Fights and punch-ups aren't exactly a rarity in ice hockey. Full-line clearing brawls are rarer but still not exactly unheard of either. But a 20-minute battle involving every player that partly occurred in the dark? That's not something you hear about every day. But that's what happened in 1987 between the Soviet Union and Canadian junior teams, in an incident that's commonly referred to as the "Punch-up in Piestany"
The 1987 World Junior Hockey Championships
Held every year since 1977, the World Junior Hockey Championship is an Ice Hockey tournament featuring international teams made up of players under the age of 20. And back in 1987, it was a tournament that had previously been almost entirely dominated by the Soviet Union, who had won seven of the tournament's first ten competitions.
However, during the 1987 tournament in Piestany, Czechoslovakia, things hadn't entirely gone to plan for the Soviets. And after one of their weakest tournament performances in years, they went into their final game on January 4th against rivals Canada having already been eliminated from tournament contention. Such was a surprise for tournament organizers, who had purposefully scheduled the Canada-USSR match to be the last of the competition, thinking that both teams would likely be competing for gold.
The Canadians, meanwhile, had fared much better. Lose or draw, they were already guaranteed a bronze medal. A win, meanwhile, would guarantee them a silver. And if they could win by five goals, they would stand to bring home the gold.
Medals or no medals, though, the game was assured to be heated as the game was a continuation of what was then the biggest rivalry in international ice hockey.
With pride and medals at stake, there was tension early between the two teams. Sergei Shesterikov would elbow Canadian Dave McLlwain during the first few minutes, to which McLlwain responded by cross-checking the Soviet.
Five minutes in, Theoren Fleury scored the first goal of the night. He then celebrated by sliding to his knees and using his stick to imitate gunfire on the soviet team - a move that some would later criticize for being highly provocative.
But while both teams continued to play aggressively, there was little to suggest that things would get as out of hand as they would.
The second period began with a moment of silence in memory of four Swift Current Broncos players who had died in a bus crash five days earlier. This seemed to have the effect of calming tempers somewhat for five minutes of play. But the shoving and slashing soon resumed, and a minor scuffle broke out at around the six-minute mark.
With the minutes rolling down in the second period, Canada found themselves leading 4-2. Not enough yet to claim gold, but they were certainly making a good go of it. However, with 6:07 left in the second period, a collision between Shesterikov and Everett Sanipass resulted in a fight that inevitably sparked chaos.
At the same time as the Shesterikov-Sanipass fight, a second brawl broke out between Pavel Kostichkin and Fleury. From there, things devolved into a full line brawl, with every skater making their way onto the ice to throw hands. The result was at least a dozen separate fights co-occurring up and down the rink, with even the goaltenders getting involved.
Not only were plenty of punches thrown, but Vladimir Konstantinov would break the nose of Greg Hawgood with what was described as one of the most vicious headbutts ever seen.
With linesmen unable to control the situation, officials turned off the arena lights in the hope that this would end things, leaving both the players and fans in the dark. But the fighting continued for some time yet, as irritated fans chanted, "My chceme hokej!" ("we want hockey!").
By the time things eventually settled down, some 20 minutes had passed, and the game had been declared null and void.
The Aftermath of the Punch-up in Piestany
Following the game, the IIHF held an emergency meeting to decide what to do about the situation. And the decision they came to was to boot both teams from the tournament.
The result was effectively a big win for Finland, who took home the gold. It also meant that Czechoslovakia would take home the silver. Perhaps the biggest surprise winners were Sweden, who weren't initially in contention for a medal.
Unsurprisingly, both teams would blame each other for inciting the violence in the days and weeks that followed. And back in Canada, there were some, such as the CBC commentator Don Cherry, who accused the soviets of inciting the brawl because they, having nothing to lose, wanted to jeopardize the Canadian's campaign deliberately.
As well as booting the team from the tournament, the IIHF voted to suspend all of the players involved from competing in international events for 18 months and each of the coaches for three years. However, the player suspensions were later cut to only six months.
There was also talk of both teams being relegated or banned from the 1988 cup. However, the IIHF stopped short of taking this step, namely because the Soviets would be hosting that year and because the Canadian market represented the only media revenue the tournament generated.
A Surprising Legacy
The incident, soon to be known as the punch-up in Piestany, spurred feelings of nationalism in many Canadians at the time. And public sentiment seemed to show wide support for the players. As a result, interest in the tournament grew, raising the prestige of a competition once only followed by a small base of fans.
Of the twenty players dressed for Canada in that game, nineteen would eventually play in the National Hockey League. So too, did several of the Soviet players, who would become some of the first USSR players to do so.
© 2022 Mike Grindle