Surprise scoring leaders of golden teams
by Lucas Aykroyd|26 MAY 2021
Jarkko Immonen, Finland's scoring leader in 2011, scores on Latvian goaltender Edgars Masalskis en route to gold.
photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images
Memory can play tricks on us all, even when it comes to great international hockey performances.

I interviewed the late, great Pat Quinn in Penticton, British Columbia in 2008. It was at an outdoor reception at the Red Rooster Winery the night before Steve Yzerman’s induction into the BC Hockey Hall of Fame. Quinn, who coached Canada to its first Olympic gold medal in 50 years in Salt Lake City, said: “His selection is a slam-dunk. Steve was a special contributor for us in 2002. He played for us on one leg, with a bad knee, but he refused to accept any special treatment.”

That was bang-on. However, Quinn also reminisced about Yzerman passing the puck through Mario Lemieux’s legs to Paul Kariya for Canada’s first goal in the 5-2 gold medal game victory over the Americans. And – oops! – that iconic pass was actually made by Chris Pronger. Of course, Quinn’s mistake wasn’t so much a slight on the Hart Trophy-winning defenceman as an intuitive reframing of events based on Yzerman’s greatness. 

Similarly, when we reflect on who led past IIHF gold medal-winning teams in scoring, memory can play tricks on us. Those leading scorers aren’t necessarily who you’d think they’d be. Their actual identities can be surprising for different reasons, especially knowing what we know now in 2021.

So let’s take a look back at 10 surprise gold-medal team scoring leaders.

1) Robert Lang (Czech Republic, 1996)

When the Czech Republic won its first IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship gold medal as an independent nation in 1996, nobody would have been surprised if captain Robert Reichel – previously a two-time 40-goal scorer with the Calgary Flames – led coach Ludek Bukac’s team in scoring. Reichel, a future IIHF Hall of Famer, did finish second in Czech scoring (4+4=8) in Vienna, joining fellow forward Otakar Vejvoda, defenceman Michal Sykora, and goalie Roman Turek on the tournament all-star team.

However, it was a different Robert who tied Canada’s Yanic Perreault for the overall points lead (nine). And there was nothing to suggest in Robert Lang’s 1995-96 campaign with the Los Angeles Kings that he would shine at the Wiener Stadthalle. In fact, the 25-year-old Teplice native – on a club whose other centres included Perreault, Kevin Todd, and Wayne Gretzky in his last L.A. season – slumped to a paltry six goals and 16 assists in 68 games, ranking behind defencemen Marty McSorley and Philippe Boucher in Kings scoring.

Still, anything can happen in a short tournament. Fast-forward to the ‘96 Worlds final against Canada, and Lang was on fire. The fourth-year NHLer beat goalie Curtis Joseph with a high backhander on a first-period breakaway and then put the Czechs up 2-1 early in the second period. The heroics of Lang (5+4=9) set the stage for Martin Prochazka’s shocking winner with 19 seconds left in regulation and Jiri Kucera’s empty-netter to make it 4-2.

Over the course of a 989-game NHL career, this 1998 Olympic gold medallist would rebound from his 1995-96 aberration and record 707 points with eight teams.

2) Travis Green (Canada, 1997) 

Canada ended a 33-year gold-medal drought at the 1994 Worlds in Italy, edging Finland 2-1 in a shootout. It took just three years for the motherland of hockey to top the podium again with a three-game final victory over Sweden. For coach Andy Murray’s 1997 roster in Turku and Helsinki, it wasn’t a soon-to-be Olympian like Mark Recchi and Keith Primeau (1998) or Jarome Iginla and Owen Nolan (2002) who led the points parade (3+6=9).

Instead, it was a 26-year-old centre who – despite coming off his second-best NHL season with 23 goals and 64 points – often flew under the radar in the New York Islanders’ dire “fish sticks jersey” era. When he made headlines, it was for two consecutive contract holdouts that prompted then-Islanders GM Mike Milbury to call him nasty names. Yes, we’re talking about Travis Green.

Green’s low profile wasn’t exactly fair. He’d also finished second in Canadian scoring (5+3=8) on the ‘96 silver medal team. In Finland, he put together some bizarre highlights.

First, Green was suspended for one game along with Nolan, Rob Blake, and Shean Donovan after brawling in a 5-3 loss to the Czechs. But an IIHF review voided Green and Nolan’s suspension, freeing Green to score the wacky 2-1 winner against Russia. The Castlegar native, a vaunted faceoff man, lost an offensive-zone draw to Alexander Barkov Sr. (the father of now-Florida captain Aleksander Barkov), and two Russians bobbled the puck into their own net.

Facing Sweden in the final, Green said: “As far as I’m concerned, it will have been a waste of a month if we go home with the silver. Only gold is acceptable.” He earned an important assist on Geoff Sanderson’s opening goal in the 3-1 win in Game Two. And after Canada won Game Three 2-1 at Hartwall Arena on 14 May, Green sprayed champagne all over the dressing room.

Green didn’t make the Nagano Olympic team, but he did become a 970-game NHLer and respected, phlegmatic head coach, whose contract with the Vancouver Canucks is up.

3) Jiri Dopita (Czech Republic, 2000)

Calling Jiri Dopita’s team-leading 11 points (4+7=11) at the 2000 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship a “surprise” might seem like a narrowly North American, NHL-biased take. But the stats bear it out. For fans of the HC Vsetin captain, the real wonder was that Dopita hadn’t done this before. The hulking centre had dominated the Czech Extraliga for years and won Olympic and Worlds gold medals, but in IIHF play, he’d never put up more than four points at any given tournament.

It’s similar to all-time KHL scoring leader Sergei Mozyakin, another player historically reliant more on smarts than speed. The Metallurg Magnitogorsk captain never put up more than four points at a Worlds until 2015, and his all-time Worlds numbers (51 GP, 38 points) are not too far removed from Dopita’s (59 GP, 31 points).

In St. Petersburg, the 31-year-old Dopita burnished his reputation as the best player outside the NHL, although his later struggles in Philadelphia and Edmonton would undermine that notion. Under coach Josef Augusta, he got points at key times.

Dopita scored the winner as the Czechs beat Canada 2-1 in the group stage and set up Jan Tomajko’s decisive third-period goal in the 5-3 gold-medal win over rival Slovakia. “It’s always nice to play them and know we’re on top,” Dopita said. “We showed them we have a little bit better hockey players.”

4) Niklas Kronwall (Sweden, 2006)

Niklas Kronwall grew up idolizing his future Detroit Red Wings teammate Nicklas Lidstrom. The two world-class defencemen won gold together at the 2006 Turin Olympics, and Lidstrom’s slap shot goal to open the third period stood up as Sweden edged Finland 3-2 in the final. So in 2006, nobody would have been taken aback if Lidstrom – who peaked with 80 points that season – had come to the Worlds in Riga and led Tre Kronor in scoring.

However, the perennial Norris Trophy winner didn’t travel to Latvia. So it fell to Kronwall to top the Swedish scoring derby (2+8=10). It remains a remarkable oddity that as a blueliner, he’d outscore Wings teammates like stars forwards Henrik Zetterberg and Mikael Samuelsson – not to mention budding 18-year-old phenom Nicklas Backstrom and cagey 35-year-old veteran Michael Nylander.

After Sweden blanked the Czechs 4-0 in the gold medal game, Kronwall was honoured as MVP, Best Defenceman, and an all-star defender. Joining the Triple Gold Club two years later with Detroit’s 2008 Stanley Cup victory further distinguished Kronwall’s hockey career. He retired in 2019.

5) Matthew Lombardi (Canada, 2007)

The most enduring memory from Canada’s gold-medal victory over Finland at the 2007 Worlds in Moscow is easy to pick out. Rick Nash stormed in on net, with defender Pekka Saravo draped over his back, and beat netminder Kari Lehtonen for his second goal of the game to round out the scoring at 4-2 with 1:06 left.

Nash, the 2007 MVP, would finish his career as a two-time Olympic gold medallist, and the 2004 Rocket Richard Trophy winner wasn’t the only famous Canadian forward at this tournament. Captain Shane Doan won his third World Championship gold medal in Moscow, while Eric Staal and Jonathan Toews would both join the Triple Gold Club at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

Yet in 2007, Matthew Lombardi outscored all of them with 12 points (6+5=12) while centering the top line with Nash and Doan.

Up to this point in his career, the 25-year-old Montrealer was basically viewed as a journeyman speedster. His team highlight came as an NHL rookie when the Calgary Flames marched to the 2004 Stanley Cup final. But unfortunately, in the second round, Lombardi took a nasty elbow to the head from defenceman Derian Hatcher during Calgary’s 1-0 overtime win in Game Six, and he wouldn’t suit up again in the playoffs.

Lombardi, however, rebounded to record new career highs of 20 goals and 46 points in 2006-07. Despite Calgary’s first-round elimination by Detroit that year, he rode that momentum into Moscow.

Doan raved about Lombardi’s play after the former Victoriaville Tigres ace had scored a hat trick in a 6-3 win over the U.S. to end group play and added two more goals in a 5-1 quarter-final rout of Switzerland: “He’s scored with a nice wrist shot. He’s deked the goalie. He’s used his speed, obviously. His speed is incredible. He’s one of those guys, until you get the opportunity to play with him, you don't really appreciate how fast and how good he really is.”

Lombardi lived up to those accolades in Canada’s last two games, assisting on all three goals Nash scored. His magical run underlines the value of accepting invitations to play for your country internationally.

He returned for Canada’s silver-medal team in Switzerland in 2009, and after playing 536 NHL games for five clubs, he won the Spengler Cup three times. Gold in Moscow was the biggest thing he ever won. Now 39, Lombardi is the hockey program director at College Bourget, a private prep school outside Montreal.

6) Alexander Syomin (Russia, 2008)

In the NHL, 2008’s most talked-about Russian offensive feat was Alexander Ovechkin’s league-leading 65 goals – marking the first time anyone had topped 60 since Mario Lemieux in 1995-96 – and 112 points. At the IIHF World Championship, Ilya Kovalchuk gained immortality when he scored the third-period equalizer and overtime winner in Russia’s 5-4 comeback victory over host Canada in the gold medal game.

Yet while Ovechkin and the legendary Sergei Fyodorov totalled 12 points apiece at the Worlds, Alexander Syomin nipped his Washington Capitals teammates for Russia’s scoring lead (6+7=13) in Quebec City.

Syomin, then 24, faced criticism throughout his NHL career that his superlative talent – from deft puckhandling to a wicked slap shot – outweighed his focus and motivation. (Remarkably, the Krasnoyarsk native remains the fifth-highest scorer taken in the 2002 NHL Draft with 517 points, even though the players ahead of him – Rick Nash, Duncan Keith, Alexander Steen, and Valtteri Filppula – have all logged about 400 or 500 more NHL games.)

Regardless, in head coach Vyacheslav Bykov’s first of two straight gold medal runs, Syomin came to play in the biggest games. Less-remembered than Kovalchuk’s golden goal is the fact that Syomin twice gave Russia the lead against Canada. He got the opening goal at 1:23, courtesy of Ovechkin’s pass from behind Cam Ward’s net, and made it 3-2 at 1:14 of the second period on the power play, snaring the puck after Konstantin Korneyev fired it off the end boards and scoring from the left faceoff circle.

Earlier in the playoffs, Syomin potted the winner just 1:14 in during a 6-0 quarter-final rout of Switzerland and set up Fyodorov’s first-period winner in the 4-0 semi-final win over Finland.

Now in the twilight of his career with Vityaz Podolsk, the 37-year-old Syomin deserves recognition for his historic contributions in the year that marked both the 400th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain’s founding of Quebec City and the 100th anniversary of the IIHF.

7) Jarkko Immonen (Finland)

When Jarkko Immonen led the 2011 Worlds with 12 points (9+3=12), the crafty Ak Bars Kazan centre was coming off his best season as a KHL goal-scorer (21). However, nobody foresaw Immonen’s explosion in Slovakia. He’d gone goalless en route to his first of two Olympic bronze medals in 2010, and in 14 previous Worlds games (2009, 2010), he had just four goals.

The former New York Ranger was even less of a favourite to pace Leijonat since teammate Tuomo Ruutu had just achieved his NHL scoring peak (19+38=57). In other years, like 2019 (see Kakko, Kaapo), Ruutu’s six goals would have led the team.

But Immonen just kept on delivering, including four goals in the playoffs alone. While Mikael Granlund’s lacrosse-style goal to open the scoring in the 3-0 semi-final win over Russia remains 2011’s most iconic play, Immonen assisted on that goal. And on a power play in the gold medal game, the former New York Ranger got the crucial 1-1 equalizer on Sweden’s Viktor Fasth with just seven seconds left in the second period. The Finns ran wild in the third period, prevailing 6-1, and Immonen was named to the tournament all-star team.

Immonen will celebrate his 40th birthday next season as a member of Liiga’s Mikkelin Jukurit.

8) Loui Eriksson (Sweden, 2013)

Unsurprisingly, when reflecting on 2013, Swedish fans first envision the heroics of Henrik and Daniel Sedin, who arrived late in the group stage. The two former NHL scoring champions enabled their nation to break the infamous 27-year-old “home ice curse” in Stockholm with a 5-1 final victory over upstart Switzerland.

Is it shocking to you that Loui Eriksson was Tre Kronor’s leading scorer (5+5=10)? It might be. The 36-year-old Frolunda-trained left wing’s scoring touch has evaporated during his six-year contract with Vancouver, where he has never posted more than 29 points in a full season.

Yet based on Eriksson’s earlier exploits with Dallas and Boston, he still currently ranks third among active Swedish NHL scorers (594 points), trailing only Nicklas Backstrom (980 points) and Erik Karlsson (625 points).

After his lockout-shortened 2012-13 season with the Stars, the Gothenburg native showed magic hands at close range at the Globen Arena. When Sweden blanked Finland 3-0 in the semi-final, he scored twice on the power play, set up by the Sedins. “En For Alla For En” by The Poodles, the newly minted Swedish fight song, might not still be in regular rotation today if not for Eriksson’s timely scoring.

9) Jason Spezza (Canada, 2015)

Canada’s Olympic-calibre roster in Prague posted a whopping 66-15 goal difference, and any number of big names could have led the champs offensively under coach Todd McLellan. Captain Sidney Crosby (4+7=11), who joined the Triple Gold Club after Canada pounded Russia 6-1 in the final, was an obvious candidate. And you couldn’t overlook the likes of Nathan MacKinnon (4+5=9), Taylor Hall (7+5=12), Claude Giroux (3+7=10), and Tyler Seguin (9+0=9).

So it seems amusing in retrospect that Canada’s scoring leader was a centre who earned $700,000 on a league-minimum, one-year NHL contract in 2020-21. But Jason Spezza (6+8=14), who previously had two World Junior bronze medals (2001, 2002) and a silver (2003) and two World Championship silver medals (2008, 2009) to his name, finally got rewarded for his IIHF persistence.

The number two overall pick in the 2001 draft behind Ilya Kovalchuk (Atlanta) padded his stats with three points in the 6-1 opening romp over Latvia and four points in the 10-1 demolition of Austria. But “Spezz,” who had just registered 62 points in his first season with Dallas, also showed up in the medal round. The 31-year-old’s great chemistry with MacKinnon and Matt Duchene (4+8=12) paid off with two points in the 9-0 quarter-final win over Belarus and a big second-period goal in the 2-0 semi-final win over the Czechs.

Whether or not Spezza succeeds in capturing a Stanley Cup with the Toronto Maple Leafs, he can always cherish being selected Best Forward and a tournament all-star after winning gold in Prague.

10) Derrick Brassard (Canada, 2016)

Over the years, Connor McDavid (obviously), Brad Marchand, and Mark Scheifele have all finished in the top 10 in NHL scoring. Derrick Brassard, conversely, has never topped the 60 points he earned for the New York Rangers in 2014-15. And yet when Canada won a second straight world title in Moscow in 2016, this veteran playmaking centre (5+6=11) outpointed all the big names we just mentioned.

It was sweet consolation for the native of Hull, Quebec, who had come heartbreakingly close to Stanley Cup glory with the Rangers in 2014 and 2015. In Moscow, the golden Canadians scored “just” 46 goals – 20 fewer than the powerhouse 2015 squad – but certainly peaked at the right time.

Brassard found a home from Day One on a line with captain Corey Perry and Taylor Hall. Their darkest moment came at the end of the preliminary round in St. Petersburg when a star-studded Finnish team – featuring captain Mikko Koivu, Aleksander Barkov, Sebastian Aho, and 18-year-old tournament MVP Patrick Laine – blanked them 4-0.

Yet when all the chips were down, Brassard found a way. He added a goal as Canada beat Sweden 6-0 in the quarter-final and scored the second-period equalizer in a 4-3 semi-final win over the Americans. That set the stage for revenge with a 2-0 gold-medal win over Finland.

Since that glorious day, Brassard, a former first-round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets (sixth overall, 2006), has played for no fewer than six other NHL clubs. But his status as a surprising gold-medal team scoring leader is something that nobody can take away, wherever his career takes him.