CALGARY – One of the best natural scorers in Canadian junior hockey history, Rob Brown, didn’t hesitate when he got the call from Hockey Canada to reunite with other Team Canada members at this year’s World Juniors in Calgary.
The Kamloops Blazers right wing notched six goals and two assists in eight games at the 1988 IIHF World Junior Championship in the Soviet Union as Canada marched to gold. He went on to a long and prolific NHL career with 438 career points, including a 115-point explosion in 1988-89 as a member of the Mario Lemieux-era Pittsburgh Penguins. He also tore up the old International Hockey League in the 1990s and early 2000s, mostly with the Chicago Wolves.
IIHF.com’s Lucas Aykroyd caught up with Brown, 43, at an alumni reception at the Calgary Municipal Building.
How are you enjoying the 2012 tournament so far?
I’m from just outside Edmonton, so I’ve been part of the whole Edmonton side of things so far, watching all the Canadian games and taking part in the festivities there. It’s been fantastic. And then, coming down here and seeing a bunch of guys I haven’t seen in a long, long time, it’s a pretty cool experience.
How different is the atmosphere at this tournament from the one you played in?
Well, I was in Moscow in 1988. It was cool, but it was different. Here, the tournament is 24/7. You turn on the TV or radio or open up the newspaper, all you hear about is hockey, hockey, hockey. Over there, obviously, with the language barrier, we didn’t know what was being said or talked about. We were kind of secluded. Our team was the year after the brawl [the 1987 “Piestany Punchup” that resulted in the disqualification of both Canada and the Soviet Union].
It was a year of redemption for Team Canada. So we were very protected. We were always together wherever we went. There wasn’t a lot of free time for us to go find trouble. It was strictly about finding a way to win the championship over there. And it was neat. The experience was cool. This was back when Russia was still communist. So we were fully immersed in the Russian culture. But it didn’t have the “rah rah” element that you have nowadays. Obviously, being in Canada, it’s very, very different.
What are your favourite memories from ‘88?
Jimmy Waite stood on his head for us against the Russians. But there are so many memories that it’s hard to pick.
I remember just sitting in the hallways playing cards. I remember when you tried phoning home, you’d have to call an operator, and then three hours later, the operator would call you back with your parents on the phone. So we’d all sit in the hallway and you’d hear a phone ring, and everyone would run off to their rooms to see whose room it is to find the people. We went to the circus. I remember having ice cream at the circus. It was the first food we understood.
And obviously, beating the Russians and singing "O Canada" on the ice with our new best friends. Probably getting the gold medal around your neck was the best memory of all.
In those days, you didn’t really know much at all about the players you’d be facing at the tournament, did you?
There was no information for us. I mean, nowadays, these guys play U17, U18, so they’ve played against a lot of these players. And a lot of the European players now play over here in the Canadian Hockey League. So everyone knows everyone else nowadays. They’ve played against one another many times. For us, there was a mystique. We’d heard about this Fyodorov and Mogilny on the Russian team, that they were incredible, but we’d never seen them. We had no videotape of them. So more or less, the first time we went on the ice we were kind of awestruck. It was like, “Oh my God, look what those guys can do!” Same with the Finns and the Czechs.
So there was almost a secrecy out there. You knew nothing about the other teams. It was simply go out and play our best and hope our best is enough. Nowadays, you go on TSN and they’ve got every single team, every player, and you can find out about their background, where they played minor hockey, stuff like that. It’s way different. I miss the mystique about it. I miss the “us versus them” aspect. But on the other hand, it’s still the best hockey in the world for this age.
How about the guys you played with? Canada brought a great roster in 1988.
It was a neat experience. It was just a bunch of young kids that got thrown together with Canadian maple leafs on the front of their shirts and got told: “OK, go out and learn to win.” Whenever you win a championship, the friendships last forever. You’ve got that common bond of having accomplished something together.
Who are some of the guys you’ve stayed in touch with over the years?
Dan Currie, who was my roommate. It was great to see him here today. Mark Recchi is still a good friend. Greg Hawgood, Chris Joseph. I see Theo Fleury across. And then when I was playing, I’d end up across the ice from Jody Hull, or Joe Sakic, or Eric Desjardins. You know everyone’s careers have gone different ways, flourished or whatever it is, but you still have that one two-week stint where you were one team and won a championship.
For a lot of these guys, they don’t realize, this is the biggest games they’ll ever play. Even guys who go on to the NHL, not all of them win Stanley Cups. For a lot of these guys, winning a gold medal at the World Juniors is their crowning achievement, and it’s something to be very proud of.
Are there players from the ‘88 team who surprised you by going on to be even better than you thought they would be?
No, because it was the best of the best when you’re on there. I think you might be surprised about guys that didn’t go further because of how well they played against the best in the world. For instance, I know Marc Laniel never ever got a chance to have an NHL career, and he was a fantastic hockey player. He had a good minor-league and European career.
How closely have you followed the World Juniors in the years since you played? Is it an annual ritual for you?
More so since I’ve retired. My whole playing career was in the United States, and it’s not covered nearly so closely down there. You never get to see a Canadian game unless you can find a satellite that’s carrying TSN or something. But since I’ve moved home – I retired about 10 years ago – it’s become a ritual. My 10-year-old son has really taken a huge interest in it over the last couple of years. So we got to go and enjoy all the games in Edmonton last week, wore the sweaters and painted our faces. I know what it takes to be there, how exciting it is and how meaningful it is. I think it means that much more to me because I’ve been there.
Your son must get a kick out of you telling him your old war stories.
Well, yeah, although I don’t tell him all the stories. [laughs] But it is neat. He is proud of the fact his dad did it. I don’t think he fully comprehends it yet. But it’s cool for him to be able to tell his buddies that “my dad did this once and my dad has a gold medal.” It makes me proud that my son can talk about that.