May 4, 1991 — Turku, Finland
Mats Sundin, only 20 at that time, scored what many consider as the “best goal in the history of the IIHF World Championship” when he single-handedly gave Sweden gold in 1991 in Turku. But it isn’t only the exceptional end-to-end rush that counts into the overall verdict. The performance capped a season which began with Sundin escaping his country as villain – in what also was the last hockey game ever to be played by the Soviet Union national team.
Sundin became the first European to be picked first overall in the NHL Draft when the Quebec Nordiques secured his rights in 1989. When Sundin joined the NHL-club one year later, he did it amid controversy which divided the Swedish sports community. After allegedly leaving his club Djurgarden Stockholm while still under contract, the Swedish Ice Hockey Association declared him as “persona non grata”. The association’s president Rickard Fagerlund vowed that Sundin would never dress up in a Tre Kronor jersey.
But things change fast in sport. Less than 10 months after the threat, Sundin was named to the Swedish team for the 1991 event in Finland. Despite his young age, the big and incredibly gifted centre, who had 59 points in 80 games in his rookie season with Quebec, immediately became his team’s best offensive threat. He led Team Sweden with six goals and five assists in nine games prior to the final.
As the medal round began, Sweden was part of a four-team medal race which also included the Soviet Union, Canada and USA, in the last World Championship that was not decided with a winner-takes-all gold medal game.
Prior to the final game between Sweden and the Soviets, these were the preconditions: Whoever won the game would claim first place. A tie would send the gold medals to Canada.
With then minutes left of the final game between Sweden and the Soviets, the Canadians were world champions in civvies. The 1-1 score had both Canada and Sweden on top with four points but the Canadians had a one-goal advantage in the goals differential tie-breaker. If anyone scored a winner with time running out in Turku’s Elysee Areena, that team would win gold.
With the Canadian players in the stands counting down every second, Mats Sundin decided to take the things into his own hands. The clock showed ten minutes left when Sundin took the puck behind his own net and started to charge towards the Soviet end on the right side. He weaved off two Soviet players in the neutral zone and he was not aware that the last red clad player waiting for him inside the blue line was Vyacheslav Fetisov, arguably the best defencemen in international hockey ever.
At 20, one isn’t impressed with nobility and Sundin put on an amazing outside-and-in move that left the Soviet veteran flatfooted. Alone with goaltender Andrei Trefilov, Sundin released a low shot from seven meters and the puck hit the back of the net. Led by legendary coach Viktor Tikhonov, the CCCP squad couldn’t find any power to strike back.
Tikhonov didn’t attempt the common practice to pull the goalie for an extra attacker with slightly more than one minute to go. His team needed two goals for gold. Had they merely tied the game, Canada would become world champion. Helping historic rival Canada to a gold medal, was not a Soviet priority. It was a peculiar ending to a game which did not in any way take away anything from the incredible performance by the youngest player on the ice.
Mats Sundin, who started the season as a “traitor”, ended it as a national hero. And the very last medal that the Soviet national team won was a bronze. The next season the team was known as Russia.
As part of the IIHF's 100th anniversary celebrations, www.IIHF.com is featuring the 100 top international hockey stories from the past century (1908-2008). Starting now and continuing through the 2008 IIHF World Championships in Canada, we will bring you approximately three stories a week counting down from Number 100 to Number 11.
The Final Top 10 Countdown will be one of the highlights of the IIHF's Centennial Gala Evening in Quebec City on May 17, the day prior to the Gold Medal Game of the 2008 World Championship.
These are the criteria for inclusion on this list: First, the story has to have had a considerable influence on international hockey. Second, it has to have had either a major immediate impact or a long-lasting significance on the game. Third, although it doesn't necessarily have to be about top players, the story does have to pertain to the highest level of play, notably Olympics, World Championships, and the like. The story can be about a single moment — a goal, a great save, a referee's call — or about an historic event of longer duration — a game, series, tournament, or rule change.