A Little “What If”: The 1987 World Juniors

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January 4th, 1987

PIESTANY, CZECHOSLOVAKIA

The ice at the Zimny Stadion was a mess. Loads of equipment and the blood of more than a few players was spilled across the surface. If there was any silver lining, it was that nobody in the arena could see any of it.

The lights in the arena had been turned out, a move used as a last, desperate measure to stop a massive brawl between the under-20 teams of Canada and the Soviet Union in the final game of the 1987 World Junior Championship. Following one and a half period of tension-filled hockey, including Canadian player Theo Fleury pointing his stick at the Soviet bench and pantomiming a machine gun, the emotions on the ice spilled over, and almost all of the players involved in the game squared off in an all-encompassing donnybrook. It was an ugly sight for the hockey world to bear, as well as for the crowd in the stadium that day, who voiced their displeasure at the fighting with a loud chant of “We Want Hockey!”

After a pause of around twenty minutes, the game was abandoned. In the hours following the brawl, meetings were held to determine the punishments, with the final decision being that both the Soviet team and the Canadian team were to be disqualified. This was a slap in the face to the Canadian team, who had been playing for the gold medal in that contest; if they had beaten the Soviets by five or more goals, they would have been crowned the champions. Soon after the tournament concluded, conspiracy theories began to emerge, especially within the Canadian media; the primary theory was that the Soviets had started the fight to get Canada disqualified, thus preventing them from winning any medal at all. Whether the theory had any merit has not been proven, even to this day, but the sentiment still lingers.

But for all the darkness in the days following the incident, the World Junior Championship would only grow in stature. Whereas only a single Canadian outlet had sent a reporter to cover the event in 1987, more and more media companies would send journalists over the next few years, to the point where over 100 reporters were covering the 2005 Championship in Grand Forks, North Dakota. The event has become somewhat of a Canadian cultural institution, a bonding point for the nation over the holiday season. When the event itself is held in Canada, arenas are packed for the home team, and as the years go on, even a few “neutral” games get decent crowds in the country.

It is one of hockey’s ugliest moments, but that ugliness somehow managed to elevate the tournament it took place at to a must-see sporting event in Canada. So what would have happened to the World Juniors had the teams never left the benches? And more importantly, how would the careers of those tied to the brawl in some way be affected without it taking place?

WHAT IF THE 1987 WORLD JUNIOR BRAWL NEVER HAPPENED?

WHAT MUST BE CONSIDERED, AND WHAT MUST CHANGE: The seeds for the 1987 World Junior brawl had been planted long before the incident took place. In the first game of the tournament between Canada and the United States, the two teams got into a pre-match tussle, with official Hans Ronning deciding to eject one player from each team at random. Canada felt that Ronning had not managed to control the game, and only punished Canada for future games thanks to captain Steve Chiasson being suspended. Ronning was chosen to officiate the final game between the Canadians and Soviets, and his inability to control the two sides would be the deciding factor in turning a tense game into an all-out slugfest.

For this scenario to change, the Canadian delegation needs to be successful in their appeals to the IIHF for someone else to take charge of the final game. I know not who would be selected in Ronning’s place, but virtually any referee would be an improvement on the Norwegian ref, who simply gave up on trying to assert any kind of control after the two teams left their benches in the final game.


 

January 4th, 1987 has arrived, and the final game of the World Junior tournament is set to take place, but not without a bit of controversy. Going into the game, reports surface that the Canadian delegation, led by Dennis McDonald, appealed to the IIHF for a change of referees. The first choice, Hans Ronning of Norway, was criticized by the Canadians for his ineptitude in dealing with a pre-game brawl earlier in the tournament between Canada and the United States. The appeal would be successful, and a new official would take charge for what would be a decisive game between Canada and the Soviet Union. Canada had a shot a gold, but they needed to win by at least five to claim top spot. The Soviets were effectively out of the running, but could at least play spoiler in this one.

Right off the face-off, tensions flare up. Sergei Shesterikov and Dave McLlwain get into a tussle, with Shesterikov throwing an elbow at the Canadian, who retaliates with a cross-check. Both players are sent to the box, and the ref immediately warns all of the players on the ice that ten-minute misconducts, or even game misconducts, will follow. The game sees a few stick infractions get called, but the teams have seemed to calm down. Theo Fleury scores the first goal of the game, and celebrates by pointing his stick at the Soviet bench and miming a machine gun. He is immediately sent off, and the Soviets are given a five-minute power play. They score once on the man advantage, but Canada grabs two more to hold a 3-1 lead at the break.

Early in the second period, the game is stopped to commemorate the victims of the Swift Current Broncos bus crash, and a moment of silence is held. From that point on, the tensions that had been building up over the first part of the game seem to disappear; a few minor scraps arise, but the perpetrators are immediately punished with minor penalties and ten-minute misconducts. By the end of the third period, the exuberance expected from under-20 games is present, but nothing manages to boil over. The players have gotten the message, and the game finishes clean.

As the final buzzer sounds, a group of people in the stands erupt in celebration. The game ends 6-3 for the Canadians; though they have won, the margin of victory is not enough for them to surpass the Finnish team for top spot. Finland’s youngsters are ecstatic; they have won their first-ever World Junior Championship. For Canada and their “Program of Excellence”, the event is a disappointment, but not something they can’t bounce back from. For the Soviets, who always expect to be near (or at) the top of the table, their 6th-place finish is seen as a disgrace, and the team declines to show up at the post-tournament dinner, instead called back home to face the music.

In Canada, little news about the event reaches the airwaves. The few media members that do talk about the tournament in any way point out that the Canadian team would have had a much better chance had Theoren Fleury not been tossed from the game for his over-the-top celebration. One analyst in particular, former NHL coach Don Cherry, proclaims on a post-game segment that he believes the Soviets chose the referee so that he would screw over the Canadian team. The Canadian Amateur Hockey Association (CAHA) would refute this claim, with president Murray Costello pointing out that they lobbied heavily for a change of referees to avoid an even worse incident.


 

EFFECTS ON THE HOCKEY WORLD

THE TOURNAMENT ITSELF: As former professional wrestling promoter Eric Bischoff would tell you, “Controversy Creates Cash”, and it is no different with this scenario. The 1987 World Juniors saw only one reporter make the trip from Canada to cover the event, although it was televised on CBC. The year following the incident, far more writers made the trip to Moscow for the ’88 edition of the tournament. Now, with the fight no longer taking place, the increase in reporters no longer happens. The event is still minimally covered, and there is almost no media attention devoted to Canada’s gold medal that year.

The 1991 tournament would prove to be the turning point for the tournament in Canada, as far as media attention is concerned. Though few games are shown, the game between Canada and the Soviets of the ’91 Juniors would become iconic thanks to John Slaney’s third-period goal, which sealed a gold medal for the hosts. Even without the brawl happening a few years earlier, this moment is still held up by TSN as one of the defining moments of the competition’s history. And even without that brawl, the five-year gold medal streak by the Canadians from 1993-97 builds up the tournament further. But what does happen in this new timeline is that rather than the World Juniors being developed into a prestige tournament like it is today, it still stands a tier or two below. The closest comparison at this point is the Spengler Cup, which runs at the same time on the calendar; instead of the World Juniors being head and shoulders above the Spengler Cup in Canadian cultural importance, the two are ranked side-by-side by the early 2000s, promoted together under the “TSN Hockey Holidays” banner.

Two events in the 2000s further increase the profile of the event. The first of those is the 2005 tourney in the United States, which sees over 70 reporters travel to Grand Forks, North Dakota and Thief River Falls, Minnesota to witness some of the game’s brightest prospects, including Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, and Evgeni Malkin. The event proves to be a big hit, especially with the NHL in the middle of a lockout, and the Canadian team’s victory over the Russians in the final. The momentum from that edition of the World Juniors builds as Canada starts winning multiple titles in a row, but no victory becomes more famous than 2009, a year in which Jordan Eberle’s game-tying goal against Russia in the semi-finals becomes an iconic moment in the tourney’s history.

By today, the World Juniors – at least in Canada – are still somewhat important. They are not quite a “holiday institution”, but the event still sells well enough in the country, certainly helped by TSN’s aggressive marketing. Outside of Canada, the event is treated as simply another youth tournament, and while it does gain some attention from time to time in a European country (to use an example, Finland in 2016 after Kasperi Kapanen’s golden goal), it still holds little prestige.

So, why exactly is this the case? Well, the 1987 event is really the first instance of the tournament gaining national attention, even if it was for the tournament-ending brawl. It was, in a few ways, a perfect storm of controversy for Canadians; not only was it Canada playing against their fiercest rivals, the Soviet Union, with tournament gold on the line, but the disqualification gave people in the country the right to feel aggrieved. (It didn’t hurt that certain media members were able to stoke the flames of conspiracy, but more on that later.) With a head start on momentum, the World Junior tourney is better able to grow an audience in Canada (and to a lesser extent, the rest of the world) as time goes on, and without that, ratings struggle in the early 90s.

THE PLAYERS INVOLVED: Many of the players that took the ice became household names in the National Hockey League. Theo Fleury, he of the “machine gun” taunt in the first period, would go on to record over 1,000 points in the NHL. Brendan Shanahan would be even better, racking up over 1,300 points, earning himself a Hall of Fame spot in 2013. Almost every single Canadian player would play at least one game in the NHL, a rare feat even for such a hockey-mad country. Some of the Soviets would also find their way to the National Hockey League, but they would have to wait a few years to be allowed to make the trip over.

For the most part, little would change in this new timeline. Many of the players involved still go on with their careers like they did in the OTL, with players like Fleury, Shanahan, and Sergei Fedorov still becoming superstars. But two players in particular find their paths in hockey somewhat altered: Canada’s Pierre Turgeon, and the Soviet Union’s Vladimir Konstantinov.

Pierre Turgeon would hold a spot of infamy in the wake of the 1987 fight between the two teams. Of all the players that were involved in the game that day, only three did not join in the brawl. The first was Canadian goaltender Jimmy Waite, who believed that the game would be continued following the fighting, and could not risk being ejected, so as not to force injured netminder Shawn Simpson into the crease. The second was Steve Nemeth, who had explained that he wanted to break up the fighting. Pierre Turgeon, the third of those, had no such reasoning. Unlike Waite, who was on the ice already, and Nemeth, who left the bench in order to break up fights, Turgeon stayed on the sidelines until head coach Bert Templeton told him to get on the ice.

In the wake of the incident, Turgeon was painted as a coward. 1987 teammate Everett Sanipass called him out in the media for staying on the bench while Stephane Roy was being double-teamed by two Soviet players, and his reputation stemming from that event has followed him throughout his career. The resentment from that event may be following him, too, as he has not been chosen to enter the Hockey Hall of Fame, despite having over 1,300 points in the NHL. (I can’t exactly answer whether Dale Hunter’s infamous hit from behind on Turgeon in 1993 had anything to do with the World Junior brawl, but my assumption is that it didn’t.)

With the brawl no longer happening, Turgeon’s involvement in the 1987 World Junior team is simply a footnote in his career, a throwaway line in his stat sheet. It never changes the fact that he would go on to become a star player wherever he went in the NHL, and it never changes the 1993 assault from Hunter that would contribute to him becoming slightly less effective in later years. The one thing that changes is the fact that the disdain that he acquired thanks to his non-participation in the fight is no longer present. He is welcomed into the Hall of Fame in 2010, his first year of eligibility.

While Turgeon is notable for the fact that he didn’t fight, Vladimir Konstantinov gained notoriety for the fact that he did. During the brawl, Konstantinov staggered Canadian player Greg Hawgood with a headbutt that broke Hawgood’s nose. As one of the few who fought back vigorously, Vladimir gained the attention of scouts from the Detroit Red Wings, who would take the Soviet blue-liner in the 11th Round in the 1989 Entry Draft (see paragraph five). He would go on to have a six-year career in the NHL, which would last up until 1997; that year, following a Stanley Cup party, Konstantinov would be seriously injured in a car crash, which resulted in both body and brain damage.

With this brawl no longer happening, and no chance for Vladimir to catch the eye of NHL scouts, he is not drafted in 1989. Instead, following a rather impressive year with CSKA Moscow in the Soviet league in 1989-90 (14 goals and 27 points in 47 games), he is selected in the 3rd Round of the 1990 Draft, once again by the Detroit Red Wings. This is just about the only thing that changes, however; he still defects in 1991, he still plays for the Red Wings for six seasons, and he is still critically injured in a car crash following the team’s ’97 Cup win.

“GRAPES”: In 1981, Don Cherry, then a year removed from head coaching in the NHL, joined the CBC Hockey Night in Canada crew as a colour commentator. Unfortunately, he proved to be a bit too colourful, and his style didn’t mesh with the rest of the broadcast. He was, instead, given his own segment in the first intermission, to be called “Coach’s Corner”. For the first few years, things ran smoothly enough. Given a “straight man” to play off of (first Dave Hodge, then Ron MacLean), Cherry would give his own take on certain plays in the featured game (or events in hockey that happened in the week), and more often than not, he would profess opinions that favoured old-school, “tough” hockey.

For a while, Coach’s Corner was just another segment on Hockey Night in Canada, but the 1987 brawl would change Don Cherry’s career. Immediately following the brawl, Don Cherry and Brian Williams discussed the incident, and Cherry would give an impassioned defence of the Canadian team’s actions during the game. He would also directly accuse the Soviet team of starting the brawl to deny Canada the gold medal. With almost 90% of Canadians backing the actions of the national team, Cherry’s comments came as a welcome response to the disqualification of the Canadian team by the IIHF, which many in the country viewed as an injustice.

Without this brawl happening, Don Cherry never has to fire back on behalf of Canadians. While he does criticize some of the officiating following the game, his segment gains little attention from the national public. There is no major increase in viewership for Coach’s Corner, and no popularity surge for “Grapes” himself. Instead, the next two years pass with nothing notable happening… until 1989 comes along. That year, he makes a remark about Winnipeg’s Finnish assistant coach Alpo Suhonen, asking, “Alpo? Isn’t that a dog food?” (Item #7) The remark earns the ire of Winnipeg Jets owner Barry Shenkarow, who threatens to sue over the quip. Though the suit is never filed, the CBC wants no part of the fight, and ends the Coach’s Corner segment soon afterward.

Don Cherry spends much of the 90s cycling between junior hockey coaching and commentary gigs, but almost every time he gets on television, he finds a way to create unwanted controversy. A TSN gig comes and goes, and a Sportsnet spot comes and goes just as quickly. Attempts to promote his brand off the ice go poorly; his “Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Hockey” video series would not sell in big numbers, and would be discontinued after ten years. He would also collaborate with electronic music group BKS on a song called “Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Techno”, which would become particularly infamous. Worst of all, the OHL club he owned, the Mississauga Ice Dogs, would fold after only five seasons, owing in large part to Cherry’s ban on European players in the team’s first three years, leading to seasons with four, nine, and three wins respectively.

Though Cherry continues to work with young hockey players, and even has a key part in some new regulations (such as a “STOP” sign being put on the back of minor players’ helmets), he never becomes the Canadian icon that he would in our timeline. Instead, he is remembered as someone who was given chances by CBC, TSN, Sportsnet, and several minor-league coaching gigs, and never sticking around, for one reason or another. The brawl between the Canadians and the Soviet Union in 1987 gave Don the chance to raise his platform into a national celebrity thanks to his whole-hearted defence of the Canadian squad, and he has since earned himself a multitude of fans across the country. Without that moment to elevate his status, he is simply “Grapes”, a man with a heart for hockey, but a ton of blown opportunities.


 

Coming up next month, my next Vegas-Style Redraft: Re-Doing the 1974 Expansion Draft between the Kansas City Scouts and Washington Capitals! (This one’s a doozy, and may likely be posted in three parts, one per week. I don’t think each part is going to come anywhere near most of my articles, though.)

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