The brawl that started it all
Canada's love affair with the annual Holiday Season world junior championship is a passion play that has its roots in Cold War on-ice fisticuffs with the hated Soviet Union
He knows the ritual; how the country is primed to project its pride and lofty expectations onto a group of hockey-playing teenage boys. He knows, too, what that felt like and what people continue to say about him – not just what he did all those years ago, but what he didn't do.
Pierre Turgeon didn't leave the bench. Not of his own volition. In the second period of the final game of the 1987 world junior championship, with the Soviets first over the boards to partake in an all-out brawl that lasted 20 minutes, until organizers turned off the arena lights, the 17-year-old Turgeon chose to stay put. He wasn't the only conscientious objector – forward Steve Nemeth and goalie Jimmy Waite were on the ice, yet never threw a punch – but Turgeon, six months shy of being the first pick in the NHL entry draft, drew the ire of fans, media, even a few of his teammates. They wanted it known that if Turgeon was on the bench, then the Canadians were out-numbered on the ice. Someone was getting double-teamed.
"I went on the ice," Turgeon says from Los Angeles, where the Kings have given him the title of offensive co-ordinator. "I went out, maybe one of the last ones. [Head coach Bert Templeton eventually talked him off the bench.] I got a guy. I didn't fight. I didn't get [the opponent's jersey] number. To me, that wasn't my job. I didn't have to fight."
If everything gets amplified when Canada's top juniors play for their country, then nothing pumps up the volume more than the 1987 Punch-up in Piestany, Czechoslovakia. It gave us the incident that sullied the world juniors and resulted in the Canadian team being escorted out of the Zimny Stadion Piestany by armed guards. And yet, in the same breath, the brawl helped popularize the tournament like never before, transforming it into a holiday-season tradition where parents and their kids can get up early to watch Canada playing live from a rink on the other side of the world.
It's a passion play that hits on all the old themes – us against the Red menace – and has added new ones, such as battling the Americans for gold. Think of the highlights we've been treated to over the years: the dramatic goals scored by John Slaney in 1991, Jonathan Toews in the 2007 shootout and Jordan Eberle in 2009; how Sidney Crosby and his 2005 "Dream Team" squad out-duelled Alex Ovechkin and the Russians; how we've twice celebrated Canada winning five gold medals in a row (1993-97, 2005-09).
On the flip side, we've seen goalie Marc-André Fleury score on himself with a badly placed clearing attempt in 2004. And let's not forget what happened in 2011, when Canada blew a 3-0 lead by surrendering five third-period goals to a resilient Russian side. Okay, that one you can forget.
The point is, if you trace the world juniors' bloodlines to the game that left a permanent mark on Canadian hockey, you come to the bloodletting in Piestany, where punches flew in bunches, where players were suckered, a nose was head-butted, groins kneed and then – click! – it was lights-out hockey of a troubling sort. Those who watched it were left to wonder if the Canadian team was too easily drawn into losing its composure, or did it do the right thing after seeing Evgeny Davydov first off the Soviets' bench? And why didn't Turgeon leave the Canadian bench when all hell broke loose?
Almost 31 years later, the talking points are still fervent.
"I was utterly amazed at how the Canadian public responded to that first gold-medal win in 1982 [with Dave King as coach]," says former Canadian Amateur Hockey Association president Murray Costello. "And the tournament really took hold when we hosted it 1986 [in Hamilton]."
And the 1987 Punch-up?
"I remember Theo Fleury scored a goal and came steaming back in front of the Soviets' bench and went down on one knee and machine-gunned the bench [with his stick]," Costello says. "And I thought, 'Oh boy, we're in trouble here.'"
The potential for trouble had been building well before the eruption in Piestany. There was the legendary Canada vs. the Soviet Union fight for Summit Series supremacy in 1972, the eight-game matchup in which Team Canada willed its way to victory after teetering on the brink of embarrassment. That set the emotional standard for every Canadian team that followed. Mixed with that were flash points within the 1987 world juniors.
The Canadian team didn't want a replay of 1986, when the Soviets beat Canada by three goals before taking the gold medal in Hamilton. By the time they met a year later, the Soviets were out of medal contention, but not without influence. Canada had to defeat its archrival by a minimum of five goals to secure gold. That was enough motivation for the Soviets to crash the Canadian team's party.
Earlier in the tournament, Canada got into a pregame fight with the U.S. team when one of its players skated just over the centre red line into Canadian territory. Slashed by Canada's back-up goalie Shawn Simpson, U.S. centre Bob Corkum lived up to his name and corked Simpson, generating an angry response from his teammates. Order was restored, but not before it was shown that the Canadians, as was their reputation, could be goaded into a hurtful response.
In the many articles, columns and books written on what happened in Piestany, it has been suggested, even argued by some, that the Soviets baited the Canadians into losing control and being punished, although no one was certain what form that punishment would take since the world juniors had never had a bench-clearing brawl, let alone one in a game to decide the gold-medal winner.
"You have to understand, when those kids were born [in the mid to late 1960s]. That [1972 Series] was in their wheelhouse," says Craig Button, a former NHL general manager who is now a TSN hockey analyst. "It was all they ever heard of back then. And when they made it to the world juniors to play the Soviets, they were aware of the rivalry and lore … It was almost like a perfect storm."
It didn't help that the vast majority of Canadian players came from major-junior hockey where bench-clearing brawls were still an occurrence.
"The Western Hockey League had two separate warm-ups," Button adds. "[The competing teams] didn't warm up at the same time because they didn't want to have brawls before the game started. It wasn't hard to put blood in the tank and get everyone worked up like a shark, get a frenzy going."
"We did what we were taught"
When Yvon Corriveau left the safety of the Canadian bench to land smack in the middle of the melee, it was too late to ask if he was doing the smart thing. But the right thing? He was certain he had that covered. He was coming to the aid of his teammates.
"Looking back on it, I don't know that we'd do anything different," says Corriveau, now 50, who is the head coach of a hockey program for kids in Connecticut. "We did what we were taught."
Hockey culture dictates that if one team leaves the bench, the other team has to follow. The CBC put former NHL coach Don Cherry and veteran broadcaster Brian Williams on the same set to debate what had happened in Piestany and who was at fault. Then, seven years into his Coach's Corner gig, Cherry argued in defence of the Canadian players – "our boys" – rushing to the aid of their teammates, while Williams was critical of the events that led to the expulsion of both teams.
"I wasn't criticizing the Canadian players. I was criticizing the whole situation – the fighting, the turning out the lights," says Williams, who later moved to TSN after it had obtained the national broadcast rights to the tournament in 1991. "It was not a good image for hockey, but it was certainly one people gravitated to."
It proved to be good for business. From TSN's first tournament in 1991, to 1997, Canada won six gold medals and viewership numbers soared. For 2009, the Canada vs. Sweden final peaked at 4.7 million viewers. By 2015, 7.1 million Canadians tuned in to TSN to watch their team edge Russia 5-4 for the gold. In 2017, 11.1 million viewers saw at least part of the Canada-U.S. final won by the Americans in a shootout. As for the 2018 tournament, which opens Boxing Day in Buffalo, Canada finds itself in the familiar position of being a contending team poised to invade our living rooms and collective consciousness.
"No doubt, [the Piestany debacle] elevated interest in the country, but you have to have something to elevate," Williams says. "We had 1972, and we had other championships and Canada Cups and so on. The NHL was not in the Olympics yet. The world championships didn't contain all the best players in the NHL, depending on who was in the playoffs and who wasn't. When you look at it, all things considered, the world juniors was the real, most legitimate hockey tournament in the world."
As for leaving the bench to join the fight, Corriveau, a Washington Capitals' first-round draft pick who spent seven years in the German Elite League, says doing the right thing wasn't so easy.
"It was one of the scariest things I've ever been a part of," he admits. "I remember being out there and I turned around and all I could see was these big red jerseys coming at me. Back then, the Soviets didn't know how to fight. They still had their sticks in their hands. We had nothing – no sticks, no gloves. And the strength of these Soviets; I don't remember who I had, but I do remember grabbing the guy and going, 'Oh oh.' The guy was so strong."
Canadian coaches Templeton and Pat Burns, known for their fondness of physical hockey, and Soviet counterparts Vladimir Vasiliev and Valentin Gureev were banished for having lost control of their teams. Ironically, the man who was supposed to be in charge did absolutely nothing to broker peace. Referee Hans Ivar Ronning of Norway was working his first and only world juniors game. He was so overwhelmed by the animosity he was witnessing that he left the ice and took his linesmen with him.
Located years later by author Gare Joyce, whose book, When the Lights Went Out: How One Brawl Ended Hockey's Cold War and Changed the Game, offers the best, most detailed account of what transpired, Ronning said the Canadians were the first to leave the bench. And that incited the Soviets to do the same.
"It was [the Canadians'] fault that the fight happened. They started it," Ronning told Joyce. "And I have no idea why, when they still had a chance at the gold medal."
Canada had no chance at a medal after IIHF president Gunther Sabetzki saw the chaos before the lights went out and called it a "black stain." Brendan Shanahan got into two fights; Stéphane Roy was attacked by two Soviets while defenceman Greg Hawgood had his nose busted open by a Vladimir Konstantinov head-butt. Once the players separated and headed to their dressing rooms, IIHF members held an emergency meeting to determine the fallout. The Soviets and Canadians, who were ahead by a score of 4-2, were both struck from the record books as if they'd never set foot in Czechoslovakia. Finland was given the gold medal. The Canadians were ordered into school buses and escorted out of the arena, then out of the country.
"I was on the tournament's disciplinary committee and they didn't want me to sit in the meetings because our team was part of it," says Costello, who made his feelings known nonetheless. "We had a big discussion going around and around, and they were really looking to punish both Canada and Russia. And finally, it hit me, 'If you really want to give some discipline, discipline the coaches who control the teams and didn't get it done on either side.' In the back of my mind, this is okay because we change the coaches each year anyway. They decided that was good. I said, 'These junior players. They're just learning the international game. If you punish them it's really not going to accomplish anything.' I lost that argument."
The coaches were suspended by the IIHF for three years; the players drew 18 months, a ban that was overturned on appeal after six months. That allowed Canada to ice an experienced team for the 1988 world juniors in Moscow that included a handful of players (including Waite and Fleury) from the 1987 group. Canada unleashed a hard, yet disciplined, game to win the gold. It was payback and lessons learned.
"I just wanted to play"
Pierre Turgeon took some verbal abuse from his teammates who said he should have left the bench when they did. Rugged forward Everett Sanipass was quoted saying he looked at the Canadian bench and "there's this dog, Turgeon, just sitting there, with his head down. He wouldn't get his ass off the bench."
Turgeon would become an elite scorer in the NHL. Through 19 seasons with six teams, he totalled 515 goals and 812 assists for 1,327 points. He also served as captain of the Montreal Canadiens. But the criticisms born of Piestany – too soft, too unwilling to stand up for his teammates – were hard to shake. Even when his name comes up for consideration for the Hockey Hall of Fame, Turgeon and his reputation get picked to pieces. He has been eligible for the Hall since 2010, the year his 18-year-old daughter was killed in a car crash.
For all of the emotional pain he has experienced, Turgeon doesn't come across as bitter. He says he follows the world juniors when he can because, "it's the best hockey at that age." He is aware the 1987 Punch-up is always a debate starter. It was the game that helped stoke our emotions, made the world juniors count for something more. Never again has there been an incident of that scale because the precedent was set – you leave the bench, your team leaves town empty-handed.
Since Piestany, Canada has iced lineups built exclusively on talent and speed. The need for toughness still exists, but it has nothing to do with fighting and everything to do with being smart and disciplined. The 1987 team found that out the hard way.
They were kids when they went to Czechoslovakia, but the players felt much older when they returned. To ease the sting, Toronto Maple Leafs' owner Harold Ballard had gold medals made and sent to all the players. For Turgeon, it was the last time he represented his country.
"Even through my career, there was always a place where we had guys like [enforcer] Tony Twist," he says of his time in the NHL. "We had guys in different roles to take care of us. So for me, I could really focus on the game. I didn't get paid to fight. It wasn't my job and, I'll be honest with you, I was happy it wasn't part of my job.
"I just wanted to play."