If you live in Canada and even remotely follow hockey, you know what a monolith the World Junior Championship has become. It is Canada’s version of March Madness, and hockey fans basically get two Christmases – the real one on Dec. 25 and Canada’s opening game of the tournament, which always falls on Boxing Day.
Ever wonder how it got this way? Well, the world juniors as we know it today established its roots at the 1991 tournament in Saskatoon. Almost three decades later, you look back to the factors that conspired to make the 1991 event what it was and the growth of the WJC can be directly traced to that tournament in general, and to one game in particular: the gold-medal showdown between Canada and the Soviet Union. TSN had purchased the rights to the World Junior Championship earlier that year and televised five of Canada’s games in 1991, including the final game. It attracted nearly 1.5 million viewers, a mind-blowing number for a cable outlet, making it one of TSN’s most-watched telecasts at the time. The organizers guaranteed Hockey Canada a minimum $1-million profit for the event and delivered that several times over, establishing the tournament as an enormous profit-making machine when it was held in Canada.
On the Canadian side, you had Eric Lindros, already a superstar in major junior and the most-hyped prospect in a generation. It would be another six months before Lindros would be selected first overall in the 1991 NHL draft by the Quebec Nordiques, then become the first and only No. 1 pick in history to refuse to report to the team that drafted him.
On the Russian side, there was Pavel Bure, one of the most dynamic players the Soviet hockey factory had ever produced, and with a personality to match. Bure had already dominated each of the past two tournaments and been drafted by the Vancouver Canucks with no guarantee when he would be able to join the wave of Soviets to play in the NHL. (A short tidbit about two other future Hall of Famers in that tournament: Martin Brodeur was cut by Team Canada in favor of a tandem of Trevor Kidd and Felix Potvin, and a 17-year-old Scott Niedermayer was the team’s seventh defenseman.)
Like every classic game, though, there is as big a story in the lead-up as there is in the game itself. This was back in the day when the WJC was a round-robin event involving eight teams, and the country with the best record at the end of the proceedings took home the gold medal. No quarters, semis or final, which often meant a team’s fortunes hung in the balance with every game. That was certainly the case the previous year in Finland when the Canadians, clinging to a 2-1 lead over Czechoslovakia, found out on their bench late in the game that the Swedes had tied the Soviets, which meant that if Canada could hold on to the lead, the gold medal would be theirs.
One year later, the Canadians found themselves again in need of help from their Scandinavian friends. Two nights before the final game, Team Canada had lost a spirit-crushing game to the Czechoslovaks, watching a 5-4 lead turn into a 6-5 loss in the final five minutes of the contest. All the Soviets needed on the night of Jan. 3 was to defeat Finland and the gold medal would be theirs before they even stepped out onto the ice against Canada.
It was then that these young men began to feel the weight of the world on their shoulders. The fact that seven players – Lindros, Kidd, Kent Manderville, Patrice Brisebois, Mike Craig, Steven Rice and Kris Draper – had been through that precise scenario in Finland the year before didn’t seem to count for much.
This is a whole new dynamic in regards to the press and being held accountable
– Trevor Kidd, Team Canada
TREVOR KIDD: (Team Canada goalie) I got a little sample of it there with some of the attention in Finland, but 1991 was just another level that myself and I’m sure others, with the exception of Eric Lindros, that no one had ever seen before. The attention, the (TSN) panel, Bob McKenzie ripping you a new keister for having a horrible game against the Czechs. That was the first time I’d ever been criticized on national TV in front of the country, right? So I’m like, “What’s going on?” This is a whole new dynamic in regards to the press and asking questions and being held accountable for things.
On the night of the Russia-Finland game, the Canadian team had a lounge at the hotel in Saskatoon. The game was being played in Regina, which is about a two-and-a-half-hour drive southeast of Saskatoon, and it wasn’t being televised. But Canada’s director of scouting, Dave Draper, had been dispatched to the game and was calling in updates on the telephone. Things looked dire for Canada with the Finns, having absolutely nothing to play for, trailing 5-4 late in the game. Then, just as Canada was saved by Patrik Englund of Sweden the year before, Finland’s Jarkko Varvio scores with 15 seconds left to tie the game.
KRIS DRAPER: (Team Canada center) You’re sitting there, and the Finns are down, and it’s like a dagger in the gut. All of a sudden the phone rings and we’re like, “No, this can’t be,” and sure enough it’s 5-5. So now you’ve got to try to get to sleep and focus.
KIDD: There was a big roar, and everyone is jumping around and screaming. Like, “S—, we have a chance tomorrow to play for gold! Are you kidding me?” We could not believe we were in this situation. I remember the jubilation. We hadn’t really won anything, but just to get the opportunity to play for gold at home…I just remember that night, boy, it was tough to sleep.
DARIUS KASPARAITIS: (Soviet Union defenseman) That (Finland) game killed us. Emotionally it just killed us because we had a gold medal right there and we got scored on. The funny thing about Pavel (Bure) and the Finnish national team, he always had a good game against Finland. Olympics, anytime, we would play Finland, he would score five goals by himself. I think he had four in the game. We win that game, we’re the champions.
Dick Todd, who was Canada’s coach one year after being an assistant, made a monumental decision the next morning. Bure had scored 12 goals and 15 points in the six previous games, and if Canada was going to have any success against the Soviets, it would have to stop Bure. That’s when Todd decided to pull one of his players aside for a chat.
DICK TODD: (Team Canada coach) At the time, I was familiar with Kris Draper, and in my opinion, he was a tremendous skater. He was an outstanding player who had a lot of trouble scoring goals, given the fact he had lots of breakaways but wasn’t a finisher. He, in his own mind, was struggling with the fact that, “I gotta score, I gotta be a scorer.” I called him aside, and I said, “I have an assignment for you, and if you take it you’re going receive a lot of ice time. But you’ve got to dedicate yourself to shadowing Pavel Bure so that he doesn’t get loose.” So I said, “Do you want the job, or do I look for someone else?” He said, “No, I’ll do the job.”
DRAPER: I remember Dick Todd grabbing me, and he just goes, “Drapes, walk with me for a second.” He kind of grabbed me and we started walking up the stairs. And he’s just talking about how exciting this is and a great opportunity and everything. And he goes, “We have to shut down Bure.” You kind of get chills just talking about it right now. I’m playing with Mike Sillinger and Steven Rice in the tournament, and we had seen a lot of the other teams’ top lines. So I said, “You know what, coach? We got it. Myself, ‘Ricer’ and ‘Silly,’ we’re on board. We’re looking forward to it.” And he said, “He’s going to play a ton, and I want you out on the ice every single time he’s on the ice.” And then I was like, “Yeah.” And he goes, “No, no, I mean, like, wherever he goes, you go.” And he said it again, and I’m like, “Coach, I understand. I’m basically going to be in his hip pocket for the entire game he’s on the ice.”
With that taken care of, it was up to Lindros and his linemates, Craig and Pierre Sevigny, to take care of the offense, something they had been doing all tournament. Lindros went into the final game with six goals and 16 points in six games to lead Team Canada. There was a lot of focus on Lindros, but by that point, even as a 17-year-old, he was able to absorb the attention and lead the team, even if he wasn’t the captain.
KENT MANDERVILLE: (Team Canada center) We had a good group of guys, players like Kris Draper or Steven Rice or Scotty Thornton. And obviously Eric, too, with all the attention. And Eric was really a lightning rod, but he really absorbed a lot of the attention, and he was used to it. So the rest of us were fine just kind of playing in the shadow. And Eric was such a focus. But he was so used to dealing with that that it was just kind of business as usual for him. So, that dynamic actually helped us.
TODD: I was the coach of (OHL) Peterborough, and Oshawa was our biggest rival. Eric came to me before the event started. He’d been on the world-junior team the previous year, and I’d been the assistant coach, and he felt for the first time in his career like he was a non-entity, a non-factor on that team. He was 16 and the fourth-line center. When he came to the camp he asked what I thought of him, so I said, “Eric, you’re the top junior hockey player in Canada, and I’m expecting you to perform and carry the team and be a huge factor.” Obviously that’s what he wanted to hear, but I said, “Now tell me about your experience last year,” and he started to tell me, “I didn’t know what to expect. Steven Rice really helped me, he was a major factor in helping me.” And I said, “Oh, that’s interesting…Eric, I’m not going to make you the captain, but I’m going to make you one of the (alternates), and Steven Rice is going to be the captain of our team.” So I got around that being a problem.
Sitting in the dressing room before the gold-medal game, the players could hear Saskatchewan Place, which had had seats added for the tournament to bring the capacity to 11,300, begin to fill up. Some of the parents had gone to the local Husky gas station and purchased the biggest Canadian flag they could find, and it was making its way through the crowd. The only team to ever win a World Junior Championship on home ice up to that point was the Soviets in Leningrad in 1983. Canada had hosted the event twice to that point, once in 1978 in Quebec, led by a 16-year-old Wayne Gretzky, and in 1986 in Hamilton, but had failed to win. With a huge television audience and a crowd bigger than most of these kids had ever seen, nerves were becoming a factor.
TODD: We went into the game relieved we were getting a second chance. We were certainly focused. I don’t believe there was a lot of rah-rah talk. Everybody had a job to do, they set their minds to it, and they were well prepared.
MANDERVILLE: I mean, honestly, right now I’m just talking about it and it’s giving me goosebumps. It was just this deafening noise. You’re obviously aware of the consequences and what’s at stake. You’re already jacked up and nervous. You go out there, and I remember they had this big flag that they had hung down and they’re waving that and it was just pandemonium. You almost had to pull back. You couldn’t be too amped up to play the game. I just remember everything being magnified. Your senses are on overdrive. But once the puck drops, it was amazing how we all just settled in and just played the game.
Canada jumps out to a 2-0 lead in the first period on goals by Sevigny and Rice. Sergei Zholtok puts the Soviet Union on the board with a goal at 11:20 of the second period. Just as Todd had predicted, Bure was playing a ton, and Draper was never far behind him.
TODD: At one point, Bure came out for a shift and came over to our bench and said (to Draper), “Come on, I just came out, so you’d better go.”
DRAPER: We had some good battles throughout our careers after that one. But to me, when all of a sudden he started chirping our bench, I kind of had a smile on my face, thinking, “You know what? I think we’ve got him.” He was more worried about me than he was about going out and scoring a goal. I’ve actually watched that game a couple of times, and I probably would have had 10 or 12 minors the way the game is called now, with all the hooking and the clutching and the slashing and everything like that. I was in his face. I don’t think he even registered a shot in that game. Any time he touched the puck, it was just full-on attack mode. And I tried to use that mentality all throughout my career, whether it was playing against (Peter) Forsberg or (Joe) Sakic or (Mike) Modano, you name it. Absolutely it was something that defined me.
The teams left the ice with Canada clinging to a 2-1 lead through two periods. They’re 20 minutes away from winning a gold medal when Lindros decides to do something to ease the pressure.
KIDD: We had great players on that team, but this was Eric’s team, right? The guy knows it. In the second intermission, the tension was thick, the nerves were high, and there’s about five minutes before we’re supposed to go back on the ice…Eric goes to the ghetto blaster and cranks, as loud as he can, Tina Turner’s Simply the Best. And everybody’s looking around like, “Is this OK? Are we OK here? Should we be playing this right now?” And everybody took a deep breath, and it lessened a little bit of the load, I think, on our shoulders as we went out there.
But the pressure was quickly ramped up again as Sandis Ozolinsh scored to tie the game early in the third. The game became so tight it could’ve been hermetically sealed. Remember, all the Soviets needed to do was hold on for a tie and the gold medal was theirs. Canada needed to win the game outright in regulation time to win gold. The Canadians knew one mistake would doom their chances, but they also desperately needed a goal. With a little over five minutes left, Alexei Kudashov gathered the puck behind his net with the Canadians furiously forechecking. He tries to rim it along the boards, and it hops over Manderville’s stick and heads right to defenseman John Slaney. If Slaney doesn’t keep it alive, there’s a Russian forward right behind him who’s ready to be sprung for a breakaway. Luckily for Canada, Slaney stops it, and what happens next will be burned into the minds of anyone who witnessed it.
SLANEY: One of the things we’re always taught as defensemen is as quick as you can, get that puck to the net. That’s what I did.
The puck goes between the legs of Soviet goalie Sergei Zvyagin and into the net, putting Canada ahead 3-2 and sending the crowd into a state of delirium.
SLANEY: Throughout the whole year of practice I probably did that shot 500, 600, 700 times. I just remember as a young kid, at the age of 10, I had a coach and his name was Adrian Smith, and his saying was, “If you don’t shoot the puck, if you don’t hit the net, you can’t score.”
MANDERVILLE: You just hear this deafening noise, and it’s just, “Oh my god!” I was circling back high, and then when the puck went in I could’ve dunked a basketball I jumped so high. And we all piled on John. At that age, we’re just kids, and you have this sheer joy and euphoria. We’re just jumping on him, and it’s like the big Labrador puppy that doesn’t know his size or strength, and we just swarm him and then we all pile on.
SLANEY: I couldn’t really tell the puck went in the net until I saw the red light. And the red light went on and as soon as that happened Kent Manderville jumped me pretty hard. I played that tournament on a sprained ankle. I actually sprained it in the first game of the tournament. So I was a little worried about my ankle, but at the same time, it was a moment. You’d wonder if the roof was still going to be on top of there, the crowd was so loud.
But there is still a lot of hockey to be played. Five minutes and 13 seconds, to be exact. It took less time than that for Canada to have two goals scored against them by the Czechoslovaks in the previous game, and all the Soviets needed was one. The coach was not about to get involved in any of the elation going on around him on the bench.
TODD: I’m that kind of person. There’s no joy for me, I’m totally focused. I’ve got to have the right guys out, I’ve got to make sure we don’t do anything stupid. Can we nurse our way through this? One of the things you’ve got to be careful about is if you try to go into a defensive mode and give up the bluelines and not keep forcing the play, you just give the other team more opportunities to get lucky. Keep working, keep forechecking. Don’t get caught, make the right decisions out there all the time. And if we get possession of the puck in our own zone and we have to get it past their defense, one way or another you’ve got to tough it out, deflect it, whatever, but you don’t want to ice the puck. The kids were positive. I think they had sensed that victory was in the bag, and they were excited, they were pretty confident that this was the thing that put us on the top. I’m a little more cautious, but that was their mood. The pressure to win at home was tremendously intense. And, you know, you’re going to be a goat if you didn’t win.
KIDD: Everybody just looks at the Slaney goal, but the ice was tilted in one direction that third period. We held them off and held them off, and those few minutes after Slaney’s goal, they had a few chances and we still held them off. Most people don’t look at those kinds of details. It’s just the nation going crazy when Slaney’s shot goes in. That’s the goal that everybody goes back to when you talk about that year. But the Soviets did outshoot us in that third period.
Canada held on to win the World Junior Championship in back-to-back years for the first time in history. And it was the second title in what turned out to be a dynastic run for Canadian junior teams. With the exception of the next year when the team imploded and finished sixth, Canada won seven of eight WJCs from 1990 to 1997.
TODD: I’ve been asked about my experiences from the world-junior team, and I said, “It was kind of like the worst nightmare you can ever go through, because for so much of it we were down and out and in trouble, then you get the relief of winning. Then you’re thankful you’re not going to be looked at as a goat for the rest of your life.” So it was more a sense of being relieved and happy and excited that we were able to come through on home turf. All the other teams were becoming equally adept at playing the game as Canada was, though we still wanted as Canadians to believe in our mind that we were superior.
If I got a nickel for every time they played that clip on television, I’d be a billionaire
– Kent Manderville, Team Canada
KASPARAITIS: We tried to win no matter what. I remember after the game we had some people come down, not the coaches, but people from the government came down and started screaming at us in the dressing room that we lost. I remember one of the guys telling them to shut up and get the hell out. We always had these s—ty guys with us during Soviet times. They even showered with us. We didn’t know who they were, but we knew they represented the political party.
MANDERVILLE: Oh my god, it was pure joy. I still have a copy of it, on the front page of the Saskatoon StarPhoenix they had me hugging our equipment trainer. It’s just a huge release, and you’re just hugging everybody. You’re almost near tears because it’s this emotional relief. And you’ve grown so close to these guys. You’ve shared Christmas with them, and you’re under a microscope and dissected and there’s articles about every game, about line combinations, who’s playing well, who’s not playing well…and then you’ve done it. It’s just one of those things that you share for the rest of your life. When the expectations are high and when you meet them, it’s just a really good feeling.
So much of the lore surrounding the 1991 tournament comes from Slaney’s game-winner. It is a sequence that’s replayed over and over again in Canada, and the throng of players descending on Slaney after that goal, with Manderville first on the scene, is almost as familiar as the photo of Paul Henderson with his arms in the air in 1972.
MANDERVILLE: I always tell my kids that if I got residuals for that, if I got a nickel for every time they played that clip on television, then I’d be a billionaire.
SLANEY: It’s funny, my son (Tyler) is playing hockey in Arizona, and they got the opportunity last April to go to Ontario for a hockey tournament. They played in the tournament, and this one gentleman saw my son’s name on the back, and he was curious if I was his dad, the guy who actually scored the goal. Just for people to even remember that goal…a moment like that still gives me goosebumps to this day.