April 21 – May 8, 1977 – Vienna, Austria
After a seven-year absence, which included as many IIHF World Championships and two Olympic games, Canada was back in international hockey for the 1977 Worlds in Vienna. The expectations were high, but many fans of Canadian hockey disappointed with the way Canada accorded itself.
European hockey fans hadn’t seen Team Canada perform in the IIHF World Championships since 1969 in Sweden. After that, the relationship between the Canadian hockey authorities and the IIHF went sour over the issue of amateur and professional players. In 1970, the same year as Canada was scheduled to host the 37th World Championship in Montreal and Winnipeg, the first nation of hockey left the international scene and Sweden took over the hosting rights. (See Top Story of the Century #17).
When the IIHF and the Canadian hockey authorities finally reconciled prior to the 1977 event, the IIHF’s premier championship didn’t anymore categorize players by the outdated labels amateur or professional. There were only hockey players. It would still take more than a decade though before NHL-players were allowed to compete at the Olympics (Calgary 1988).
Team Canada came to the Austrian capital with a team that included the Esposito brothers, Tony and Phil, and other established NHL-veterans like defensemen Carol Vadnais, Dallas Smith and Phil Russel and forwards Rod Gilbert, Ron Ellis, Pierre Larouche, Jean Pronovost, Eric Vail - and Wilf Paiement, whose actions marred the reputation of Canadian hockey for several years to come.
For all NHL-fans and enthusiasts of Canadian hockey in Europe the return of the Maple Leaf to international hockey would be a disillusionment and an anti-climax and, most sadly, it overshadowed the historic return of Canada’s national team.
Canada’s showing in Vienna was a sportive and a public relations debacle. The players who went to Austria to represent Canada had – at best – a very vague idea what to expect and both the players and the coaching staff were not aware of how the international game had developed. Many members of the 77-team had never played internationally.
Frustrated by lack of success, several players regressed to violence and came home shamed and scorned for their actions. Coach Johnny Wilson had little or no control over his players. The team’s conduct even became an issue in the Canadian parliament.
Canada lost both their games to the Soviet Union by scores of 11-1 and 8-1. The reputation of Canada as a prime hockey nation was fundamentally shaken, at least in Europe. They rebounded in the four-team medal round where the Canadians defeated Sweden, 7-0 and the eventual world champions Czechoslovakia, 8-2, but this wasn’t enough to win a medal. A Team Canada filled with high-quality NHL players (although not the very best ones) finished a disappointing fourth.
Few took notice of the games where Canada actually played well. The damage was done. Especially the games against the Soviet Union were filled with ugly scenes.
For the European fans who always admired the Canadian way of playing and were looking so much forward to the return, the 1977 World Championship was a nightmare. Many found themselves in awkward situations where they, often in heated discussions, were defending Canada against fans who felt that the event would be better off without the rowdy North Americans.
While Canada’s return to international hockey was not glorious, it was nevertheless one of the most important happenings in the history of international hockey. Although the first Canada vs. The World encounter in seven years was a rough one, it started the necessary process of bringing together the two parties that needed each other.
In 1977 it was a “clash of civilizations” and several years of adjustments were needed before Canadian hockey officials realized that “old time hockey” was not paying dividends on the international scene.
The seven years of isolation were bad for the development of international hockey, but they were even more destructive for the Canadian game. While the rest of the hockey world developed with rapid pace, Canada’s game regressed.
Slowly Canada adopted, but it would take another 17 years before the country won its first World Championship gold after the seven-year absence. The 1994 success in Milan, Italy was Canada’s first since Worlds gold since 1961.
Today, Canada wins frequently on the international level thanks in large part to a new philosophy. Instead of size and strength, Canada sees speed and skill as the most important qualities of players. The days of retaliation penalties are long over, as are the days of disinterest among the best players in participating.
Canada is once again at the fore of the game and although it wins frequently at the World Junior (U20) and World Women’s events, it also has strung together a dominating performance at the prestigious World Championship and has shown, above all, that it understands the international game better than ever.
Thirty-one years after Vienna 1977, the events have virtually fallen into oblivion and, among those who remember, there is almost a sentimental luster over Wilf Paiement’s antics.
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.
Click here for the 100 Top Stories