Russia by the Nines
Thursday, 17 December 2009
Originally published in Prospects Hockey in 2008
After winning gold in 1979, 1989, and 1999, Russia hopes to end this decade with another World Junior title
By Lucas Aykroyd
There are no sure things in international hockey anymore. Even Canada, currently riding a streak of four straight World Junior gold medals, can’t succumb to overconfidence. But at the World Juniors, the Russians have always emerged victorious in years ending with “9.” And they’re hoping history repeats itself in Ottawa in 2009–especially as it’s been six years since their last gold medal (2003 in Halifax).
The Russian teams of 1979, 1989, and 1999 were all remarkable in different ways. Let’s rediscover some of the familiar names who were difference-makers.
1979: SOVIET SUPREMACY IN SWEDEN
Talk about setting the tone. Playing in the red-and-white uniforms of the Soviet Union, this squad sent a message to its opponents early on, earning a 17-0 win over Norway in its opener in Karlskoga, Sweden on December 27. It was the most lopsided shutout in World Junior history, only matched by Sweden over Switzerland in 1982.
Marching to their nation’s third straight gold medal, the Russians only had one blemish on their record–a 2-2 tie with Czechoslovakia. They racked up a tournament-best 46 goals in six games. That was twice as many goals as the next-closest country, Canada, which finished fourth with a roster mostly drawn from the defending Memorial Cup champion New Westminster Bruins under coach Ernie “Punch” McLean.
In retrospect, the offensive prowess of the Russians wasn’t surprising. Three of its stars would later team up on the five-man “Green Unit” that headlined the Soviet national team: defenceman Alexei Kasatonov and forwards Vladimir Krutov and Igor Larionov. In the 1980’s, they would earn two Olympic and five World Championship gold medals, plus the ‘81 Canada Cup.
At these World Juniors, Krutov won the scoring title with 14 points, and made the tournament all-star team along with Kasatonov. Another noteworthy name for the Soviets was goalie Dmitri Saprykin, who later backed up the legendary Vladislav Tretiak with Central Army and became the father of NHLer Oleg Saprykin.
1989: YOUNG GUNS FIRING IN ANCHORAGE
Recently, Alaska made headlines as the home state of Sarah Palin, the US vice-presidential candidate who’s a self-described hockey mom and lifelong member of the National Rifle Association. So it somehow seems fitting that the three hottest Russian NHL guns of the 1990’s thrilled fans with their speed and finesse skills at the World Juniors in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city.
After falling 3-2 to Canada in the deciding game in Moscow in 1988, the Soviets came seeking revenge on North American ice. They had the most potent offence of any team in the tournament. The top Soviet line boasted Pavel Bure on left wing, Sergei Fedorov at centre, and Alexander Mogilny on right wing.
Bure led the assault with eight goals and 14 points, and Mogilny wasn’t far behind with seven goals and 12 points. “On that line, I played defensively and would back-check,” Fedorov recalled years later. “As soon as we got the puck, I would find either Alex or Pavel with a good pass, and the puck would be in the net before I crossed the blue line.”
After five straight wins, the Soviets lost 5-3 to Czechoslovakia, and that got them motivated prior to their tournament-closer versus Canada. Mogilny’s natural hat trick in the second period was the difference in a 7-2 thrashing, as he repeatedly undressed the Canadian defence.
Team Canada coach Tom Webster, however, wasn’t completely impressed with the mercurial Khabarovsk-born forward: “For his age, he’s a very talented player, but a lazy player. He doesn’t come back in his own end, but that’s a compliment to the players he plays with.”
The Soviets, who also brought defensive stalwarts like Sergei Zubov and Dmitri Yushkevich, ultimately beat out Sweden for the gold medal, while Canada finished fourth in the round-robin format. Bure was named the best forward. “The first time my dad [former Olympic swimmer Vladimir Bure] was really happy was when I got the best forward on the junior team in Anchorage,” noted the flashy winger.
Bure, nicknamed “The Russian Rocket” with the Vancouver Canucks, would dazzle his way to 437 NHL goals in 732 games, twice earning the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal-scorer. Mogilny’s best season was 1992-93, as he racked up 76 goals and 51 points with Buffalo, and he retired in 2006 as a Stanley Cup champion (2000) and 1,032-point scorer. Fedorov, meanwhile, captured three Stanley Cups with Detroit (1997, 1998, 2002). In 1994, he was the first Russian winner of the Hart and Selke Trophies, and became the first Russian to hit 1,000 NHL points in 2004. Fedorov continues to star with Washington today.
1999: WINNING AGAIN IN WINNIPEG
The 1990’s were disappointing for Russia at the World Juniors. Heading into this tournament, they’d only won one gold medal during the decade (1992). The chance to play on Canadian ice in front of the Winnipeg Arena’s boisterous “Sea of White” certainly enhanced their motivation. The tournament in Manitoba set a then-attendance record of 173,453.
Although Canada and Russia wound up meeting in the final, round-robin play had many thinking that scenario might not emerge. Slovakia beat out Canada for top spot in Group A, and Sweden’s perfect record edged Russia in Group B. But although the Slovaks and Swedes thus earned byes into the semi-finals, they didn’t take advantage. After Simon Gagne scored four goals in a 12-2 walloping of Kazakhstan, Canada then easily ousted Sweden 6-1 in the semis. The Russians didn’t look quite as strong in the playoffs, posting identical 3-2 wins over Finland and Slovakia.
But Russia had saved its best for last. The score was 3-2 again over Canada, but could have been higher if not for the heroics of goalie Roberto Luongo, as Russia outshot Canada 40-18. The game’s most spectacular goal came from Maxim Balmochnykh, who would later briefly play for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Racing in on goal, he outmuscled defenceman Brad Ference and lifted a one-handed shot over Luongo in the second period.
However, it took Artem Chubarov’s second tally of the game to end it at 5:18 of OT. The future Vancouver Canuck got the puck from Maxim Afinogenov and wired a wrister from the faceoff circle past Luongo’s glove, stunning the partisan home crowd.
“I’m not going to make any excuses,” Canadian coach Tom Renney told reporters. “We don’t have to. Frankly, we belonged in the final with the Russians, to say the least. Today, they played outstanding. They did everything they had to do to win.”
Balmochnykh cracked the tournament all-star team, as well as blueliner Vitali Vishnevski, whose hard-hitting style earned him 552 NHL games with four clubs. Afinogenov was named the top forward and Vishnevski the top defenceman.
The 1999 victory started a good run for Russia versus Canada in World Junior finals. Russia also defeated Canada for gold in 2002 and 2003. However, Canada decisively turned the tables soon afterwards, ousting the Russians in 2005, 2006, and 2007, and registering seven wins and one tie in the 2007 Super Series between the two archrivals