Wednesday, 10 April 2013

World Juniors 1981: Beginning a dynasty, leaving a legacy

When Hockey Canada was is in the process of selecting its under-18 World Junior team back in December of 2012, there was talk, with the NHL lockout making all the young talent available, that that year's group could be the best team ever.

Anytime there is talk of the best team, the one that gets lost is the very first team. To me, they will always be the best because they did what none of their predecessors did – bring gold back to Canadian soil. I guess it wasn’t really back, because the tournament was co-hosted by Winnipeg and Minnesota. Still, Canada won its last game in the United States, so in essence, they did bring the gold home.

No superstars
This team was remarkable for several reasons. It was the first team made up of players from different teams across Canada and the United States. No one knew how this new approach would work, but it could be no worse then sending actual complete junior teams, because they never won gold. More remarkable than the way the team gelled, was that there were no superstars. No Jonathan Toews, no Jordan Eberle, no John Tavares, no Sidney Crosby, no Eric Lindros, no Mario Lemieux, no Wayne Gretzky. Gretzky’s team came closest but still no gold. Instead, it took a team to achieve what had never been done.

Dwelling in obscurity
It was a magical run too, largely achieved in anonymity. The World Juniors has become so popular, families gather around the TV at Christmas to watch the games on TSN. The ups and downs of each team, each player, are chronicled daily by the mainstream media and on social media. Back then no one broadcast the games, like TSN handles them all now. In fact, TSN would not even go on the air for two more years. Only after Canada won its first few games, with the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia still to play, did CBC pre-empt its regular holiday programming for the game against the Soviets. Many who watched that game, me included, thought it was exactly what we needed, not just for that tournament, but for our pride.

Canadian hockey was reeling
Back in 1981, Canadian hockey was not in a good place on the international stage, as the Soviets seemed to beat us at every turn.

1979 Challenge Cup
The National Hockey League decided in 1979 to forego an all-star game. Instead a team of NHL all-stars would play a three-game series against the Soviets' best. Nominally an NHL all-star team, it contained 23 Canadians and three Swedes, making it a de facto Canadian team. It featured some of the best players ever: Guy Lafleur, Darryl Sittler, Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Gilbert Perreault, as well as three solid goaltenders in Gerry Cheevers, Ken Dryden, and Tony Esposito.

All three games were played at Madison Square Garden in New York. Ken Dryden got the start in net in Game 1 on Thursday, February 8, and backstopped the NHL all-stars to a 4-2 win. I recall the all-stars dominating that game, and scoring a fifth goal that was disallowed because the ref ruled Bill Barber kicked it in. Dryden was back in net for Game 2, which I missed most of because we were on our usual weekly Saturday shopping trip to the city. I did catch part of the third period, including a great skate save by Dryden, when we stopped to visit at my Uncle Ed's in Lethbridge. The Soviets won that game 5-4, setting the stage for a tie-breaking third game Sunday night. I was thrilled because Gerry Cheevers got the start, and he played for my favourite team, the Boston Bruins. He did not play well, and neither did the team in front of him. The Soviets attacked wave after wave and the all-stars seemed helpless. They poured in six goals while legendary goaltender Vladislav Tretiak had been replaced in net by rookie Vladimir Myshkin. He boarded up the net, as the Russians left with a 6-0 victory. Perhaps most telling was the sixth goal, where most of the all-stars were caught up ice, leaving Guy Lafleur helpless on a two-on-one break. I vividly remember Soviet captain Boris Mikhailov hoisting the Challenge Cup. It's probably still sitting somewhere in Moscow, probably in Vladimir Putin's office.

1980 Winter Olympics
Canada had refused to send hockey teams to the Olympics after our bronze medal finish at Grenoble, France in 1968. We were protesting the fact Canada could not send professional or semi-professional players to the world championships. An agreement was eventually reached to allow professionals in the world championships, although still not in the Olympics, so Canada iced its first Olympic team in 12 years at the games in Lake Placid, New York in 1980. The darling of that Olympics was the "Miracle on Ice" U.S. hockey team. Canada, who was coached by Tom Watt who eventually would coach the Toronto Maple Leafs, were not in the same pool as the Americans. Instead, Team Canada would have to beat the Soviets or Finns to make the medal round, as only the top two advanced. The Canadian roster was largely made up of university and college players, most notably Randy Gregg, who captained the team, Paul MacLean, current coach of the Ottawa Senators, and hall-of-famer Glenn Anderson. The goaltenders were Bob Dupuis and Paul Pageau.

Canada opened by beating the Netherlands 10-1, then Poland 5-1, before facing Finland. The winner of that game likely would go to the medal round, because the Soviets were pretty much a lock for the other spot. We were at a family thing in Calgary, so I had to listen to the game on the radio on the drive back to the farm. I recall, Finland leading, and Canada coming on. Then Dupuis let in a long, weak goal, and Canada could not recover. They lost 4-3, but still had the Soviets to play. Canada beat Japan 6-0, on my birthday, then faced the Soviets two days later. I recall riding the school bus and someone yelling they heard Canada was leading. It was true. The teams were tied 1-1 after the first period, then Canada took a 3-2 lead into the third period. The Soviets took control, but not without controversy. Canada suspected the Soviets of using illegal sticks. The first time Watt called for a measurement, the Soviet had disposed of his stick. The second time they got caught. The joke was the Russians had used all their good wood in the war in Afghanistan. Anyway, the Russians scored four times to skate away with a 6-4 victory. I remember cursing Dupuis as the final whistle went. Hey, I was immature at 10 years and two days of age.

Canada went on to finish sixth, which oddly, is still better than Canada's NHL all-star laden 2006 Olympic hockey team.

1981 Canada Cup
Canadians did not put much stock in the Olympics because Canada could not send its best, while the Soviets and Czechs could. We always held on to the belief that in a contest of our best against their best, we would win. We did in the 1972 Summit Series and the 1976 Canada Cup.

Now, five years after that last Canada Cup we could walk the walk. Tensions between the Soviet Union and the West had led to a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, and delayed the Canada Cup from its scheduled 1980 date to 1981. It was again full of the best players in the world, many who suited up in the Challenge Cup over two years earlier, with one notable addition: Wayne Gretzky. The goaltenders were Don Edwards, Mike Liut, and Stanley Cup champion Billy Smith. Something that stuck in my craw was that Tony Esposito, now an American citizen, started for the USA. This after representing Canada, most notably in the 1972 Summit Series.

Canada sailed through the round robin unbeaten with four wins, including a 7-3 win over the USSR, and a 4-4 tie with Czechoslovakia. That set up a semi-final match where Canada beat Esposito and his American teammates 4-1. Meanwhile, the Soviets beat the Czechs in the other semi-final by the same 4-1 score. The showdown everyone expected was set for the Montreal Forum for Sept. 13. After skating to a scoreless first period, the floodgates opened as the Russians scored three in the second and five in the third, for an embarrassing 8-1 loss on home ice (Keeping in mind, it was the only Canada Cup with a one-game, sudden-death final, instead of a best two-of-three series). Adding insult to injury, the Soviets tried to steal the trophy and take it back to Moscow. The tip of the maple-leaf-shaped trophy is still bent, when they dropped it while stuffing it into a hockey bag.

Three shots at the Russians, three crushing defeats. Canadian hockey was in a state of self-doubt. It was into this environment that the Canadians entered the World Junior Hockey Championships. It was a chance for redemption – on home ice.

Revenge is a dish best served cold, and it doesn't get colder than Winnipeg
There was no playoff round back then. Instead the team with the best record after the round robin was awarded the gold medal. Canada opened by beating Finland 5-1, then Sweden 3-2. That set up a showdown with the Soviets in Winnipeg on Boxing Day, 1981. I recall watching the game on CBC when I was out of school for the holidays. I was so nervous because I feared the Russians. I still had visions of the Challenge Cup, the Olympics, and especially the Canada Cup. I was also pretty stoked because the Moller brothers, Mike and Randy, were playing for Canada. I had watched them play junior in Lethbridge, so it was cool to see them on TV.

In the end there was no need to worry, because Canada was all over the Russians. They out-skated and out-hit them. Goaltender Mike Moffat made the saves when he had to, but his defence was strong, and the offence was relentless. The top line of Mike Moller, Scott Arniel, and Marc Habscheid created scoring chance after scoring chance. The Canadians skated away with a 7-0 victory. It was the worst loss ever inflicted on the Soviets in international play.

During the game, John Ferguson who was general manager of the Winnipeg Jets at the time, had gone done to the bench and encouraged the Canadians to keep pouring it on. He urged them to try for a seven-goal victory, the same margin Canada lost by in the Canada Cup. He was one of the broadcasters for the CBC and called it a good measure of revenge as the final seconds wound down. He was absolutely right.

Canada went on to beat the Americans 5-4, the West Germans 11-3, and Switzerland 11-1. The only thing standing between them and gold was Czechoslovakia, who had also beaten the Soviets. Canada was 6-0, so all they needed was a tie and gold, the country's first ever gold, was theirs. The teams faced off in Rochester, Minnesota on January 2, 1982. Canada fell behind, but rallied to take the lead, only to have the Czechs tie the game at 3-3. That was the way it ended, and Canada had their first-ever World Junior gold medal, and had signalled the country was back internationally. Moffat was named the top goalie, Gord Kluzak the top defencemen, and Moffat, Kluzak and Mike Moller made the tournament all-star team.

Once the final whistle blew, and Canada received their gold medals, they made a startling discovery. There was no recording of O Canada to be found anywhere in the arena. So, as Canadians do so well, they improvised and sang the national anthem themselves. It was a fitting way to end the tournament, and start a tradition of players singing the national anthem.

One of the best ever
Every member of that team played in the NHL, even if just for a handful of games. More than anything they could accomplish in the pros though, they set in motion a process that has led to a harvest of gold medals at the World Juniors. Their names are rarely mentioned among the best ever Canadian teams because too many people are enamoured by statistics and personalities, and quite frankly take the gold medals Canada has won as a given. These men didn't and couldn't. Instead, they restored our pride in our country. Dave King was their coach, and he and general managers Sherry Bassin and Bob Strum took a chance, with a system that Canada had never tried before. Has it ever paid dividends since then. Here are the 1982 World Junior Hockey champions:

Scott Arniel
Paul Boutillier
Garth Butcher
Frank Caprice
Paul Cyr
Bruce Akin
Marc Habscheid
Gord Kluzak
Moe Lemay
Mike Moffat
Mike Moller
Randy Moller
Dave Morrison
Mark Morrison
Troy Murray
Gary Nyland
Jim Patrick
Pierre Rioux
Todd Strueby
Carey Wilson

Thanks for everything boys. You began the dynasty, you left the legacy.

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