From the Publisher
"A superb piece of storytelling that details one of the most infamous games in Canadian hockey history. An engrossing read.”
—Damien Cox, The Toronto Star
"As smart as he is stylish, and as ingenious as he is thorough, Gare Joyce is one of this continent's master craftsmen of sporting prose. He is as fine a writer as can be found in any field."
—Jeff MacGregor, Senior Writer, Sports Illustrated
"It's taken twenty years for someone to turn the lights back on in Piestany. Leave it to Gare Joyce to make it worth the wait."
—Chris Jones, Esquire
“[Joyce] offers incredible depth and insight into his subjects, even tracking down the unfortunate referee who oversaw the game. . . . He goes beyond the tale of the tape to document Canada’s improvement in team discipline at future World Junior tournaments, the difficulty of getting to grips with how the ’87 Russians feel today about Piestany, and the impact this one game had on individual lives for decades to come.” —IHWC.net
“A painstaking account of the brawl at the 1987 World Junior championships between Canadians and Soviets - the last time the two hockey superpowers faced each other as Cold War rivals. Gare Joyce is often said to be one of the best sports writers on the continent, and his engaging and colourful style proves it.”–Russell Smith, in The Wyre (xyyz.ca)
Read an Excerpt
PROLOGUE – Vancouver
Remembering and Trying to Forget
Fortysomethings who were once national sports heroes are milling around a conference room at the Westin Hotel, a study in vintage testosterone. Those who once knew glory are now staring down middle age. But the next best thing to playing a championship season is replaying it. Reading the old clippings, leafing through the photographs and telling stories told many times over the years: a poor second to the original act, but still the next best thing. Hockey Canada has invited members of the 1982 and 1985 Canadian under-20 teams to the 2006 World Junior Championship in Vancouver, a reunion of the first Canadian squads to win the WJC, back when Canadian hockey fans were discovering the tournament. It has taken no time for the former teammates to pick up where they left off. They’re transported back to a time before their hairlines started to recede. Back to a time before some of them made millions and before others realized they wouldn’t.
Hockey Canada officials are all smiles. The reunion is a big success. Reporters are chasing the former players before they’re bused off to their exhibition shinny game. Making small talk with the Hockey Canada officials, I suggest they should consider a reunion of the 1987 team. After all, I say, that 1987 team had lost only one game at the WJC, and it was the most successful Team Canada ever if the measure is how many players made it to the NHL. Just a few weeks before, one alumnus of that ’87 Canadian team passed 500 NHL goals, while another is approaching 600. A key player on the 1987 team went on to become a key player on the 1989 Stanley Cup champions. One of his linemates at the world juniors that year went on to win Stanley Cups with three different clubs. Add in a couple of Olympic gold medals. The 1987 squad was a team of winners.
An uncomfortable silence follows. The Hockey Canada officials look at me as if I’ve just announced that I have a bomb strapped to my chest. Initial reaction: slack-jawed disbelief. Subsequent reaction: the wincing smile produced by a joke in bad taste. “I don’t think so,” says one guy wearing his Hockey Canada lapel pin. He looks around the room to see if any cameras are trained on him–if he is being punked or pranked. This is how Hockey Canada feels about 1987.
The game between that never-to-be-reunited Canadian team and the Soviet squad at the 1987 World Junior Championships is one of the most famous and infamous in hockey history. One poll rated it the fourth most famous game in international hockey history, the only junior game in the top ten. Yet if you trust the record book, it never happened. If you look up the final standings at the 1987 WJC, the International Ice Hockey Federation’s under-20 tournament, you’ll find the final standings: gold to Finland, silver to Czechoslovakia, bronze to Sweden. If you look for Canada and the Soviet Union, you won’t find them. The IIHF officials kicked those two teams out of the tournament. The Canadians who had won the tournament in 1982 and 1985. The Soviets who had won seven championships in the tournament’s ten-year history. Canada and the USSR, DQed. The results of their games, voided, wiped. The IIHF handed victory to a Finnish team and medals to the others by executive decision, a vote, rather than the sum of all games on the ice. It’s the sort of rewriting of history that evokes Soviets revisionism, doctoring photographs to remove discredited politicians. The Canadians and the Soviets, the players on both sides, came away with nothing more than stamps in their passports, asterisks, and memories of a few weeks together.
Casual hockey fans might not be able to place it if you mention the year, the tournament and the teams. Other details will trigger memories, though. Describe the bench-clearing and many will dial in. If that fails, refer to “the game when they turned the lights out” that will draw knowing nods. Others tie it to the site of the game: Piestany, a spa town in the former Czechoslovakia. “The Punch-Out In Piestany.”
I have friends who covered the great Canada—Soviet games from bygone days, whether it was the Summit Series, the Canadiens—Red Army game on New Year’s Eve, the 1976 Canada Cup. I’ve listened to them talk about greatness. And yet it’s Piestany and those two junior teams I keep coming back to. It wasn’t the best game in hockey history, or even tournament history. And those were far from the best teams that the two nations ever sent to the world juniors. Fact is, though, these two teams played a game that was unlike any other. “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose and sometimes you’re rained out,” goes the expression. But Canada vs. the Soviet Union at the 1987 WJC ended up as none of the above. In that sense, this game stands alone in the history of sport.
True, it’s not the only story of international competition turning into a theatre of gothic violence. There was another game too awful to finish: the Soviet Union’s water polo contest against the Hungarians at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. Most people wrongly presume that water polo is a benign game. This contest was as friendly as a bullfight, and it left the pool just a little less red than blood in the sand at the matador’s feet. The game was called with a minute or so remaining and Hungary being credited with a 4-0 victory. Poetic justice: Hungary went on to become Olympic champions of 1956, weeks after the Hungarians watched Soviet tanks and 200,000 troops roll into their country to snuff out a democratic revolution.