speculation was whether the rout would make it to double digits. But the Kings rallied to tie and in overtime won it on a goal by Daryl Evans, one of only 27 he ever would score in the NHL. He would eventually become the Kings radio color commentator.
12 Detroit Red Wings vs. Montreal Maroons (6 OT), 1936 Semifinals
The 1936 Stanley Cup final, which Detroit would eventually win after this famous marathon. That’s right. In the SIXTH overtime. In the longest playoff game in history, Mud Bruneteau scored with just over three minutes left in the ninth period, after 116 minutes and 30 seconds of extra time. The game ended at 2:25 a.m.
No record of what time the concession stands ran out of beer.
Wings goalie Normie Smith set a record that still stands, saving all 92 shots he faced that long night.
11 Detroit Red Wings vs. New York Rangers, Game 7, 1950 Stanley Cup Final
Game 7 in one of the closest, hardest fought Stanley Cup finals ever. The Rangers won two games in OT, then the Red Wings staged a furious comeback to force a Game 7. It took double-overtime to settle it before another player emerged from obscurity to score the goal of his life. Pennsylvania native Pete Babando scored the most important of his 86 career goals. The Hockey News tracked him down for the 50th anniversary of his famous backhand. This was also the game said to have started the tradition of the victorious team skating around the rink with the Stanley Cup. The Wings' Ted Lindsay is credited with being the Founding Father.
10 Canada vs. USA, Women's Gold Medal Game, 2014 Winter Olympics
Another sensational comeback and incredible finish, whichever side of the 49th parallel you live on. The two evenly matched women’s hockey superpowers take turns winning championships and this one went Canada’s way in dramatic fashion, making the Sochi Games yet another double gold in hockey for Canada, as the Canadian men also won.
Up 2-1 late in the game, with the Canadian goalie on the bench for an extra attacker, a long shot by the Americans clanged off the post of the empty net. Canada tied it up with less than a minute left and won it in overtime. The thrilling finish squelched talk of dropping women’s hockey from the next Winter Games in South Korea.
9 Soviet Union vs. Canada, Game 1, 1972 Summit Series
One of the most traumatic nights in Canadian history. |Headlines abounded the next day: “We Lost!” An overconfident, out of shape Canadian all-star team was ambushed by an unexpectedly physical, skilled Soviet team. Sure the Soviets dominated international hockey but they played only against amateurs. Surely the NHL players would teach them a lesson. That was the night The Big Red Machine was unleashed and they left the NHLers gasping in their wake. A revelation on ice. This is more of a testament to the importance of the game, rather than the game itself.
8 Czech Republic vs. Canada, Semifinals, 1998 Winter Olympics
Another exercise in the agony of defeat for Canada at the Nagano Winter Games. The Czech Republic faced an awesome collection of firepower as this was the first time NHL professionals were allowed to play and the roster was studded with superstars including Joe Sakic, Steve Yzerman and The Great One, Wayne Gretzky.
But the game is recalled as a riveting, superhuman performance by Czech goaltender Dominik Hasek and cemented his legendary stats as The Dominator. He stoned the much stronger Canadians the whole game and shut them right down in the shootout, stopping all five shots and he would take them to the Gold, shutting out the Russians. Gretzky was in tears.
Canada coach Marc Crawford became infamous for not using Gretzky in the shootout. Canada lost to Finland in the Bronze Medal game.
7 Boston Bruins vs. Montreal Canadiens, Game 7, 1979 Stanley Cup Semifinals
It remains an iconic moment in NHL lore. Boston Bruins coach, and later cantankerous TV analyst, stood up on the bench and took a bow after making a critical coaching mistake by Hockey Night in Canada's Don Cherry that let Montreal’s Guy Lafleur score the tying goal in Game 7 of the semifinal.
Cherry blundered into a too many men on the ice penalty that provided the power play the Canadiens’ superstar took advantage of. Even worse for Cherry and the Bruins, the Canadiens won in overtime, eliminating Boston and costing Cherry his job.
6 Montreal Canadiens vs. The Red Army, New Year's Eve, 1975
Often mentioned as the greatest game ever. It’s at least the greatest tie ever. The legendary HC CKSA Moscow, better known as the Red Army team, bulked up with a few stars from other Soviet clubs, toured North America playing NHL teams, seeking revenge for the loss to Canada in the 1972 Summit Series. The Canadiens that season had what may have been the best team in NHL history. Losing only a ridiculous 11 times in an 80 game season, they set a record for points with 127. It was superstar Guy Lafleur’s breakout year. They completely dominated the Soviets out-shooting them 38-13. It was only an epic performance by the great Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak, and a rare off night from Ken Dryden, that made the final score level.
5 Canada vs. Czechoslovakia, 1976 Canada Cup Final
It may have been the Dreamiest Team of all time. The Team Canada chosen for that tournament had 16 members now in the Hockey Hall of Fame. A constellation of revered hockey Gods from Bobby Orr to Bobby Hull. But it would be a tip from an assistant coach, the disgraced Don Cherry that may have provided the margin of victory. It was Cherry who noticed the Czech goaltender was going way out of the net to cut down angles. The erstwhile hero of the piece, Darryl Sittler took heed of the advice. When in almost alone, as Cherry predicted, the goalie came out. Sittler faked a shot, froze the exposed goalie, and then slid around to slide the puck into the empty net. Sittler said it was the greatest moment of his illustrious career. And the nation rejoiced.
4 Canada vs. Soviet Union, 1987 Canada Cup Final
Another moment of national euphoria in the Canada Cup, 1987 edition. Canada fought back after a disastrous first period in the deciding game.
Tied at 5 late with less than 90 seconds to go, coach Mike Keenan sent out the line made in Hockey Heaven, the only series in which megastars Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux played together.
In the biggest brain cramp of the century, the Soviets allowed the two most prolific scorers in world history to break out in a 2-on-1, with Lemieux burying the winner on a pass from Gretzky, one of the most memorable goals ever scored, elevated by the sense of uniqueness, a once in a lifetime collaboration of the two greatest ever, never to be seen or savored again.
3 Canada vs. United States, Gold Medal Game, 2002 Winter Olympics
The game also marked the rise of the United States as Canada’s most formidable opponent and chief rival, displacing the Russians. From here on the great battles on ice would be between the North American neighbors.
2 Miracle On Ice
The Miracle. One of those days when God truly did bless America. The collection of American college players had no business being on the same rink as the Soviet Big Red Machine, at the height of its fearsome powers, able to spank the best of NHL teams at will.
They smacked the U.S. 10-3 in an exhibition game before the Lake Placid Games started. It was a much more realistic result reflecting the true difference in talent. It may have been a case of an arrogant elite team playing down to its vastly inferior opposition. The Americans may have played out of their minds. It was likely a combination of both.
Nothing can take away from the greatest upset in the history of sport and, for Americans, the pleasure of beating their hated Cold War rivals. The gold medal that followed was almost an afterthought.
1 Canada vs. Soviet Union, Game 8, 1972 Summit Series
It’s difficult to explain how much this win meant to the Canadian national psyche. Only the maple leaf flag, universal health care and heroism in two world wars approach the importance of hockey in the nation’s self-image. Team Canada had been humiliated in the early games of the so-called Summit Series and had to play the last four games in Moscow.
With the series tied and the Soviets up 5-3 in the last period of the last game, the nation was on the verge of going into mourning.
Such is its spiritual significance, it became for Canadians of a certain age, the Canuck equivalent of Americans asking “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” Redemption. Vindication. Glory. Don’t even think of telling a Canadian it’s just a game.