|"Anything less than winning is not acceptable," said Wayne Gretzky prior to the 1991 Canada Cup. "The Great One" would be back to help his country defend its 1987 championship, but he would not have his brilliant partner from that series. The back injury that had kept Mario Lemieux out for more than half the 1990-91 season sidelined him for the Canada Cup as well. However, hockey's next anointed superstar would be a member of Team Canada this year. Though he had refused to report to the Quebec Nordiques and was not yet a member of the NHL, 18-year-old Eric Lindros would contribute three goals and a tough, physical presence to the Team Canada roster.
The 1991 Canada Cup witnessed a partial changing of the guard atop the hockey hierarchy, as Czechoslovakia fell to last place with a 1-4-0 record in the round-robin (despite the presence of young Dominik Hasek) and the Soviet Union failed to reach the playoffs after going 1-3-1. The USSR had been on the decline since cruising to an Olympic gold medal in 1988. With veteran national team members Vladimir Krutov and Igor Larionov allowed to join the NHL in 1989-90 and the subsequent defections of Alexander Mogilny and Sergei Fedorov, the Soviets no longer had complete access to their hockey resources.
Sweden edged the Soviet Union for fourth place in the round-robin behind Mats Sundin's six points (two goals, four assists) before losing 4-0 to Canada in the semifinals. Christian Ruuttu, Petri Skriko and Esa Tikkanen led Finland into the playoffs for the first time in Canada Cup history before they lost 7-3 to the United States.
"There is no doubt this will be the best U.S. team ever," said American general manager Craig Patrick before the tournament. Led by Mike Modano, Brett Hull, Brian Leetch and Pat LaFontaine, and featuring solid goaltending by Mike Richter, Team USA lost only to Canada during the round-robin, and it was looking for revenge in the playoffs. Canada scored a 4-1 victory over the Americans in game one of the finals, but the victory proved costly when a Gary Suter crosscheck put Wayne Gretzky out of action. Gretzky watched game two in civilian clothes and saw Mark Messier and Steve Larmer give Team Canada an early 2-0 lead. Jeremy Roenick and Kevin Miller evened the game 2-2 after two periods, but a shorthand goal by Larmer at 12:13 of the third and an empty-netter from Dirk Graham capped a 4-2 clinching victory. Despite missing the final game, Wayne Gretzky earned his fourth consecutive Canada Cup scoring title with 12 points in seven games on four goals and eight assists.