As a boy growing up in rural Alberta, Mike Moller was accustomed to matchbox-sized arenas. So it was fitting the scene of his best-known hockey moment – scoring the gold medal-winning goal that gave Canada its first World Junior Championship in 1982 – wasn’t an NHL-style facility, but rather a rink in Rochester, Minn., that couldn’t have had more than 2,000 people in it. “Playing in larger centers earlier in the tournament was a thrill,” Moller says of the games leading up to the final against the Czechs. “Winnipeg and Minnesota fans were just fantastic. But to play that game in a smaller center, where it was standing room only and people were hanging from the rafters, we were in our element.”
Prior to the 1982 WJC, Canada had not succeeded to the degree it became known for years later. Indeed, in ’81, the Canadians finished seventh. So rather than continue with the semi-regular tradition of sending the Memorial Cup champion squad to represent Canada, team architects decided they would take the best players from anywhere.
That’s just what they did: they selected James Patrick and Troy Murray from the NCAA; Carey Wilson, who’d been playing in Finland; and top teens from the Ontario, Quebec and Western Leagues, including Moller and his brother (and fellow future NHLer) Randy. Team brass also conducted a short, summer orientation camp, so in many ways, the genesis of the team-building process now so familiar to Canadians first took root with that ’82 team.
But don’t kid yourself, the WJC back then didn’t have the sophistication it does now. Moller and the Canadians barely had an exhibition schedule in which to work out kinks. And the few games they did play weren’t against world-class opponents, but a men’s senior league all-star team from southwest Manitoba.
Compounding matters for Canada was its immediately tough schedule. The tournament then had a round-robin format with no playoff and Canada’s first three games were against Finland (silver medalists in 1981), Sweden (the defending champions) and the Soviet Union (which had dominated with four successive gold medal wins prior to ’81). Improbably, and helped by the fact the first three games took place in the friendly environs of the old Winnipeg Arena, Canada beat the odds and emerged victorious in all three games.
Moller and his teammates respected all the nations, but he admitted the Soviets – still largely unknown to North American audiences – were especially imposing. Making it worse: the game against the U.S.S.R. was televised Canada-wide. The potential for humiliation was great. “We were scared spitless,” he says. “We were going on national television and we could get thumped.”
The Canadians rose to the occasion and steamrolled the Soviets 7-0, then beat the Americans, West Germans and Swiss to set up the final game against the Czechs, who needed a win to claim gold. Canada only needed a win or tie. Moller scored the third and final goal for his side in that game and Team Canada survived a late Czech charge (and a very late tying goal) to secure the tournament victory. But incredibly, organizers didn’t have a proper recording of O Canada to be played at game’s end. But that didn’t stop Moller and his fellow Canadians from ensuring the song would be heard.They simply sang it themselves. “When they didn’t have the anthem, our coach Dave King said, ‘Let’s go, guys, we’ll bring the celebration inside,’ ” Moller says. “And we were like, ‘No, no we’re not.’ It wasn’t a great version, but man, did it feel good.”
Moller, who now resides in Red Deer, Alta., and works as an insurance executive, played parts of seven season in the NHL during the 1980s with the Buffalo Sabres and Edmonton Oilers, but his experience at the world juniors still stands out as particularly special. “I’m so thankful and humbled to have been part of the beginning of it, before it became the huge event it is now,” he said. “I’m very proud I get to watch it every Christmas holiday with my family and cheer on Team Canada.”