When the Cold War Turned Hot: The Piestany Brawl of 1987
The history of ice hockey is full of moments when players lose their tempers and resort to fighting their opponent out of frustration. On May 29th, 1996, a bitter rivalry, full of brawls and dirty hits, was sparked when Colorado Avalanche forward Claude Lemieux boarded Detroit Redwings’ forward Kris Draper face first in front of the Wings’ bench, which resulted in Draper suffering a broken cheek bone, a jaw and nose fracture, and the loss of several teeth (Sadowski). On October 30th, 1988, Pittsburg Penguins’ superstar Mario Lemieux was slashed in the throat during a game against the New York Rangers, resulting in endless fighting that led to two hundred ninety-two penalty minutes being awarded to the opposing teams (Nugent-Bowman). However, one brawl stands out among all others in the history of ice hockey and its rivalries, a brawl that displayed the emotions of the top two powerhouses in international ice hockey at the time: the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and Canada.
During the 1987 World Juniors at Piestany, Czechoslovakia, the Canadian junior team was well on its way to winning a medal until Soviet forward Pavel Kostichkin slashed Canadian forward Theoren Fleury halfway through the second period (Chow). Another account states that a Soviet player punched a Canadian after he was cross-checked (Burns). Whatever the circumstance, what followed was a bench clearing brawl between the two teams that spiraled completely out of control. In a vain attempt to restore order to the madness, the officials had the lights in the arena shut off, only for the players to continue fighting in the dark (World Junior Hockey Championship-History) As a result of the brawl, the organizers of the tournament cancelled the game and disqualified the USSR and Canada from the tournament (World Junior Hockey Championship-History). As a consequence of this decision, the gold medal contending, Canadian team with future NHL stars such as Brendan Shanahan, Pierre Turgeon, and Mike Keane went home with nothing (World Junior Hockey Championship-History).
What caused the incident that resulted in this talented Canadian team going home with nothing? It was a series of events, some occurring over decades, others in seconds, which caused both teams to lose control. A storied rivalry, an inexperienced referee, and unsportsmanlike play from both teams created an atmosphere in Piestany that would cause both teams to lose control and suffer serious consequences for their actions.
According to author Gare Joyce, this brawl had been in the making for forty years (Joyce 22). The Soviet Union emerged as a dominant team in international hockey when they won the 1954 World Ice Hockey Championship and then went on to dominate the world scene, winning twenty-two World Championships until the collapse of the Soviet Union (IIHF World Championships). In 1972, Canada withdrew from the Winter Games in protest of the Soviet Union dressing professional players for these amateur games (Merron). Instead of participating in the tournament, Canada would pit their NHL players against Soviet professionals during the 1972 Summit Series, which Canada would barely win with four wins, three losses, and one tie (Merron). Despite this setback, the Soviet Union went on to dominate the 1974 Summit Series, winning four games, losing once, and tying three times (Chidlovski). The Soviet and Canadian teams would play each other in the Canada Cup five times between 1976 and 1991, which the Canadians would win four times and the Soviet Union would win only once (The History of the World Cup of Hockey).
In 1977, young talented teenagers from around the world were given the chance to prove themselves on the word stage when the International Ice Hockey Federation instituted the World Juniors (IIHF World U20 Championships). Between 1977 and 1987, the Soviet Union dominated the tournament, winning seven gold medals to Canada’s two (IIHF World U20 Championships). By the time the 1987 World Juniors were played, a bitter rivalry already existed on the ice between Canada and the Soviet Union.
This rivalry and brawl were not only brought about because of the competitive nature of the Canadian and Soviet teams, but questionable play from the Canadians also spurred on bad feelings from the Soviet players. During the 1972 Summit Series, in an effort to stave off defeat at the hands of a superior team, the Canadians resorted to a physical style of play to win the series (A September to Remember). During the sixth game of the series, Canadian assistant coach John Ferguson told Bobby Clarke to slash the ankle of Soviet forward Valeri Kharlamov (A September to Remember). Skating behind a rushing Kharlamov, Clarke swung his stick like baseball bat against his ankle, thus breaking the play (A September to Remember).
Valeri Kharlamov would be the target of another Canadian hockey player in 1976 when the Philadelphia Flyers hosted CSKA Moscow (Meltzer). After killing two penalties, the Flyers began to step up their physical game, which was when Flyers’ defenseman Ed van Impe checked Kharlamov, leaving the Soviet player lying on the ice (Meltzer).
For a decade, Canadian hockey officials tried to clean up their image by trying to get their players to move away from the rough style of play that made them so hard to play against (Burns). After the brawl between the Soviet and Canadian junior teams in Piestany, this movement toward a cleaner style of play was drastically set back (Burns).
In this particular series, the Canadian junior team had put themselves in position to at least win the bronze medal if they lost to the Soviet Union, and at least a silver medal if the won (1987: Punch-up in Piestany). For this medal deciding game, Cliff Ronning, an inexperienced referee from Norway, was chosen to officiate the game (1987: Punch-up in Piestany). After the game, Bruce Hood, an NHL referee, stated that Ronning was not qualified to officiate such an important game (1987: Punch-up in Piestany).
Before the Ronning dropped the first puck in the face-off circle, Dave McLlwaine was elbowed in the head by Sergei Shestikrov, but no call was made by Cliff Ronning (Joyce 123). Despite the pre-game fighting, the first period was firmly in Canada’s hands (Joyce 24). Canada struck first when Theoren Fleury scored off of assists from Mike Keane and Everett Sanipass (Joyce 24). After Fleury scored, he slid across the ice, holding his stick like it was a machine gun and proceeded to “shoot” the Soviet bench, only adding to an already volatile situation (Joyce 126). This was described as an “. . . inflammatory act, completely unnecessary, lacking any sort of respect (Joyce 126)” by CAHA president Murray Costello (Joyce 126).
The Soviet Union struck back seconds later when Valeri Zelepukin connected with Sergei Shestirkov to tie the game off of a turnover by Glen Wesley at the Canadian blueline (Joyce 24). Later that period, David Latta would break the tie and Theoren Fleury would score his second goal of the game to add insurance to Canada’s lead (Joyce 24).
Throughout the entire first period, the game took on a tense, physical air. Sanipass skated through Ivannikov in the Soviet end, but no call was made (Joyce 129). Mike Keane slashed Kostichken before a face-off and Theoren Fleury shlashed the same Soviet player behind the knees (Joyce 126). Alexander Mogilny was hit by a Canadian player and he in turn kicked the leg of the Canadian player with his skate (Joyce 127). Later on, Chiasson fired a slap shot at the crotch of Zelepukin three seconds after the whistle was blown (Joyce 127). After Theoren Fleury scored his second goal of the game, he took an intentional slap shot on the ankle from a Soviet player (Joyce 129).
The hitting, slashing, and cheap shots from both teams continued into the second period when broadcaster Don Wittmann described the developing situation during his broadcast: “Well, we had a real skirmish just moments ago following a face-off . . . It all started when Sanipass and Shestikrov collided . . . (Joyce 136)” (Joyce 136). Suddenly the powder keg ignited when Sanipass and Shestikrov began exchanging punches (Joyce 137). Within seconds the game spiraled completely out of control as Chiasson and Smirnov grabbed one another and Tsygurov and Chris Joseph fell on top of one another, who were then followed by Kostichken and Theoren Fleury (Joyce 137). Kostichken, the victim of a slash to the back of his knees by Theoren Fleury earlier in the game, slashed Fleury and then pinned him to the ice and began to beat him (1987: Punch-up in Piestany) (Joyce 137). “I played more than 1,000 NHL games and I never felt anything like it (Joyce 137),” Fleury later said (Joyce 137). “He was the strongest guy I had ever played against. I wondered what I had got myself into (Joyce 137).” Kostichken later went on to say that “. . . the Canadians didn’t think we could fight (Joyce 137).” Kostichken proceeded to prove to the world how wrong Canada’s assumption was.
Suddenly both benches cleared, with Luke Richardson leading the Canadians and Davydov leading the Soviets (Joyce 140). The coaches were powerless to stop it according to Mike Keane (Joyce 140). A brawl that resembled something out of a Wild West bar scene in a Hollywood film ensued as equipment and sticks scattered across the ice and Soviet and Canadian players violently pummeled one another. Goaltender Shawn Simpson sat on the Soviet goaltender Vadim Privalov, repeatedly pounding his opposite in the face with his blocker (Joyce 22). Vladimir Konstantinov then head-butted Greg Hawgood in the face while Stephane Roy was attacked by two Soviet players (Joyce 22). According to author Gare Joyce, it resembled the bar room fight scene in the film Shane (Joyce 23). Desperate to end the fight, Cliff Ronning, who had done little to prevent the game from escalating into this mayhem, left the ice, followed by his linesmen, leaving the players to continue their brawl (1987:Punch-up in Piestany). In a last attempt to end the melee, the officials had the lights in the arena turned off, but the fighting continued (Joyce 147) (1987:Punch-up in Piestany).
After the game had been canceled, International Ice Hockey Federation officials held a thirty-five minute meeting and voted seven-to-one to expel both the Soviet Union and Canada from the tournament, the one vote against coming from Canadian Dennis McDonald (1987: Punch-up in Piestany). Canada had lost its chance to take the gold medal.
Ice hockey can be an extremely rough sport and a violent one if the right buttons are pushed. In the game between the Soviet and Canadian junior teams, the right buttons were pushed before and during the game. The rivalry between the two hockey giants solidified the resolve to win for the players representing their international and professional teams, such as the 1972 Summit Series teams, the Philadelphia Flyers, and the Soviet and Canadian junior squads of 1987.
During games that are this intense, a suitable referee has to be chosen, and that wasn’t done for this particular match. A referee who is going to officiate a game that will determine who may receive a medal has to have experience officiating games of this level of intensity. There were many better options available to the International Ice Hockey Federation than Cliff Ronning, who allowed many stick infractions and pre-whistle tussles to go on without calling a penalty. By the time he and his crew of linesmen tried to diffuse the situation, it was too late.
It is not only the job of the officials to police the game; it is also the job of the players and coaches to police themselves. The attempts to injure opposing players, slap shots aimed at ankles and crotches, and other types of unsportsmanlike, undisciplined behavior should never be exhibited by any self-disciplined hockey player. When this type of behavior is exhibited by players, it is up to the coaches to stop it. Either the coaches tried and failed to control their benches, or they didn’t try at all. Whatever the case, both teams lost their discipline and were justly punished by the International Ice Hockey Federation.
The factors stated above all combined to create a perfect storm that unleashed a violent torrent on the ice, adding to the saga of an international rivalry that continues to this day. For two periods of ice hockey, the Cold War turned hot, leaving a memory fond for some, and disgraceful for others, that will forever grace the history ice hockey and the storied, hockey rivalry between Canada and Russia.
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