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Punch-Up in Piestany: Canada, Russia remember the melee 30 years later

Ken Campbell
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Punch-Up in Piestany: Canada, Russia remember the melee 30 years later

The mayhem between Canada and the Soviets. Image by: Jiri Kolis/Spectrum Pictures

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Punch-Up in Piestany: Canada, Russia remember the melee 30 years later

Ken Campbell
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Canada and the Soviets' 'Punch-Up in Piestany' at the world junior lives on in infamy 30 years after it got both teams banned, but don't expect the players to feel any shame.

Brendan Shanahan is by anyone’s definition, a Pretty Big Deal in the hockey world these days. He has the keys to the kingdom, not to mention the executive washroom, with one of the most high profile and visible franchises in the history of sports. He has transformed the game, overhauled the NHL’s department of player safety and convinced the Toronto Maple Leafs board of governors to scorch the earth in order to rejuvenate the soil. He is a worthy Hall of Famer, one of only four players in NHL history with more than 1,000 points and 2,000 penalty minutes. He has a glint in his eye, and he’s very persuasive (see Babcock, Mike, and Lamoriello, Lou). And when he’s bored, he can always sit back and admire his three Stanley Cup rings and Olympic gold medal.

So, really, who better to pull this off? If there’s anyone who could salvage the memory of those who were banished from the 1987 World Junior Championship, it’s Shanahan. If there’s anyone who can rub the tarnish off the 40 young men, all now approaching 50, who brought ignominy upon themselves, their countries and the game that day in Piestany in the former Czechoslovakia, it’s Shanahan. “Yeah! That’s a great idea,” said Shawn Simpson, Canada’s backup goalie and the only player from that team not to play a game in the NHL. “We should have a reunion. Get ‘Shanny’ to organize it.”

On second thought, perhaps not even Shanahan – who has turned the Maple Leafs’ public ceremonies from amateur hour to distinguished spectacles – could give this one a go. Thirty years after the Punch-Up in Piestany, you’d be hard-pressed to find a fan who knows which country won the gold medal, because that tournament remains the low point in international hockey.

Neither before nor since has there been such a display of raw, unadulterated violence and officiating incompetence on the international stage. The two squads involved, Canada and the Soviet Union, have been expunged from all records of the 1987 world juniors. The summary of their aborted and infamous game Jan. 4, 1987, has been erased. Pat Elynuik, who paced Canada with 11 points in the tournament, is nowhere to be found among the leading scorers. It’s almost as though the teams never existed. But they did, and they will never be forgotten. “It’s like we’re the black sheep of the world junior tournament,” said Dave McLlwain.

That was never more apparent to the Canadians than in the hours after their brawl with the Soviets. Shanahan was 19 days removed from his 18th birthday. The players had been kicked out of the tournament and given half an hour to pack their belongings and leave the Zimny Stadion Piestany. There Shanahan sat with his teammates on a bus – not a luxury liner, but a school bus – with no food or drink, for a four-hour ride to Austria in the dead of night, where they would wait six hours before boarding a plane to fly home to a Canadian public that the players were led to believe were brandishing sharpened pitchforks.

(Shanahan said it was only after the team arrived back in Canada that it learned the IIHF had provisions for dealing with bench-clearing brawls that should have allowed the game to continue. As he pointed out, however, it wasn’t as though they were able to access their smartphones to look up the IIHF rulebook online.)

“There was no bathroom on the bus. We didn’t even know to complain about that,” Shanahan said. “We were all pretty scared about what was waiting for us on the other side of that flight home, because we were told we brought a tremendous amount of shame to our country. It was a very quiet bus ride, from what I remember.”

“Quiet” would not be a word to describe what had happened hours before. The Punch-Up in Piestany has been well-documented over the years. It was No. 34 in the top 100 stories – and the only on-ice story involving the world juniors – in the history of the International Ice Hockey Federation for its 100th anniversary in 2008. It’s not quite up there with the Zapruder film, but lots of grainy excerpts of the brawl exist on the Internet. And on the 20th anniversary, it was the subject of a well-researched book, When the Lights Went Out, by Gare Joyce.

"Everyone was really fired up. We're yelling stuff at them, they're yelling stuff at you. We were like, 'F--- you, you f---in' commies.'

To summarize, the Canadians entered the final day of the round-robin tournament in second place in the standings. A win would guarantee them the silver medal, but a victory by five goals or more would give them the gold. It seemed an impossible task, given the Soviets were a perennial powerhouse, winning seven of the 10 officially sanctioned tournaments that preceded it. But with a 2-3-1 record, the Soviets were out of medal contention and had nothing tangible to play for. With Canada leading 4-2 midway through the second period and looking as though it might take a run at fulfilling that destiny, what started as a scuffle between Sergei Shesterikov and Everett Sanipass triggered the nadir of international hockey history. That shoving match deteriorated to the point where the benches emptied and there were full-on fights, complete with exchanging haymakers, going on all over the ice. In his mind’s eye, Shanahan can still see the round boot-mark Stephane Roy had on his head from being kicked by a Soviet player while being double-teamed. Norwegian referee Hons Ronning, clearly out of his element, looked on as the lights were shut off in the rink. “I just remember thinking that this should be over by now and it wasn’t,” Shanahan said. “Then when the lights went out, I was thinking that they want us to end this thing. I remember feeling like they were turning out the lights to say, ‘Whatever you got to do, do it, but this has to end.’ The adults left the ice and you had a bunch of scared (teenagers) on the ice who had a lot of different things going through their heads.”

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The roots of what caused the brawl and just who should shoulder the blame have been debated for years. There are Canadians who believe the Soviets, knowing they couldn’t medal, were intent on goading Canada into a brawl to destroy its chance of winning a medal. It’s a great conspiracy theory. After all, it was smack-dab in the middle of hockey’s version of the Cold War. It’s also pretty far-fetched.

The Soviets never fought and really had no idea what they were doing. Some players have opined that the Canadians, accustomed to seeing benches cleared, went into it with the thought of pairing up with an opposing player and tussling a little before order was restored and the game resumed. The Soviets, unaccustomed to ‘The Code,’ probably thought they had to go out there and actually fight. “I recall Valeri Zelepukin got hurt and separated his shoulder,” said Sergei Fedorov. “He sort of went down on one knee and a Canadian player, I don’t remember who, was taking some punches at him. Back then in the Soviet Union, we didn’t know what we were doing, and the referee wasn’t doing much. Valeri was just getting beat up, and his arm was just hanging.”

We know Evgeny Davydov, who would go on to play 155 NHL games and gain a reputation as being a soft player, was the first to jump off the bench. “He was a bit of a loose cannon, a weird dude,” said McLlwain, who played briefly with Davydov in Winnipeg and Ottawa. “For him to jump first wasn’t really a surprise, even though he didn’t play that way when he came over here.”

We know that Zelepukin, as standup a player as you could find, was playing with a separated shoulder and was being double-teamed by Canadian players. We know it was a chippy, nasty game from the start, and the pre-game warmup had a foreboding feel to it. “Everybody was skating around yelling at each other,” Simpson said. “Everyone was really fired up. We’re yelling stuff at them, they’re yelling stuff at you. We were like, ‘F--- you, you f---in’ Commies.’ ”

What we didn’t know, or at least what has yet to be chronicled about that day, was the fact Anatoli Tarasov, the father of the Big Red Machine, visited the Soviet dressing room before the game. Alexander Galchenyuk, whose American-born and -raised son, Alex, is a rising star with the Montreal Canadiens, recalled Tarasov coming into the Soviet room to give a speech. “He told us, 'If you guys are intimidated by the Canadians, you should quit hockey,' "Galchenyuk said. “When we came out, it was like we were ready to go to war. Before the warmup, a Canadian guy starts talking bad to us, and we almost start a fight in the corridor.

“After the tournament, I got a call from the Soviet federation. They asked how it happened, and of course I didn’t tell them it was because Anatoli Tarasov pumped us up so much. I can’t say that. It’s not his fault. We were so young and we didn’t handle it.”

There were red flags all over the place before the tournament and early in the game. Canada, after all, was coached by Bert Templeton, who’s nickname was ‘Dirty Bert’ (though he was in the process of shedding that reputation). One of his assistants was Pat Burns, a former cop who took and gave no quarter himself. Of the 18 skaters on the Canadian team, half of them were in the midst of posting at least 100 penalty minutes in junior that season, and that nine didn’t include rugged defensemen Steve Chiasson, who had 73 PIM in just 45 games with the Detroit Red Wings in 1986-87, or Luke Richardson, who finished his NHL career with more than 2,000 PIM.

The Canadians were no strangers to bench-clearing brawls. In fact, they got into a line brawl against a team of Swiss professionals in a tune-up game. And prior to the game against the United States on New Year’s Eve, Darren Turcotte, one of the few Americans who was in major junior (he and Adam Burt played for Templeton’s North Bay Centennials) stressed to his teammates that whatever they did, they weren’t to cross the red line during the warmup because that would be a violation of The Code and a serious show of disrespect to the Canadians. Bob Corkum of the U.S. team was doing a passing drill with a teammate and inadvertently crossed the line, only to be greeted with a two-handed slash across the legs from Simpson, who had an injured shoulder and was backing Jimmy Waite up for the game. “(Corkum) just looked at me, and then he hit me with his glove on and just launched me,” Simpson said.

Shanahan recalled something that resembled a scene out of Slap Shot: “The guy dropped our goalie with a right hook and turned around and saw 18 players skating at him.”

According to Shanahan, American defenseman Brian Leetch once told him he paired up with one of his teammates just to look occupied during the chaos. “He was thinking,” Shanahan said, “ ‘What kind of league do these guys come from?’ ”

The Canadians were far from a swashbuckling outfit. Shanahan, Pierre Turgeon and Theoren Fleury all went on to put up more than 1,000 points in the NHL, but the top line for Canada was McLlwain between Elynuik and David Latta. As he became a year later, Waite was the main reason Canada was even in contention for a medal. Simpson thinks the 1987 team was the toughest world junior squad Canada had ever assembled, and it would be difficult argue with him.

Sanipass was coming off a season in which he had 320 penalty minutes in junior. Mike Keane, who surprised many an opponent with a lethal right hand, only had 800 PIM in his career, in part because he was a player opponents knew not to try to intimidate.

Not that the Soviets would have known any of this. They were nameless, faceless players to the Canadians, who had the same status among the Soviets. If the game had been played today, we all would have known about the exploits of Fedorov and Alexander Mogilny for years. Fans everywhere would have been occupied by Shanahan and Turgeon as they battled for the status of being the No. 1 pick in the 1987 draft. There would be an online lottery simulator that would update every team’s chances of winning the first-overall pick every day.

"We were young, man. We were really young. Emotions were high and things happened."

From the opening faceoff, the game had a nasty tone to it. Before the puck even left the circle from the opening faceoff, Shesterikov had elbowed McLlwain, who responded with a crosscheck, Elynuik took a slash and Latta was hauled to the ice. After scoring the first goal of the game at 4:34 of the opening period, Fleury slid to center ice, turned to the Soviet bench and pretended to be brandishing a machine gun, shooting down the Soviet players with his stick. The Canadians were expecting the Soviets to play the slick, skilled hockey they’d grown accustomed to seeing from them – the one that had won the Soviet Union the title in Hamilton, Ont., the year before. Instead, they encountered a team that seemed just as willing as they were to make it an alley fight. And the Soviets had muscle. Vladimir Konstantinov, who just that season had made the transition from center to defense, head-butted Greg Hawgood in the face and broke his nose. “We had no idea how to fight,” said Galchenyuk, who was an assistant captain with the Soviets. “But we were strong.”

If the Soviets were intent on thwarting Canada’s chances for a medal, the players interviewed for this article are either covering up one of the greatest examples of hockey skullduggery of all-time, or it simply wasn’t true. There were also allegations the Soviets were punished by not being fed after games and were told by their coach, Vladimir Vasiliev, that serious repercussions were waiting for them when they got home. “They were a ticking time bomb as a group,” Shanahan said.

But former NHLer Vladimir Malakhov begged to differ. “People can believe whatever they want,” he said. “That wasn’t the case.”

If the situations had been reversed and Canada was out of it with the Soviets having a chance to medal, you might be tempted to believe it. “At least that’s how the stereotype would have played out,” said Simpson, who coincidentally went on to become the GM of Dynamo Minsk in the KHL and is now a sports radio personality in Ottawa.

Exactly one year to the day after the Punch-Up in Piestany, four of Canada’s players from that team – Waite, Hawgood, Fleury and Chris Joseph – were part of a Canadian club that defeated Poland 9-1 to capture the gold medal in Moscow. Five of the players who were on the ice in Piestany the year before – Waite in goal, Hawgood on defense and Fedorov, Mogilny and Fleury upfront – were named to the 1988 all-tournament team. Waite is remembered for two things in that tournament: The most important was almost singlehandedly leading Canada to the gold medal, which the Canadians won on the strength of a 3-2 win over the Soviets on New Year’s Day. Canada was outshot 40-16 by the Soviet Union, including 17-4 in the third period, in an individual performance by Waite that is considered one of the greatest in the history of the event. The second was dropping an F-bomb during his nationally televised post-game interview.

The year after that in Anchorage, Alaska, Fedorov and Mogilny teamed with a youngster by the name of Pavel Bure to form one of the most lethal lines in the history of the tournament.

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For 30 years, the Punch-Up in Piestany has been dissected, relived and debated. It changed the way Canadians approached the tournament, and it should be noted Canada won the Fair Play trophy for having the fewest penalty minutes the following year in Moscow. The culture of the game has changed so much that it will almost certainly never be repeated.

Bench-clearing brawls were essentially banned by the NHL later that season and are now about as common as a lunar eclipse. The Canadian style of hockey came under scrutiny, but the Soviets seemed more than willing to take part. Perhaps there is no deeper storyline. “We were young, man,” Fedorov said. “We were really young. Emotions were high and things happened.”

It’s a sentiment shared by the Canadians. The resentment toward their opponents and to Hockey Canada, whom the players and coaches thought abandoned them, has long dissipated. Simpson and McLlwain look upon the situation with great memories. When asked whether he looks back at the 1987 World Junior Championship with regret or pride, Shanahan chose neither. “I don’t want to justify what we did, but I also don’t want to condemn it,” he said. “I don’t blame Bert Templeton or our coaching staff, Pat Burns. I don’t think anybody foresaw something like that happening.

“I can say it was just a product of the times of where the game was. There were lots of guys who jumped over the boards who had zero intention of fighting. It’s not the Russian players’ fault for not knowing that. I don’t look back and say that this was Canada’s proudest moment, and I don’t look back and feel ashamed for it.”

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Punch-Up in Piestany: Canada, Russia remember the melee 30 years later