BUFFALO – The first official World U20 (Junior) Championship was held in 1977, and although the format consisted of eight teams playing a round robin, gold was decided on the last day in a game between Canada and the Soviet Union.
The teams had had a long history, starting with the World Championship in 1954 and culminating with the 1972 Summit Series, but this “junior” game introduced hockey fans to a new rivalry, one set among the nations’ youth. Canada vs. the Soviets, kids’ edition.
The Soviets won that game in 1977, 6-4, but that “team” Canada was really the Hamilton Fincups dressed in national colours. It wasn’t until 1982 that Hockey Canada created a true “best of” under-20 team to go to the event, and Canada won gold that same year.
Incongruous as it may seem, the tournament – and the Canada-Soviet Union rivalry – grew in leaps and bounds in 1987 as a result of the brawl in Piestany that left both teams disqualified. It was perhaps the darkest moment in IIHF history, but it brought new focus and attention to the event such that next year, when the tournament was held in Moscow, everyone was paying attention.
One of the Canadians from the brawl, tiny Theo Fleury, promised revenge in the form of gold, and Hockey Canada threw its weight behind him by naming him captain for 1988. Schedule-makers were party poopers, giving fans the ultimate game in the middle of the event, but Canada beat the Soviets 3-2 on their ice on New Year’s Day and did, indeed, win gold. Fleury scored the opening goal and goalie Jimmy Waite was excellent.
That Soviet team included Alexander Mogilny and Sergei Fedorov, and next year the pair exacted their own measure of revenge, beating Canada 7-2 on the final day to claim gold at Alaska. In 1990, the two titans tied for first place, but Canada won gold and relegated the Soviets to silver because the former had won their head-to-head game, 6-4.
A year later, the tournament and rivalry got another major boost. The U20 was played in Saskatoon, and it all came down to the final day. Canada and the Soviets were tied in the standings, so it was winner take all on January 4, 1991. Canada won, 3-2, to claim another gold at its rivals’ expense. John Slaney was the hero, breaking a 2-2 tie with a goal at 14:47 of the final period.
Four years later, in Red Deer, Canada defeated the Russians, 8-5, on the penultimate day en route to gold while the Russians settled for silver, but four years after that, in Winnipeg, the Russians exacted a measure of revenge. The format now included playoff elimination games, and in the final Artyom Chubarov scored at 5:13 of overtime to stun the Winnipeg Arena crowd and scoop gold for the visitors.
Russia continued its mastery of Canada in 2002 and ’03, winning the gold medal game each time, and forcing Canada to accept silver. As always, though, revenge was nearby for the losing side, and in 2005 Canada, led by Sidney Crosby, crushed the Russians, led by Alexander Ovechkin, 6-1, at Grand Forks, North Dakota. This was a period of remarkable dominance for Canada (that continues till this day), and Canada beat the Russians in ’06 and ’07 as well.
In fact, between 2002 and 2007 (six tournaments), Canada and Russia met for gold five times, Canada winning three. Although Sweden and the United States have made some noise at U20 in recent years, the foundation of the tournament’s rivalry rests in Canada and Russia. No two teams have played for gold as often; no two teams have a history as successful and as affected by an opponent.
Tonight, in Buffalo, another chapter in this history will be written. No one should be surprised by Russia’s presence in the game, and no one should be surprised if the team wins gold. And if Canada wins, well, it will have succeeded in its goal – to eliminate the bad taste left by last year’s defeat on home ice.