In honour of TSN's 25th Anniversary, TSN.ca is taking a look at some of the top sports stories over the last 25 years. Next up, a memorable (or not-so memorable) incident at the 1987 World Juniors.
While the holiday season is about friends and family, festive cheers and the spirit of giving, there's an added bonus for Canadians each year with the start of the World Junior Hockey Championship.
TSN has televised the tournament since 1991 and its appeal as a viewer favourite is evident as many of the Top 10 most-watched TSN programs of all-time are World Junior broadcasts. And TSN's coverage of the gold medal game from the 2009 World Juniors in Ottawa attracted the largest audience in network history with 3.7 million viewers.
The formula for the success of the tournament is as simple as it gets. For NHL fans, it's a chance to see the stars of tomorrow in action. For devout followers of junior hockey, it's watching your hometown player shine on the international stage.
For Canadians from coast to coast, it's putting national pride on the line.
And nowhere was this more evident than in the 1987 World Juniors - an event that could be argued as a catalyst in bringing the tournament to the national spotlight.
Depending on the point of view, the 1987 showdown in Piestany, Czechoslovakia was either Canada's best or worst moment in the history of the World Junior Championship.
That year, the format was a round robin tournament that saw the teams with the top three records capture gold, silver and bronze respectively. Finland finished their schedule with a 5–1–1 record to lead the tournament. With a 4-1-1 record, Team Canada had at least a bronze medal in its grasp.
That being said, a win over the Soviet Union (already out of contention with a 2-3-1 mark) in their final game would have clinched a silver and a win by at least five goals would have secured the gold. With a plethora of soon-to-be NHL stars on the program (Brendan Shanahan, Theoren Fleury, Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Mogilny to name a few) and the political climate on and off this ice, it had all the makings of a dramatic match-up.
"This was a very different time," said TSN's Brian Williams, who helped cover the 1987 tournament. "The 'Evil Empire' that was the Soviet Union still existed and the Berlin Wall hadn't come down. This was Canada against the Soviet Union and even today, Canada vs. Russia is big in anything we do."
With Canada shooting for gold with a 4-2 lead, a bench-clearing brawl erupted after Soviet forward Pavel Kostichkin slashed Canadian winger Theoren Fleury midway through the second period. It got so heated, the officials left the ice and had the arena lights shut off to restore order. It didn't work, as the players continued to slug it out in the dark and the game was cancelled.
"To see this fight break out was stunning," said Williams. "And to see them turn the light out in the arena, which was the dumbest thing they could do, it just spiraled out of control."
To top it all off, both teams were later disqualified from the competition and the Canadians returned home without a medal. The 'Punch-up in Piestany' - as it was later nicknamed - became an instant spark for national debate.
Many Canadian fans and pundits complained that the Russians, who had nothing left to play for, started the fight to ensure that their Canadian rivals would not get a medal. While some were proud of the Canadians for standing up for each other, others were ashamed of it and argued that they shouldn't have got involved with a medal on the line.
When all was said and done, the experience was academic.
"I remember saying it was a disgrace and a black mark for hockey," said Williams. "And Don (Cherry) and I went at it in one of the great confrontations in Canadian TV sports history. We have tremendous respect for each other, but I remembered that very clearly."
After Piestany, it didn't take long for the World Juniors to be established as must-see event. This is the tournament that first brought players like Wayne Gretzky, Eric Lindros, Peter Forsberg and Alexander Ovechkin to the international stage.
This is the tournament that saw Canada win five straight championships on two occasions (with a possible sixth straight this January).
This is the tournament that produces great drama and great storytelling year after year.
"The World Juniors mean so much in this country," said Williams. "When they're held in Europe - I remember Canada winning gold in Turku, Finland in 1990 - I don't think there were five people in the arena. Over here, junior hockey means something."