Wayback Wednesday is a weekly feature over at Reddit’s /r/hockey that takes a look back at some interesting hockey stories — including this one about a memorable World Juniors dust-up:
It’s that time of year again; time to receive gifts you don’t want from family you don’t like; time to eat far too much food, far too quickly; time to sit on the lap of a plump, bearded stranger in a red suit; and, most importantly, time for the World Juniors.
They’ve become an institution over the past thirty-odd years; the best and brightest hockey stars, from around the world, locked in frozen combat for the whole hockey world to see. The play is fast, frantic, passionate… What’s not to like?
Truth is, though, there have been a few times when the passion of the game becomes too much; when the players become unhinged.
What happened on January 4th, 1987, was a prime example of that.
The short story of the night was that the Soviets and the Canadians got involved in a scuffle that escalated into a full-scale brawl; both teams were ejected from the tournament, giving the coveted gold medal to the Finns.
Here’s the long story.
Ever since the Soviets came onto the international hockey scene in the 1950’s, they had dominated. The Big Red Machine won 17 out of 20 World Championships between 1963 and 1983. Canada had long accused the Soviet team of being professional athletes, disguised as amateurs, which would have violated IIHF rules. In fact, tensions got so high that Canada pulled out of all international hockey for six years in protest.
The 1972 Summit Series was the boiling point, a Cold War in every sense of both terms. Canada narrowly won in eight games, but by the time the 1987 World Juniors rolled around, it was a distant memory.
More recent in the hockey world’s mind was the Rendez-vous ’87 tournament, between the Soviet national team and a team of NHL All-Stars. The series was won by the Soviets, who split the games with the NHLers but outscored them 8-7.
More recently, the ’87 Canada Cup was played later that year, ending with one of the most incredible games in the entirety of hockey history; two teams, on level footing in hockey Valhalla, scratching and clawing for a chance at hockey supremacy.
Canada won that one, on the strength of a goal still celebrated today. Gretzky, to Lemieux, to the back of the net. Bye, Felicia.
In 1987, the World Juniors were still in their infancy. The tournament was relatively low-key; Canada hadn’t been much of a player at the tournament historically, and the Soviets had dominated, winning seven titles. By contrast, Canada had only won twice, in ’82 and ’85. After the Soviets won again in ’86 on Canadian soil, keen eyes in the hockey world were ready for a grudge match.
The site was deep in Soviet-held territory. Czechoslovakia, to be precise; in western Slovakia, to be even more precise. Four neighbouring cities were ready to host: Trencin, Nitra, Topol’cany, and finally, Piest’any.
Piest’any was supposed to be one of the jewels of the tournament; games there would be played in the brand-new Zimny Stadion, finished mere months before. A rather boring-looking slab of Soviet-era architecture, 5,000 people could be seated comfortably inside. The rink is still used today, almost thirty years later, by the local Slovak league team.
Unlike today, where teams would play all their round-robin games in one city, teams travelled from city to city, in a round-robin format with no medal round. Both Canada and the Soviets played their three first games in different cities.
In this purely round-robin format, the three top teams would win medals. Each team would play seven games. Finland was one of the first teams done their schedule; they went 5-1-1, finishing at the top. The Canadians and the Soviets would play the final game against each other. Canada went in 4-1-1, and were guaranteed at least a bronze medal; a win by four goals or more would have won them gold.
The Soviets, on the other hand, played terribly. In an off year where they went 2-3-1 in their first six games, they were already out of medal contention. Tournament organizers hand-picked the Canada/USSR game to end the tourney because they’d figured at least one of the teams, if not both, would be fighting for gold.
Canada’s team was a hard-nosed lot; names like Theo Fleury, Everett Sanipass, Brendan Shanahan, and Luke Richardson dotted the roster. Many of them were familiar with fighting on the ice. In fact, earlier in the tournament, the Canadians started a fight with the American team in warm-ups.
Referee Hans Ronning, a rookie ref from Norway who was calling that game, threw out one player at random from both teams; he just so happened to pick Canada’s captain, Steve Chaisson, to be one of the lucky winners. He was unable to play both against the US, and the following game against the Swedes. The game with the Soviets was Chaisson’s return to the lineup. Team Canada was furious with Ronning for his handling of the deal; no one else seemed to care.
Ronning was picked to ref the Canada/USSR game, and Canada’s representation were furious. They saw Ronning as unable and inexperienced, saying he was unfit to officiate such an important game.
From the opening face-off, tensions ran high. Soviet player Sergei Shesterikov and Dave McLlwain of Canada tussled at the draw, with sticks and elbows flying. Theo Fleury opened the scoring five minutes in, and proceeded to slide on his knees through the neutral zone, aiming his stick at the Soviet bench like a machine-gun.
After a first period full of big hits and stick work, Canada led 3-1. They were two goals away from paydirt.
Once play resumed, the game was stopped. Five days earlier, on December 30th, the bus of the Swift Current Broncos hit a patch of black ice on an overpass and slid off the road. The bus hit an embankment, flipped, and slid into a ditch.Four Broncos players died in the crash. A moment of silence was held to pay tribute to the players.
While this was definitely a nice gesture, it didn’t defuse any tension on the ice. The sticks, punches, and elbows started flying again. Ronning, the Norwegian ref, called few penalties; play-by-play announcers remarked the game might be getting out of hand.
Both teams traded goals; 4-2 Canada, halfway through the game. The gold was still within reach.
Then, it all went sideways.
Shesterikov collided with Sanipass with six minutes left in the period. The two dropped their gloves; a no-no in international hockey. While the two fought, Soviet player Pavel Kostichkin two-handed Fleury, and those two fought. At the same time, Dmitry Tsygurov took a wild swing at a Canadian player, who tossed him to the ice.
Naturally, a line brawl started.
The whole fracas happened while CBC, the only Canadian broadcaster at the game, was on commercial break. After airing an ad for new Chevrolets, Canadian fans caught the beginning of the brawl. The Czechoslovak crowd, not used to seeing hockey like this, booed both teams for fighting, and the referees for being unable to control the situation.
Then, things got worse. Somebody vaulted the bench.
Some say it was an unnamed Canadian; others say it was Soviet player Evgeny Davydov. No one really knows for sure. All that’s certain is that not long after one player jumped the bench, every other player followed. A simple fist-fight had turned into a full-on 18-on-18 battle royale.
Few players abstained from the fight. Pierre Turgeon, a player who rarely fought, stayed on the Canadian bench, and goalie Jimmy Waite stayed in his crease. A consummate rationalist, Waite stayed there thinking that he could not risk being ejected, leaving injured goalie Shawn Simpson to play net. Forward Steve Nemeth would later argue he was trying to break up fights. Some Soviet players, whose names are lost in hockey lore, also stayed out of the melee.
The details read like a cross between a bar-fight and a Ukrainian wedding; fists flew, noses were broken, bones were smashed. Vladimir Konstantinov head-butted Greg Hawgood, breaking his nose and leaving his face bloody. Stephane Roy was the victim of a two-on-one.
The backup goalies, Vadim Privalov and the injured Shawn Simpson, fought on the ground until both were exhausted. Mike Keane teed off on Valery Zelepukin; Theo Fleury later said Keane was “fighting like it was for the world title”. Even the leading scorers of both teams, Aleksandrs Kercs and Pat Elynuik, traded blows.
Eventually, Czechoslovak officials ordered Ronning and his linesmen off the ice; by this point, Ronning had refused to break up fights, leaving players to beat each other senseless. Tournament officials even turned the lights off at one point; the on-ice festivities didn’t stop. By the time both teams quit, each team was ushered off the ice; the rink was now covered in equipment, blood, and rubbish thrown from the stands.
IIHF officials held a meeting to plan their next move. All eight teams were represented by delegates, who were each given a vote as to whether or not both teams should be banned from the tournament.
The vote was 7-1. Both teams were ejected from the tournament. Finland got the gold. Canada and the Soviets were done. You could likely guess who the lone dissenting vote was; it was Canada’s delegate, Dennis McDonald.
Both teams were ordered out of the arena. Canada was escorted out of the country by armed military guards. Every player on the ice was banned from international hockey for a year and a half; most bans were lifted after six months, and some players would play in the World Juniors again the next season.
Some fans and officials iced their displeasure. On the Canadian side, broadcaster Brian Williams called it, “an ugly, disgraceful incident”. Soviet official Anatoli Kostryukov condemned his team’s play in the melee, and head coach Vladimir Vasiliev was fired.
However, most Canadian fans sided with their boys. In a move that shocked literally no one, Don Cherry claimed after the game the Soviets planned and instigated the fight. An opinion poll taken afterward stated nine-tenths of Canadian fans supported their team’s actions.
Harold Ballard, owner of the Maple Leafs, even made a batch of gold medals to be presented to the Canadian players.
Before the fight, the World Juniors were a small blip on the Canadian hockey radar. Only one Canadian reporter made it into Czechoslovakia to cover the games in 1987. For the next year’s tourney in Moscow, organizers had to turn Canadian reporters away; too many tried to go. Now, hundreds of reporters cover the World Juniors each year.
The tourney also helped raise the profile of Canadian players involved. Out of the 20 players dressed for the game, 19 played in the NHL. Only one outlier, goalie Shawn Simpson, never played.
By contrast, out of 22 players on the the 2005 World Junior team that won gold in Grand Forks, considered the best team in World Junior history, 2 players – Rejean Beauchemin and Stephen Dixon – never made it to the bigs.
7 of the Soviet players made it to the NHL, including Zelepukin, Konstantinov, Davydov, and Kercs. Future stars Alex Mogilny and Sergei Fedorov took part in the fight, too, although both threw few punches.
Most of these players were among the first crop of Soviets to come to the NHL. Oddly enough, Fedorov, Konstantinov, and Brendan Shanahan, a Canadian combatant, wound up winning a Stanley Cup together in 1997.
The NHL ties don’t stop there, either. One of the Soviet players that night was a young prospect named Alexander Galchenyuk. His son, Alex, now plays for the Habs. The sons of two Canadian players, Glen Wesley and Pierre Turgeon, are now NHL draft picks. Mike Keane’s son Jackson is on his way to a full scholarship at North Dakota, and Luke Richardson’s nephew Jakob Chychrun is likely to be a lottery pick in this year’s draft.
The 1988 World Juniors were held in Moscow, with both teams and their players fully reinstated. Canada avenged their ’86 loss to the Soviets in Hamilton by winning gold. The Soviets finished with the silver.
Out of the six spots on the tournament all-star team, five wore taken by Soviets and Canadians. All five – Waite, Hawgood, and Fleury for Canada, and Mogilny and Fedorov for the Soviets – were on the ice at Piest’any.
It’s not a pretty chapter in international hockey history for sure, but the Punch-Up in Piest’any had a lasting impact. Without that brawl, it’s possible that some of the players involved would never get to the big leagues. It’s also possible to say, if the fight never happened, the World Juniors would never have become the giant event they are to Canadian fans.
Without the Punch-Up, December in Canada would still only be about cold weather, warm beer, salty tears, and crappy gifts.