How the World Junior Tournament became relevant to Canadians

Words and music by JT Shark

Today the World Junior Championships is something nearly every hockey fans attention to, even in passing and it is a tournament that is now one the main items on the yearly hockey calendar. This has not always been the way it has been viewed. Running at the same time is a tournament in Switzerland called the Spengler Cup and for many years both the Junior Championships and The Spengler Cup were afterthoughts for most Canadians and hockey fans. While The Spengler Cup gets some mention, the Junior Championship now comes with as much hype as the Stanley Cup or the Olympics.

Why? Because of what happened on January 4th 1987. What became known as “The Punch-up in Piestany” Would lead to politicians, news media, sports reports, every Canadian hockey fan, Don Cherry and the legendary owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Harold Ballard to come to the defence of 24 junior players who found themselves in the middle of The Cold War.

The facts are straight forward. Team Canada was guaranteed at least a Bronze medal going into the game, a win they would win the Silver and if the won by 4 or more goals it would be a Gold Medal. Team Russia had bombed and were going home with their tails between their legs to face the wrath of the country for embarrassing the Russian Federation.  It was Canada 4-1-1 vs the USSR 2-3-1. This was at the height of the cold war and the game was being played in the old Czechoslovakia and was a key ally to the Russians at the time. Without getting too political part of the USSR ethos was that they were better then everyone at anything and everything.

So what happened at this tournament was viewed as a national disgrace.

Canada jumped out to a 3-1 lead—meaning the gold was within reach and glory was almost there. One of the key combatants was a 17 year old Theo Fleury who would go on to be on the biggest agitators who ever played in the NHL and would be one the best all-around players to play the game. During the first intermission he gave an interview to the CBC where he said that on the play on the ice was very chippy with lots of slashing. Watching from my home in Edmonton I remember my grandfather saying in the early morning as we watched “Russians aren’t trying to win”.

It became obvious as the second period continued that there was a problem on the ice and the play was getting very chippy. As multiple investigations would be undertaken afterwards both the Russian Federation and The Canadian Federation would only agree on one subject. While blaming each other for starting what happened and the mayhem that occurred. Both sides made it clear, Norwegian born Ref Hans Ronning was too inexperienced to be a referee at this level and this was the only thing both sides would ever agree on when it came to the blame of what happened.

What did happen? The headlines the next day across the globe for a tournament not many knew about said it all “WAR ON ICE” “WORLD WAR 3!”         With the Canadian and USSR flags back set against a still photo of what could only be described as a seen from Slap Shot.

Video of the brawl https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2vjcr0_NKEA

Don Cherry’s response  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uz9e_8TvTqk

It was a full scale bench clearing brawl. Who started it? Who tossed the first punch? Why did it happen? The answers would depend whose side you were on.

It was us vs them and the fallout from it is what lead the Junior Tournament to become as popular as it is now.

What was the fallout from a 30 minute bench clearing brawl that caused the refs to leave the ice and whoever ran the arena thinking that turning off ALL the lights in the arena would stop the fight. The immediate fallout was both countries tossed from the tournament and Canada stripped of their bronze medal.

When it was announced Canada had been tossed and stripped of their medals; is when  Don Cherry and the  Leafs owner went off the deep end. Say what you like about Don Cherry and the late Harold Ballard but they are both proud Canadians and to get robbed of a medal the kids  had won prior to the game being played, both men and many other Canadians wrapped themselves up the Canadian Flag and went to war over what the international committee did to OUR kids.

A tournament which until then not many hockey fans knew about or cared about overnight became one of the most important dates on the hockey calendar and a tourney hockey players from around the world now wanted to play in. Previously players had to be begged to go to this tournament and be away from their families over the holidays. After the expulsion of the teams, it was now a tournament that nearly every player growing up dreamed of playing in and many players from many countries used it as their coming out party to show the world they had talent.

And all it took was an international incident that lead off every newscast in North America and Europe and was on the front page of nearly every newspaper in the world.

And to this day most Canadians are still mad we got stripped of the bronze. It happened 31 years ago, but the north remembers and now the games are a matter of national pride. After the expulsion, Canada would go on and win 8 of the next 10 gold medals and the other countries realized they were no longer getting a free pass to this tournament.

And we still want that bronze back!

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4 Responses to "How the World Junior Tournament became relevant to Canadians"

  1. striatic says:

    Great post. Interesting in the Cherry interview the mention of Russian bench clearing brawls versus the Czechs and the USA in previous years, both incidents in Czechoslovakia. What an odd history for the Russian Junior team.

  2. Spydyr says:

    I remember following a 16-year-old, Wayne Gretzky in the 1978 World Junior Championships.

  3. Pescador says:

    Huge win! Slovaks baby

  4. Cahoon says:

    Love the GoT reference with Canada as the North. Great post man!

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