The images might seem a little grainy to modern eyes, but the thrill of John Slaney’s winning goal for Canada against the Soviet Union at the 1991 World Juniors feels as fresh as ever.
Under the old round-robin format, the host Canadians had to beat the Soviets in order to win the gold medal in this tournament-concluding showdown in Saskatoon on 4 January.
Coach Dick Todd’s boys had grabbed a 2-0 first-period lead on goals by Pierre Sevigny and captain Steven Rice. But Sergejs Zoltoks cut the deficit to 2-1 midway through the second period, and fellow Latvian Sandis Ozolinsh tied it up less than four minutes into the third. The USSR was now carrying the play, and even though checking forward Kris Draper had thrown a blanket over World Junior goal-scoring leader Pavel Bure (12 goals), the host nation was on the ropes.
That’s when Slaney, an 18-year-old offensive defenceman from St. John’s, Newfoundland, delivered arguably the biggest play ever on Saskatchewan ice.After Canada won a draw in the Soviet end, the Cornwall Royals defenceman put the puck deep. Russia’s Alexei Kudashov gathered it and tried to clear it out off the boards, but Slaney intercepted it at the left point and stepped in to fire a slap shot past goalie Sergei Zvyagin with 5:13 left. The capacity crowd at Saskatchewan Place (now SaskTel Centre) went wild, as did the reported 1.4 million TV viewers Canada-wide. The Canadians hung on for a 3-2 victory.
In 2011, the TSN crew picked Slaney’s goal as the top moment in Canadian World Junior history. As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the goal, many observers still feel the same. This was a watershed moment for the popularity of the World Juniors, transforming the tournament into a holiday tradition. TSN has forged an important and lasting partnership with the IIHF.
Slaney went on to play 268 NHL games with eight clubs. The AHL Hall of Famer sits second in all-time league scoring among defencemen (519 points) to Bryan Helmer (564). Slaney, 48, now serves as an assistant coach of the Tucson Roadrunners, the AHL affiliate of the Arizona Coyotes.
IIHF.com interviewed Slaney about his iconic 1991 goal, his World Junior teammates, his pro career, and life today.
Thirty years later, how often would you say you get asked about your winner at the 1991 World Juniors?
Thirty years! [laughs] Man. It’s kind of funny, actually, because right around when 1 December hits, I would probably say the first 15 years after it happened, I did an interview every second day about it. Now, I probably do roughly five interviews [in a given year] for it. It always brings back good memories.
What are your recollections of that play?
I just remember Johnny [the late Greg Johnson, then of the University of North Dakota] did a great job taking the faceoff. He was a very good faceoff guy. And I had to find my outlet. If I can’t shoot, I gotta make sure I keep the puck in and get the opportunity to get the second chances, right?
It was crunch time. The puck was just rimmed around and I knew I had a lot of distance between their forechecker and the wall. So I took the gamble of trying to keep the puck in. And my old coach in minor hockey always said to me, “If you don’t shoot, you can’t score.” So I had to find that lane to get the puck to the net, and if there was a rebound, hopefully we’d get the opportunity to put it in the net. But it went in.
Back then, I think any game against Russia, even if it was a scrimmage, everybody would treat it like a gold medal game. You always thought about beating the Russians, because there was no question they always wanted to beat us. It was just weird. I know it’s not quite the same anymore, but Canada always wanted to be on top of the Russians. And the Russian guys I played with, they felt the same. They always wanted to beat the Canadians.
How intense was it with the Soviets outshooting you 17-3 in the third period and Trevor Kidd standing on his head in goal?
I think we were just trying to hang on. Kidder gave us a chance. With the fan base, it was so loud in the building. It was crazy. Overall, it was just one of those games where we were just trying to get the right opportunity. Any mistake by the Russians, we were trying to score.
I did. Oh my God, my son Tyler’s 18! So probably 10 years ago, roughly. He was about 8 or 9 years old. My brother-in-law Jaroslav Modry played for the Czech team. We ended up playing in L.A. together and then we married sisters. It’s funny, isn’t it? Anyway, we watched that game with my kids and his kids. It was fun to watch that.
What did the kids think of it?
One thing that popped out of Tyler’s mouth was, “Dad, there’s no logos on the boards!”And kids, they go back and they look at the pictures of the old days with the long hair. [laughs] Overall, he said it was different. The game was slower to him, a little bit, compared to today’s game.
On that ‘91 team, how did you enjoy partnering with Jason Marshall? This is a guy who went on to play 526 NHL games with five different clubs.
It was great. I couldn’t ask for a better D partner. He was a puck mover as well, but he was a little bit more of a stay-home guy, and he gave me an opportunity if I needed to go on the offence. I think the biggest thing that helped us was that we communicated well. We both liked to talk and help each other on the ice. I just remember him being really good support, no matter what happened. I mean, he was a bigger guy than me, so he ended up taking more of the beatings, going back for pucks! Overall, I really enjoyed playing with him.
At 17, Scott Niedermayer played seven World Junior games with zero points. He’d won one WHL championship with the Kamloops Blazers and was en route to becoming the CHL’s Scholastic Player of the Year. But did you have a sense that he’d become the superstar he eventually became?
For sure. You could see it. There’s no question. He was an underage kid coming up, and you could see that he had it. He had the tools. He could skate, he could move the puck, he could shoot. He had everything. And it was just a matter of him putting everything together in his career, and he did that. He was in a great organization with New Jersey. With a team that had great structure, it just taught him what he had to do and not do.
What was it like to be in the presence of an 17-year-old Eric Lindros leading Canada with six goals and 17 points?
I guess it was a little bit like basketball. You try to get the ball in the middle of the floor and let the guy go dunk the ball kind of thing. That’s the way I look at it now! Eric was that guy.
For Eric, when he had the puck, he had the long reach, right? It was pretty hard to get the puck away from him. And if you were trying to control the kid along the boards, there was no way you could do it. So you just had to try to contain him and keep him to the outside. But he had all the tools. If he wanted the puck, he was going to get it. He was going to run you over.
He could definitely shoot the puck and score, because he had the vision to make those finished plays. And any rebound, he was always coming and jumping on it. When he knew the team had to bring energy and turn the game around, he did that. And you could see that over his career.
We were very organized. Every day we showed up to the rink, we were organized. We had a structure. Our practices were all put together. We always had a plan. It’s funny you mention that, because that’s basically what I’ve been doing for the last 10 years!
When I look back on all the coaches I had, with those guys, they were always on top of it. Those guys had so much energy that when you were in the locker room, you felt like you were already on the ice, playing the game.
Even though you, Lindros, Niedermayer, and Kidd came back for the 1992 World Juniors in Fussen, you weren’t able to recapture the magic and finished sixth on German ice. What was the difference between 1991 and 1992?
I guess when you think about it, I can say it now: it was the coaching style. It was a little different. And we were on a different-sized rink. We went from a North American rink to an Olympic-sized rink. That’s one big factor.
We definitely maybe had a bit more of a skilled team, if you want to say that, the second year. We didn’t have the Brad Mays, the Scott Thorntons, the kind of guys that drive the energy and push the boat along. Those guys are so important. If you don’t have those guys who bring energy every night, you don’t have the room out there to play.
The other part is, we had more guys to finish on the ’91 team. Guys like Steven Rice could put pucks in the net. Patty Falloon, Kris Draper...those guys could finish back then. We had Paul Kariya in 1992, but he was an underage kid, too. When he got the puck, he was getting pushed around a little bit, but he still handled himself well. I just don’t think we could score as much as we did in ’91.
First, I got called up and flew into Philadelphia. I got there mid-afternoon and ended up watching that game. It was a tough building to play in. I can say that because I ended up playing eight years in Philly afterwards. The crowd was so loud. The atmosphere was incredible when the players got on the ice. You could see how intense it was, right from the warm-up on.
Then I ended up going from Philadelphia over to Montreal to play my first game. So it’s like, “OK, here we go again!” It was just so much excitement and nerves. I know I didn’t sleep the night before. I can look back now and compare the buildings. It was so loud in Montreal, too.
It’s exciting, knowing that you’re playing in Canada, somewhere like Montreal or Toronto, for your first game. You just feel overwhelmed and just try to do the right things. Keep it simple, move pucks, and give your team the opportunity to win.
You had so many great NHL teammates, including Jaromir Jagr in Pittsburgh. You played 29 games with the Penguins in 1999-2000 when Jagr won his fourth of five Art Ross Trophies with 96 points. What do you remember about him?
Everybody knows how well he played! Like Lindros, there was another guy who could protect the puck. Once he had it, he could protect the puck so well. His bottom base was just so strong that you couldn’t get it away.
For me, it’s just how Jagr handled himself. In practice, how he worked so hard to be so good: shooting pucks, making passes. It wasn’t a lot of skating, but he just did so much: repeat, repeat, repeat. That’s why he got so good. His whole attitude toward the game of hockey showed that he was going to be good for a long, long time.
And it was interesting to watch, because Jagr was always communicating with guys. It didn’t matter if you were a Czech, Canadian or American. He did a good job that way.
When you won the Calder Cup in 2005, your Philadelphia Phantoms team featured names like R.J. Umberger, Patrick Sharp, Dennis Seidenberg, and Joni Pitkanen. How much fun was it to go all the way with that team during the NHL lockout year?
It was interesting. They did an awesome job of building that team, putting everything together. We ended up losing our first two games of the regular season. The management let us know fast about that! They told us we were put together to win games. And we went on to win 17 straight after that.
Our group of guys was so tight that we just didn’t have any outsiders. All 26 of us. If one guy was kind of going out, doing his things, we all followed behind. We were such a tight group. In our locker room, we had so much fun. And it wasn’t out of control. It was just a good group of guys that always communicated well. Fun was fun and serious was serious. We all knew what the game plan was and we worked as a group of five on the ice.
You wrapped up your career in Europe between 2007-08 and 2011-12. You spent two seasons in Cologne, one season in Frankfurt, and one season in Plzen. What inspired you to cross the pond?
As I mentioned, my brother-in-law’s from the Czech Republic. Both our wives were always curious to see life over there. So I decided to play over there, see how the living was and take that opportunity.
That summer when I originally headed over to Europe, I felt like I wanted to get into coaching. But there were times when I was working out and I still wanted to play. And I just ended up having a conversation with two of my old teammates who had played over in Europe. They said: “Well, just give it a try for one year.” I asked my wife Brenda, and she didn’t hesitate. She said, “Yeah, let’s go for it. See how it is over there.” And after one year, we ended up staying for four years. Both sisters ended up living in Prague and living the life.
It was awesome. I didn’t initially want to go over there and play, but when you get the opportunity, you’ve got to take advantage of it just to see. It’s no different than Europeans coming over here and playing. You can see how they feel. It just gave me another chapter in my book.
2020 has been a challenging year, but in the big picture, what do you love about working with the Tucson Roadrunners in the Valley of the Sun?
It’s been awesome. Every day, we try to get better as an organization and make our players better. Everything we do is first-class. With the players coming in, we try to teach these kids quickly to move up and achieve their dreams of playing in the NHL and staying there. The quicker we can identify what their strengths and weaknesses are and expand on what they’re doing, that’s what we’re looking to do. And we try to do the best we can every day.
What are your goals for the future?
You always want to be the head coach. But at the same time, you’ve got to get better in everything you do as a coach. I’ll tell you one thing: as a player, you can get better, but as a coach you can get better too, because there are new experiences that come at you every day. It’s not just like lacing the skates up and going to practice or playing games.
There’s so much knowledge out there. All the people, all the coaches you talk to, you pick up pieces of everything and hope you can put a big puzzle together. You’ve always got to take advantage and move up if you can. And hopefully it does work out for yourself and for your family.