Great Hockey Fights – Gare Joyce on Junior Hockey’s 1987 Punch Up

For readers too young to remember or those who have forgotten over time, there was a bench clearing brawl between Canada and the U.S.S.R. in the World Junior hockey Championship (WJC) in 1987 in Piestany, Czechoslovakia. Every player was to leave their bench – some more willing than others- and there were fights all over the surface of the ice. It became an international incident.

Future Great NHL’ers Brendan Shanahan in Punch Up in Piestany

Brendan Shanahan was there, so too Mike Keane and Pierre Turgeon and Steve Chiasson and ditto for Sergei Fedorov, Alexander Mogilny and Vladimir Konstantinov. The brawl went on for so long that in desperation the lights in the arena were turned off. And still some kept fighting.

When the ice was finally cleared the blaming began.

Gare Joyce An Experienced Writer on Canadian Junior Hockey

Sportswriter Gare Joyce’s book on that night, When the Lights Went Out: How One Brawl Ended Hockey’s Cold War and Changed the Game is a result not just of his research into that game, one which technically was not a game (it was never finished and wiped from tournament record books and both teams disqualified) but also of his extensive knowledge accumulated over years covering junior hockey. Published in 2006 the book is a richly rewarding read for hockey fans and those interested in the politics of sport.

The 1987 Canadian Junior Hockey Team Had Silver Medal Taken Away

The January 4, 1987 game from which came the brawl was the tournament’s last and the Soviets did not have a chance of a medal while Canada went into the game assured of a silver – or so it seemed – and if they won by four it would be gold. When the fighting started they lead 4-2 at 13:53 of the second; Theo Fleury had scored twice, set-up once by Keane and Everett Sanipass and once by Greg Hawgood (whose nose would soon be broken in the brawl).

Parts of it are now on You Tube but when Joyce did his research he procured a copy of the 33:53 played and the melee (it had been broadcast by the CBC with the late Don Wittman). The writer watched it over and over and interviewed virtually all the players and others including officials and coaches.

Soviet Hockey Dominated World Hockey for Many Years

The Soviets, soon to fragment as a nation (leading Mogilny and other players on the ’87 team to be the first Soviets to get to the NHL), had dominated amateur hockey for years but were in decline by the 80’s and Joyce walks readers through how they were starting to pay closer attention to the tougher Canadian game; the naming of Vladimir Vasiliev to coach the team was an indicator of that.

Vasiliev and the Canadian coach Bert Templeton – known as ‘Dirty Bert’ – were old-fashioned coaches, hard on players and not well liked. Joyce reports rumors of Vasiliev making his team run in the middle of the night after poor performances in Piestany and forcing them to miss meals. Templeton had a reputation of producing dirty teams and taking the national junior team’s helm was his chance to show his nickname was unwarranted; however once the lights went out in Piestany his chances of being regarded any differently were extinguished.

Junior Hockey was then a Breeding Ground For Hockey Fights

Brawling was a feature of junior hockey at the time. “I’d be surprised if there was any of us whose (junior) team had not been in a bench-clearing,” Canadian 1987 WJC team member Scott Metcalfe told Joyce. “I’m not saying it was a good thing, but it was just part of junior hockey at the time.” Joyce details numerous Canadian major bench clearing junior brawls in the 12 months leading up to Piestany and suggests this one on such a big stage lead Canadian hockey officials to finally work toward changing the culture of Canadian hockey.

The Soviets did not fight in their leagues but some players told Joyce that they sometimes did in practices and, though not as experienced as the Canadians, they did not back down in Piestany and acquitted themselves well.

Hockey Canada, Coaches, IIHF and Ref Share Hockey Fight Blame

So who was at fault for what has become known as the Punch-up in Piestany? Some, like Don Cherry, applauded the fight but for most it was not acceptable. It cannot be simply blamed on players, not Fleury or Sanipass or Keane, involved in the initial fights, nor the normally mild-mannered Evgeni Davydov, the first to lead a charge from the bench. The book gives readers plenty of reasons to feel Hockey Canada shares blame, along with both coaching staffs (including Templeton assistant Pat Burns) though as for sending players over the benches reluctant player memories do not reveal all that may have occurred

Further, that climate junior hockey was allowed to descend into in Canada must also share blame. But greatest fault lies with IIHF President Gunther Sabetzki and officials for appointing Hans Ronning of Norway to ref, despite Canada’s team manager Dennis McDonald’s strong objections. Many felt Ronning not experienced or good enough and from the opening moments Ronning allowed the game to run away and by all accounts, including his linesman that night, the Norweigan went into the game afraid of what might happen. Astonishingly, he bolted the ice when things got rough and was found in the officials room smoking a cigarette. Ronning was eventually to become a kindergarten teacher.

Punch Up in Piestany Historic Event in Hockey History

Overall it’s a comprehensive look at a historic hockey moment that goes beyond the humdrum of who scored or made a great save and it’s likely any hockey fan, Canadian or otherwise, will find Joyce’s account of that remarkable night, and the events and the climate surrounding it, fascinating.