Rendez-vous ‘87: The Best NHL All-Star Experience

The NHL All-Star Game doesn’t exactly captivate its audiences with spectacular performances every year. It’s followed the course of other professional sports All-Star experiences with meaningless exhibition play with the biggest named stars giving a lackadaisical effort. However, Rendez-vous ‘87 provided the height of All-Star competition with an international showcase that authentically promoted the NHL product and the game of hockey to new groups of fans.

Rendez-vous ’87

Rendez-vous ‘87 featured a team of NHL All-Stars against the Soviet Union national team in a two-game series in Quebec City in 1987. Marcel Aubut, the former president of the Quebec Nordiques, pursued a lofty vision when the NHL chose Quebec City as the host for the 1987 All-Star festivities. He conquered incredible obstacles involving financial shortages, international politics, and travel restrictions to make the showcase a reality.

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“It shouldn’t be a party just among us, the hockey fans,” Aubut told the NHL governors, according to The Hockey Chronicle. “It should be an event where sports fans who otherwise have no interest in hockey have no choice but to watch, and where even the people who are not interested in sports have no choice but to watch. That is the way to promote a sport.”

Wayne Gretzky Rendez-Vous 87
Wayne Gretzky, Rendez-vous 87 (Photo by B Bennett/Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)

The showcase took place about seven months before the scheduled start for the 1987 Canada Cup, the fourth of five international best-on-best ice hockey tournaments. The Soviets won the gold in the 1981 Canada Cup and took a high-powered Team Canada to the wire in a tight semifinal matchup in 1984. Rendez-vous ‘87 provided an opportunity for North Americans to see the best the Soviets had to offer before the fight for international prestige in the fall.

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Aubut didn’t limit the event to a spectacle of international ice hockey or the bitter competition of a rivalry. He stayed true to his vision by creating a “gigantic cultural celebration centered around the game” in Quebec City. An NHL All-Star Game involving “black-tie dinners, fashion shows, rock concerts, and international celebrities” became a reality through Rendez-vous ‘87. Aubut later described the event as a way to promote peace and unity during the Cold War. 

“What I like the most is every all-star game I go to now they say ‘Hey Marcel, we hope for another Rendez-vous one day.’ It doesn’t die. It will never die,” Aubut told The Hockey News in 2012.

2 Classic Hockey Games

Both games between the NHL All-Stars and the Soviet Union took place at Le Colisée in Quebec City on a regulation NHL rink 200 feet long and 85 feet wide. The size of the sheet favored the NHL for Rendez-vous ‘87 because the Soviets typically played on a 197 x 98.5 ice surface. While the NHL players were used to the surface dimensions, they weren’t necessarily used to each other. The Soviets had the advantage of team chemistry as a group that played together full-time instead of meeting as a short-term collection of individual talent.

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While the intensity of an international clash was undoubtedly present, it differed from bloodbaths like the Summit Series of 1972 when over 80% of the NHL was made up of North American players. Finnish winger Jari Kurri started off the scoring on a goal assisted by his countryman Esa Tikkanen and the great Wayne Gretzky. The NHL roster also featured two Swedish players, Ulf Samuelsson and Tomas Sandstrom, and two Americans, Rod Langway and Chris Chelios.

With the score tied 3-3 with under two minutes to play in regulation time of the first game, Mario Lemieux drove into the Soviet zone and fired low on goaltender Evgeny Belosheikin. Dave Poulin deflected the shot for the winning goal in a 4-3 nailbiter.

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The Soviet Union countered with a 5-3 victory in the second game to even the two-game series. Sergei Makarov, Vladimir Krutov, and Igor Larionov made up the line that gave the NHL fits. Krutov and Valeri Kamensky buried a pair of goals each over the course of the series. An NHL Network feature later offered perspective on the series split, boldly stating “The celebration of the game of hockey outweighed any totals on the scoreboard.”

Hockey fans enjoyed watching Gretzky, who led all scorers with four points in the series, play on the same team as NHL legends like Lemieux, Raymond Bourque, and Dale Hawerchuk. They got to see the best players in the NHL together in one uniform with a competitive edge against legitimate competition that challenged them to play at the height of their game. It’s unlikely that an NHL All-Star Game will ever recreate that kind of spectacle.

A World Starved for International Best-on-Best

The annual NHL All-Star Game pales compared to a historic international event like Rendez-vous ‘87. Scheduling difficulties, the growing competitive intensity of the NHL regular season with a 32-team field, and the needs of the NHLPA all make it difficult for the league to put together a spectacular and competitive event every year in February. An event involving the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) in Russia, the second-best professional league in the world, is also unlikely to materialize in modern times.

The NHL chose not to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, and complications surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic forced their hand in backing out of the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing. Fans will also miss out on the opportunity to watch the World Cup of Hockey in 2024, mainly because of the political ramifications surrounding the current situation in Russia. The NHL will continue to explore options.

Christoffer Ehn] Auston Matthews
Auston Matthews with Team USA (MARKKU ULANDER/AFP/Getty Images)

The world has been starving for international best-on-best hockey since after the underwhelming World Cup of 2016 ended, and the NHL could afford to revisit its history and take a page out of Marcel Aubut’s book. They’ve been hit hard by incredible obstacles to international competition in recent years, but Rendez-vous ‘87 became a success despite obstacles in circumstances extending beyond hockey. 

The real international rivalry has shifted away from East vs. West as Russian and European players have gradually become a standard element of every NHL roster. The percentage of Canadian players in the NHL has gradually shrunk, and the Americans have become a legitimate threat to the Canadians in international competition. Homegrown talent in the United States has peaked, and the North American rivalry is legitimate in both the men’s and women’s games.

American stars like Auston Matthews (25) and Jack Eichel (26) have reached their prime years at the same time as Canadian stars like Connor McDavid (26) and Nathan MacKinnon (27). Waiting for the possibility of an international best-on-best tournament at the 2026 Winter Olympics would risk robbing hockey fans of a historically memorable matchup, and it could ruin the chance of aging national legends like Patrick Kane or Sidney Crosby to compete for their countries in their twilight years. 

If the World Cup isn’t going to become a reality, the NHL needs to assert itself as the world leader for the sport of hockey by creating a showcase event that provides fans with the opportunity to see the best international rivalry take place in a competitive setting. The game’s history wouldn’t be as rich without the 1972 Summit Series or the memorable Canada Cups or Rendez-vous ’87, and hockey won’t reach the peak of its potential as an entertainment product without a matchup of the two North American powerhouses on the men’s side. The NHL needs to find a way.