Bryan Allen, a big defenceman not noted for his offensive ability, floated a puck at the net with all the authority of a lobbed softball. Somehow Russian goaltender Alexei Volkov managed to stay out of the way of the shot and it softly caromed in off the goalpost. And then came the sonic event.
I thought the press box was going to be shaken loose from the rafters and we’d plunge a couple of stories down onto the fans in seats below us. I said as much to the fellow sitting next to me, Don Wittman, a great broadcaster with the CBC.
“That’s Winnipeg,” Wittman said by way of explanation to an Easterner and with no small amount of pride in the city he called home.
I’ve attended hundreds, nay, thousands of sports events, great and small, as a member of the working media or as a fan in the stands, and in terms of energy, volume and tension, nothing ever has come close to Canada versus Russia at the Winnipeg Arena back in January ’99.
That world junior final ranks as the best event I’ve witnessed in the flesh—and I’d put it up against anything I watched on TV or listened to on radio.
Don’t get me wrong. By aesthetic measures, the game on the ice was good, maybe very good, but hardly a classic. In retrospect it’s easy to say that these weren’t the best teams that the two nations ever sent to the under-20s. On the scene in real time you thought just about the same thing.
If you look at the Canadian lineup, the group of forwards has to rank as one of the weaker bunches to wear the Maple Leaf. True, a couple of them would go to win Olympic gold medals and Stanley Cups: Simon Gagne and Brenden Morrow. Though they had greatness awaiting them, they were supporting players and not close to the first line at the 1999 WJC and the surrounding talent featured players who had brief NHL careers or topped out as minor-league journeymen: Adam Mair, Blair Betts, Kyle Calder, Brad Leeb, Harold Druken and Kent McDonell. The offensive catalyst was supposed to be Daniel Tkaczuk, and the big finisher Rico Fata. If you know those two and a couple of the names in the sentence immediately preceding, you are probably Hell on Wheels in a hockey trivia contest.
Canada had an excellent blueline, one featuring four defencemen who played more than 900 NHL games and own Stanley Cup rings: Brian Campbell, Robyn Regehr, Andrew Ference and Brad Stuart. Still, going into the tournament, goaltending stood as the team’s strongest asset, Roberto Luongo being considered the best goaltending prospect that Canada had produced in the ‘90s, even though he had been having a middling season in the Q.
The Russians weren’t exactly the Big Red Machine, either. Maxim Afinogenov was likely their best forward and he had made life miserable for Canada in Finland the year before, but if you look through their lineup you’ll find a few highly ranked prospects who went on to nothing much—if anything at all—in the NHL: Petr Schastlivy, Vitaly Vishnevski, Denis Arkhipov and Maxim Balmochnykh. It hadn’t been smooth sailing for the Russians—they were on their third coach in a matter of a month, chewing up and spitting out a couple of guys before handing the job to Gennady Tsygurov. Still, they got better as the tournament progressed and they peaked in the final.
Though Allen’s goal tied the game at two apiece—enough to send it into overtime—it was anything but a close contest on the ice. Canada was outshot 36-16 in regulation and the difference between the teams was even more pronounced when you factor in the Russians’ patient style of play, not shooting at the first opportunity but rather building up to a quality chance. It seemed the Russians had the puck on their sticks for 50 of the game’s first 60 minutes at a minimum.
Still, going into overtime the fans were euphoric, just happy to have life and maybe a chance to play out 20 scoreless minutes and bet on Luongo stealing a win in the shootout. The fans were dressed in white, the old Winnipeg Whiteout, and it looked like the game was being played between two massive snowbanks. Nonetheless the crowd was giving off heat, a pretty good thing given that the daytime high that day was minus-24 and the low that night was going down to minus-48. Windchill at one point that week hit minus-72. When you’re talking record temperatures in Manitoba in January, you’re talking Biblical frigidity.
Allen’s goal was as good as it got for the Canada. The game wrapped six minutes into the overtime. The awful sequence: Russia controls the puck after a faceoff in the Canadian end; Regehr and Stuart, the top defensive pair, are on the ice; Artem Chubarov skates into the slot with the puck; the Russians’ 40th shot of the night beats Luongo glove side; a crestfallen Luongo lays flat on his stomach on the ice, his feet outside the crease, his head in the net, like he’s either trying to hide behind the mesh or tunnel out of the arena; and just a few feet outside the crease, the Russian players pile on top of Chubarov and celebrate in an arena that has fallen silent, though only for a moment.
Luongo still hadn’t moved when the fans rose to their feet and cheered, building to one final crescendo.
The fans expressed a heartfelt and unconditional appreciation for Luongo’s great performance and the Canadian teens’ effort.
They appreciated the chance to bring life to an old arena that had fallen silent when the Jets packed off to Phoenix. The gold-medal game evoked the Game 3 of the Summit Series, a game seen by the entire nation. It also evoked a game seen by only those in attendance: the time the Soviets came to town and Bobby Hull, pushing 40, led the Jets to a victory almost singlehandedly.
And most of all they appreciated the fact that the tournament had come to Manitoba. Not just Winnipeg, but all of Manitoba. The IIHF and Hockey Canada don’t always get it right—a polite understatement, here—but in ’99 they got everything right. The Winnipeg Arena was the venue for the medal round and the big tilts but other games were played in arenas across the province—in Brandon, in Morden, in Portage la Prairie, in Teulon, in Selkirk. That is to say, the organizers recognized that respect should be paid to the roots of the game, that the tournament was Winnipeg’s to share. These days, the WJC is all about gate revenues and ratings. The idea is to fill the big NHL arenas when Canada hosts the tournament. The world isn’t coming to Morden and Tuelon again, and to me that’s a shame.
Back in ’99, I wrote a column making a case for Winnipeg to be the permanent host of the WJC whenever Canada landed the tournament. Nothing’s permanent, though. The Winnipeg Arena met a wrecking ball in 2006. Don Wittman died in 2008. A few players are still hanging on—Luongo and Campbell in the NHL, Afinogenov in the KHL—but most have retired. Sic transit gloria.
I had been to the world junior championship a few times before Winnipeg and I’ve been to most WJCs since.
I’ve seen the tournament move into bigger venues, not always for the better—the sparse, silent crowds at the Bell Centre and the ACC in the opening round of this year’s tournament represent the nadir. Maybe the 2017 incarnation will gain some momentum with the elimination games starting in Montreal on Monday. I wouldn’t bet on it, though. In a chase for revenue, Hockey Canada executives went to the country’s largest markets and found that the tournament’s draw isn’t quite what they imagined it to be. They reached for something just beyond their grasp. In Winnipeg, the dynamic was reversed—Hockey Canada was bringing the highest level of the amateur game to a city that had lost its NHL team, to a province proud of its hockey history. I’m sure in Selkirk and Morden and Tuelon they still talk about the time when the world juniors came to town. If somehow Hockey Canada could find a way to reconnect this tournament to the grass roots—bring the game home—it would be all for the better. Again, I wouldn’t bet on it.
I’ve seen far bigger talents than any of those on the ice that night at the Winnipeg Arena. I’ve seen Ovechkin and Crosby in North Dakota, Toews and Price in Leksand, McDavid and Eichel in Montreal and Toronto, Matthews and Laine in Helsinki. I’ve never seen a performance and heartbreak like Luongo’s that night, never heard cheers like those when Bryan Allen scored, never experienced a tournament—or anything else—like Manitoba in ’99.
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