THEO FLEURY ONCE SAID he played more than 1,000 NHL games and never faced an opponent as strong as Pavel Kostichkin. As Fleury recalls it, Kostichkin had him in a “death grip” during the infamous ‘Punch-up in Piestany’ in 1987.
Kostichkin pretty much remembers it that way, too. There are those who believe Kostichkin started the brawl that led to black eyes on the players and a black eye for hockey, with Canada and the Soviets getting kicked out of the 1987 World Junior Championship. But that distinction belongs to Evgeny Davydov, who was the first to jump off the Soviet bench. Kostichkin was already on the ice when the mayhem erupted and was squaring off with Fleury. The enduring memory is of Kostichkin on top of Fleury raining punches on him.
Kostichkin slashed Fleury on an earlier play, but maintains that Fleury invited him to dance. When that happened, Kostichkin was only too willing to oblige. “He was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Kostichkin says with a chuckle.
These days, Kostichkin's life is good. He’s been happily married for more than two decades and has two children – a son playing on the Kontinental League’s minor circuit and a daughter trying to break into the modelling business. For the past three years he has been the video coach for Central Red Army in the KHL. Kostichkin never played in the NHL, but was drafted by the Winnipeg Jets and played one season for their farm team in Moncton before spending the next eight years in Denmark. Fleury will attest Kostichkin was strong enough to play in the NHL. But Kostichkin always regrets the decision he made after 1992-93, his only season in North America.
He had a knee injury that required surgery and was let go by the Jets after that season. The next fall he was granted a tryout with the Chicago Blackhawks, but felt his knee wasn’t strong enough at the time. He thought he would play one year in Denmark and return to the NHL, but found there were no takers. So he played out his career in Europe.
The 1987 WJC tournament was also the only time Kostichkin represented his country internationally as a player, though he has been the video coach for the Russians at the World Championship. He believes the brawl started because of a miscommunication between the Soviet coach Vladimir Vasiliev and Davydov on the bench, but acknowledges the game was a nasty piece of work on both sides. “Canada, they were playing for a silver medal,” Kostichkin says. “We were fighting for our names, for our country, for our pride. Right from the warmup we started to be angry against each other. Sometimes we would fight in Russia in things like local tournaments. But that is normal in hockey.”
Once Kostichkin was finished with Fleury, he was then forced to take on Mike Keane, who had just finished his fight with Valeri Zelepukin. Keane was one of the toughest middleweights of his era and the fight against him was not nearly as one-sided as the one against Fleury.
Twenty-six years later, Kostichkin, 44, says the brawl still comes up. Late in his career, he played one season in Finland and was treated like a hero because Canada’s disqualification helped clinch that country’s first WJC gold medal. After his career, Kostichkin coached a number of teams in Russia at the junior level and he knows how volatile players that age can be under those circumstances. If he were coaching in that situation, Kostichkin says he would do everything within his power to keep all his players on the bench. “You just could let the guys on the ice fight,” he says. “That would be enough.”
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