Last updated on Sunday, 18 May 2008
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100 Top International Hockey Stories of the Century
Three stories a week were published thoughtout the 2007-08 season.
All stories © IIHF.com
Ice Hockey debuts at the Olympics|
April 23, 1920
Since the creation of the IIHF in 1908, international hockey within Europe had seen a dramatic rise in popularity and occurrence. The Canadian-style game was quickly replacing bandy in many countries, and games between club teams and national teams in various countries started to become a common occurrence. It wasn’t until 1920, though, that the first truly international hockey tournament was played. That year hockey was part of the Summer Olympics in Antwerp (there was no such even called the Winter Olympics yet), and there were seven teams entered - two from overseas (Canada and USA) and five from Europe (Belgium, France, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, and Sweden).
There were many elements of that first tournament which, all these years later, seem primitive, but it was an historic start nonetheless. Teams played seven men a side and games consisted of two 20-minute periods. Canadian rules and interpretations were used thanks to the reputation of William Hewitt, Canada’s team manager, whose knowledge of the game was so superior to anyone else’s. The rink’s dimensions were tiny by anyone’s idea of a regulation rink—58 feet wide and 165 feet long (18x50 metres), and games were played outdoors on uneven and inconsistent patches of natural ice.
Sweden’s team was comprised of bandy players who were playing with a puck for the first time. Although they learned by leaps and bounds, they were no match for the North Americans. The Czechoslovaks, too, were unfamiliar with the finer points of the game, but they were also poor skaters and lacked even a fundamental grasp of the strategy of hockey. The other European nations were similarly ill-prepared for the event. They were game and enthusiastic but not particularly impressive.
The games were played under a strange and controversial format called the Bergvall system. All teams played for the gold medal, and those teams that lost games to the winning team — Canada — then played for silver. The teams that lost to that team — USA — then played for bronze. As expected, Canada won gold with easy wins over the Czechoslovaks (15-0) and Sweden (12-1) and a close win over the Americans, 2-0. The Americans won silver easily after beating Sweden 7-0 and Czechoslovakia 16-0, and the Czechoslovaks beat the Swedes 1-0 for bronze.
The sport of hockey proved a huge success, and Canada’s display of skill so impressed the fans and organizers that it was clear this would not be the last such event. Indeed, the IOC eventually created a separate Olympics for winter sports, so that in 1924, a more organized and efficient tournament could be presented. Hockey was now an international sport taking roots in most countries in Europe, paving the way for greater and greater expansion and development of the IIHF.
Bondra’s bomb – the biggest thing for Slovakia since
May 11, 2002
To fully understand the impact of Slovakia’s first World Championship gold medal in hockey, we need to rewind. The dissolution of Czechoslovakia on January 1, 1993, meant that the Czech Ice Hockey Association took over the position of former Czechoslovakia while Slovakia was considered a “new” hockey nation. As a result, the Slovaks had to start from scratch in the IIHF World Championship program and work their way up through the divisions.
They started at the very bottom in 1994 – Pool C – and gained immediate promotion to Pool B after winning that level easily. They also finished on top of the secondary level in 1995 and earned the next promotion, this time to the elite Pool A, in 1996, in Vienna, Austria. The steady improvement of the new national team program didn’t stop there. The Slovaks – with players such as Zdeno Ciger, Pavol Demitra, Zigmund Palffy and Miroslav Satan – finished 10th in 1996, 9th in 1997, 7th in 1998, and 7th again in 1999.
The first big success was advancing to the gold medal game against the Czech Republic (!) in 2000 in St. Petersburg. The Czechs demonstrated emphatically who the “big brother” was with a solid 5-3 victory. But the Slovaks nevertheless showed that they – after only seven years as an independent nation – were able to challenge the rest of the hockey world.
2002 was to be an important hockey year: The Olympics in Salt Lake City in February, followed by the World Championship in Sweden two months later. The Winter Games were a sportive disaster for the Slovaks. Never being able to get their best NHL players for the preliminaries they bowed out early and finished 13th.
Head coach Jan Filc said after the Olympic failure that he was sure to get fired, but the Slovak hockey authorities stayed with him for the World Championship, just eight weeks later. This proved to be a wise decision. The clever tactician Filc overcame a preliminary round loss to Finland, but the team wouldn’t lose another one for the rest of the championship, defeating Sweden and Russia in the second round, squeezing by Canada in the quarters (3-2) and edging Sweden in the semis by the same score, but now after a shootout thriller.
In the final, Slovakia would meet Russia again and the Slovaks seemed to be on an easy roll to the gold medal, leading 3-1 after two periods. But the Russians equalized in the third with goals from Vladimir Antipov and Maxim Sushinsky and the game seemed to go to overtime. With time approaching 100 seconds left, Zigmund Palffy found the streaking Peter Bondra with a perfect pass and the NHL-veteran unleashed a heavy shot from the slot. Goaltender Maxim Sokolov attempted a kick save, but the puck hit the inside of the post and ricocheted into the other side of the net.
Time: 18:20.100 seconds left. Several thousands Slovaks in the Scandianvium Arena in Gothenburg knew that there was no way their team would let the Russians into the game again. Very seldom in the history of sports has a team and their fans displayed such an ecstasy following a World Championship win. Team manager Peter Stastny cried on the bench and said that this was the biggest thing that had happened to Slovakia since the day of independence nine years earlier. Goaltender Jan Lasak kissed the ice along with Richard Lintner and Robert Petrovicky. Peter Bondra and Miroslav Satan engaged in a long hug.
“This means more than a Stanley Cup to me,” said Bondra, who played for the Washington Capitals. “The Cup is celebrated by one city. This belongs to an entire nation.”
The Swedish organizers, of course hoping that the crowd favourites would win on home ice, had prior to the championship decided that the world champions would be paraded in an open bus cortege through the streets of Gothenburg and treated to a celebration on the main square. Despite a non-Swedish team winning, they still bestowed upon the Slovaks with this honour. Bondra, Satan, and the other players on the open bus couldn’t believe when the people in the streets of Gothenburg, many of them dressed in Tre Kronor’s yellow and blue, celebrated the Slovak victory as if it were their own. This had never happened before in the history of the World Championships.
Back home in Bratislava, people were waving flags in the streets and squares of Slovakian cities, singing victory songs, and saluting their heroes, calling them gods. Slovakia will never forget May 11, 2002 – the day the concept of the “Top Six” in the hockey world was put to an end. As of this day, there were seven.
Montreal and CSKA play an epic 3-3 game on New Year’s Eve|
December 31, 1975
The shots on goal said so much and so little at the same time. The game summary from what is now simply called the “New Year’s Eve game” of 1975 showed the Montreal Canadiens with 38 shots and CSKA Moscow with 13. Yet, the score was 3-3, and this was a figure that held so much more meaning. The shots weren’t representative of any overwhelming margin of play by the Canadiens. Instead, they reflected two radically different systems of play. Montreal was like any other NHL team. Players moved the puck toward the goal, and when they got a chance they fired the puck on net. “Any shot is a good shot,” is the NHL motto. The Soviets were not so cavalier. They circled and passed, moving in a tornado of motion toward the enemy net, and only when a player had a clear and distinct scoring chance did he dare risk losing possession of the puck by taking a shot. To simply fire the puck at random, hoping for a goal, was a waste of possession, a wasted opportunity, in the eyes of the Soviet system.
When the game was over, fans and critics alike called it one of the finest hockey games ever played. Time has done nothing to diminish or erase this assessment. The game featured the Canadiens, a team on its way to the first of four Stanley Cups later this season. Ken Dryden was in net, and the “big three” on the blueline was in the prime of its career — Larry Robinson, Guy Lapointe, Serge Savard. The offence was led by Guy Lafleur, Bob Gainey, Steve Shutt, and Jacques Lemaire.
The Soviet Red Army was the perennial champions of the Soviet league (32 titles) and eventually 20-time European Cup champion. More important, the huge core of this team usually represented the country at the Olympics and World Championships. Vladislav Tretiak was in goal. Up front, Valeri Kharlamov, Boris Mikhailov, Vladimir Petrov, Viktor Vikulov, Vladimir Lutchenko and Alexander Gusev led the way for CSKA. As if the lineup wasn’t impressive enough, CSKA invited the two Dynamo Moscow stars Alexander Maltsev and Valeri Vasiliev to join them. In a sense, this was the best possible club versus club competition one could ever have hoped for.
Steve Shutt scored with a heavy slapshot early in the game to give the 18,975 fans something to cheer about, and a few minutes later, Yvon Lambert made it 2-0. It wasn’t until midway through the period that the Soviets registered their first shot on goal, and it wasn’t until 3:54 of the second period that they got back into the game. Mikhailov let go a tremendous wrist shot from the high point that beat Dryden over the glove, but Yvan Cournoyer extended the lead to two goals again midway through the period. Kharlamov gave the Soviets life later in the second with an amazing individual effort, and then Boris Alexandrov tied the game at 4:04 of the third just a short time after Tretiak robbed Lemaire from in close. Despite Montreal’s heavy outshooting of their opponents, it was CSKA who came closest to a winning goal in the third period when little known forward Popov hit the post on a clean breakaway.
The game was part of a tour by both the Red Army and Soviet Wings to promote international hockey. Each team played four games against select NHL teams. The Red Army warmed up for the New Year’s Eve game by defeating the New York Rangers 7-3 three nights earlier. They later beat Boston and lost to Philadelphia in the famous “they’re going home” game in which the players left the ice to protest violent tactics by the Flyers. The Wings won three of their four games.
More than three decades later, though, it is the 3-3 tie that is still talked about. It was a clash of two great teams and two distinct styles, and although it was merely an exhibition game, both sides had their best players playing their best. In truth, Montreal was the better team and Tretiak was brilliant while Dryden not at his best, but it was the clean play, the fierce competitiveness, and the pure skill that contributed to the game being hailed as a classic.
Montrealer Mike Boon, today a reporter for the Montreal Gazette, wrote that “getting tickets and being able to see the game was the second biggest things that happened in my life after becoming father.” The game made such an impression on a Russian artist that he produced a series of 18 paintings interpreting the game.
If an alien came down from outer space and wanted to know what hockey was, this game would surely represent the best explanation.
IIHF rules spotlighted at 2002 Olympics, later adopted by NHL|
Salt Lake City, Utah
February 9-24, 2002
February 15, 2002, might well be considered one of the most important dates in hockey’s history. On the surface, it was day one of the Olympics for the top teams competing in Salt Lake City with full NHL participation. However, the four games that were played that day, specifically Canada vs. Sweden, came to redefine the game and anticipate significant rule changes for years to come.
Russia beat Belarus 6-4 that day, which was no surprise except perhaps the closeness of the score. The Czechs beat Germany, 8-2, again no surprise, and the Americans’ 6-0 win over Finland was a surprise more for the score than the result. Everyone was looking forward to Canada and Sweden, though. This was a great rivalry, and Canada was the favourite this year, to be sure. The story line also focused on Canadian goalie Curtis Joseph having to face his teammate with the Toronto Maple Leafs, captain Mats Sundin.
What no one expected, however, was the pace and style of the game. The Swedes adapted instantly to the then new rule of no centre ice line for passing, and they scored two goals using a “torpedo” offence which caught Canada completely off guard (including a beautiful breakaway goal by Sundin). In addition, the game went quickly because of no touch icing and another new IIHF rule, the so-called hurry-up faceoff.
This eliminated the common NHL strategy of stalling for time while ripping a piece of loose tape off a stick, or going to the bench for another stick, or otherwise delaying the game. Players had 20 seconds to get set for the faceoff, and whether they were ready or not the puck was going to be dropped. Officials called obstruction violations closely, and the result was a stunning 5-2 Sweden victory in a game so entertaining and quick it was shocking to see the difference between the last NHL game and this first Olympics game.
In the coming two weeks, players, fans, and managers noticed how truly “better” these Olympics games were to most regular league games played in North America, and the NHL promptly made changes to its rules (immediately adopting the hurry-up faceoff) to bring the game in line to the faster international one. (Although it would take the NHL another three years to realise that going without the red-line was the right decision.)
Never before did international hockey rules receive such resounding support from virtually all North American media. The New York Times wrote after the final game: “The past ten days may have produced the best hockey tournament ever held, at least until the next Olympics.”
USA Today’s eye-opener was phrased: “The Olympic hockey tournament has been liberating, enlightening, refreshing, every other ‘ing’ you could think of. Except of boring, troubling, frightening…”
In the end, Canada did win gold, but it did so by adjusting to a new style of play, one in which the entertainment was not just visible on the scoreboard but on every second the puck moved up ice with lightning speed. The 2002 Olympics were, in many ways, the start of 21st century hockey.
Soviet Union win their first Olympics, starting a new hockey
February 4, 1956
When the Soviets won the 1954 World Championship in Stockholm, their first ever international tournament, they shocked Canada and the hockey world. But by 1956, there was no shock factor heading to the Olympics in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. Canada had reclaimed the world title in 1955, but it was clear the main competition would come from the newcomer on the World hockey scene. Nonetheless, Canada’s representatives, the Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen (with Martin Brodeur's father Denis as one of the goalies), were not able to provide enough of a challenge for their new rivals.
The Soviet team of 1956 featured many of the same players from the previous two World Championships, most notably goalie Nikolai Puchkov and skaters such as Vsevolod Bobrov, Viktor Shuvalov, Alfred Kuchevski, Valentin Kuzin and Alexi Gurychev. Although the Soviets and Canadians started well in the round-robin, the medal round proved the difference. Canada lost to the United States, a 4-1 shocker, but the Soviets beat all comers. They started with a routine 4-1 win over Sweden, hammered the Germans, 8-0, survived a brief Czech scare, 7-4, and shut out the Americans, 4-0. Still, the gold medal came down to the final day of the tournament, played outdoors in front of a capacity crowd of 12,700. A Canadian victory meant certain silver and possible gold, and a Soviet loss would have meant a bronze medal.
On this day, however, Puchkov was unbeatable and Canada’s offence was stymied. Canada dominated the first period but couldn’t score. In the second period, Canada was again the better team, but the only goal was scored by Yuri Krylov at 6:20. Canada’s hopes were deflated early in the third when Kuzin scored just 37 seconds after the faceoff, and this 2-0 lead was all the Soviets needed. The victory ensured a gold medal, and the U.S. edged past Canada by defeating the Czechs 9-4 for the silver.
Canada’s bronze was its worst international result since it began competing in 1920, and the Olympic gold for the Soviets ushered in an era of dominance that continued for much of the next 30 years and more. Other than USA wins in 1960 and 1980, the Soviets won Olympic gold every four years until 1992.
Tupu, Hupu & Lupu take Finland to the top of the World|
May 7, 1995
Finally, Finland wins the IIHF World Championship for the first – and so far – only time. And the victory couldn’t have been sweeter. They won the gold medal game against their fiercest rival Sweden, in Sweden and with a Swedish head coach. To really rub it in, the Finnish team celebrated the win in downtown Stockholm, this while also “stealing” the Swedish tune designated for a home-team victory.
As satisfying as the 1995 victory was, it was really overdue. Finland became a hockey power in the early 70s and the first real indication that something was happening was a 3-1-win over Sweden in the 1970 World Championship in Stockholm. But the following two decades of international competition followed the same pattern regarding the outcome: Frequent wins against Sweden, occasional against Czechoslovakia, not a chance against the Soviet Union and all too many disappointing losses against teams like West Germany or weak USA entries. The consistency simply wasn’t there and Finland was never really close to a medal. Things started to change in the late 80s. The Finns finally got on the podium at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, winning silver after a historic win against the Soviet Union, 2-1. (See: Top Story #95). This success slowly got the Finns rolling as their hockey program also started to develop creative forwards, adding to earlier mix of good goalies and steady defencemen.
After disappointing World tournaments in 1989, 1990 and 1991, the Canada Cup in the autumn of 1991 became a strong indication that the Finns were becoming serious. They tied Canada’s best 2-2 in Toronto, and defeated both Sweden and Czechoslovakia before bowing out against a very strong U.S. team in the semi-final. The next season, Finland finally won their first World Championship medal (silver) after losing the gold medal game to Sweden in Prague. 1994 brought Olympic bronze in Lillehammer and again silver at the World Championship in Italy, where Finland was just minutes from winning the final against Canada. They lost again, this time in a heart braking shootout.
But Swedish coach Curt Lindstrom was slowly and patiently putting the puzzle pieces together and his success formula was spelled “Tupu, Hupu and Lupu” (Finnish for Donald Duck’s nephew triplets Huey, Dewey and Louie). Behind those names was the “Youth-line” of Saku Koivu (born ’74), Ville Peltonen and Jere Lehtinen (both ’73). Lehtinen made his major international debut as a 19-year-old in the 1992 Worlds, Koivu came in one year later, while Peltonen had to bide his time until the 1994 Olympics. There, in Lillehammer they were united for the first time and going to Stockholm in 1995 they were already famous as the “Donald Duck Line”.
Finland now had a perfect mix of experience and joyful youth and no other team had better quality or depth at the key, centre, position. Coach Lindstrom’s four lines were led by Koivu, Raimo Helminen, Esa Keskinen and Mika Nieminen, with excellent middle man Janne Ojanen standing by.
After an early 3-0-loss to Czech Republic, the Finns never looked back. A symbolically important win was a 6-3-trouncing of Sweden in the group stage, an early indication of things to come. Finland waltzed to the quarters where they easily got rid of France (5-0) and they avenged the early tournament loss to the Czechs by defeating them 3-0 in the semi-final. As most experts expected, it was Finland vs. Sweden in the gold medal game. The Swedes had the hopes, the Finns had the players.
The final game was a no contest from the beginning till the end. “Hupu” (Ville Peltonen) scored the three first goals and assisted on the fourth giving “Suomi” an insurmountable 3-0-lead after two with the 4-0-killer coming early in the third.
But the goal that deflated both the Swedish team as well as the partisan crowd was the 3-0-marker, a beautiful tic-tac-toe play between Koivu, defenceman Mika Stromberg and Peltonen who connected with four seconds remaining of the middle stanza. Final score: Finland 4, Sweden 1.
Tupu, Hupu and Lupu were all named to the Tournament All Star Team, while Tupu (Saku Koivu) was named Best Forward of the tournament. Following the emphatic victory and the historic gold medal, the Swedish coach took his Finnish team to Sergels Torg, the square in the heart of Stockholm that usually is reserved for public celebrations of Swedish sports successes. Many Swedes took exception to this “hostile” takeover as 15,000 Finnish residents in Sweden celebrated their heroes on enemy territory. They were singing “Den glider in…” the official Swedish jingle of the 1995 World Championship.
Given all that, the Finns couldn’t have asked for more.
Dropping the red-line, allowing the two-line pass changes the
Helsinki, Finland - Lausanne, Switzerland
May 12, 1997 - May 31, 1998
There is no doubt that taking away the red-line for the purpose of allowing the two-line pass was probably the most important rule change in hockey's modern era. But it was also the rule change that was the most difficult to pass during Congress meetings. When it finally happened, few delegates realized the ramifications of the rule change they had just passed.
The discussions to allow the two-line pass had started in the late 1980s and intensified in the early '90s when many teams - inspired by the Swedish mid-zone trap - started to employ this defensive tactic that clogged the neutral zone and made it all but impossible to penetrate the offensive end. As a result of this improvement to defence, many games became increasingly boring. Hockey became a victim of what soccer experienced in the mid-1960s. This was called the "catenaccio" system, a highly organized and effective backline defense which almost killed the game before offensive and creative forces took over and saved it.
The proposal to do away with the red-line and to allow the two-line pass finally came up as an agenda item during the 1997 IIHF Annual Congress in Helsinki, Finland. In his third year as IIHF President, René Fasel left his usual chairman's seat at the podium during the proceedings and walked back and forth on the congress floor while talking in the microphone to try to convince the voting delegates to accept this rule change.
Fasel won a half victory. The top hockey nations were asked to test the new rules on an optional basis at major tournaments during the 1997-1998-season. If no objections were presented over the season, the new rule would be in place permanently as of the 1998-1999-season.
As the 1998 IIHF Annual Congress in Lausanne started, there was one problem. No country had tested the rule. Not a single tournament during the entire 1997-1998-season was used for that particular purpose which meant that no delegates could give a report on the proposed rule change. So when the issue came up on the agenda as item 13 in 1998, IIHF General Secretary Jan-Ake Edvinsson reminded the congress about the decision from Helsinki from the previous congress. He stated that not a single recommendation for an adjustment of the new rules had been received by the IIHF office. Of course not, since no one had bothered to test it.
Edvinsson, simply following the congress decision from 1997, stated consequently that the rule change adopted at the Annual Congress in Helsinki would now be in effect, starting with the 1998-1999-season for all international games. Case closed, decision taken. International hockey had, in less than 30 seconds, adopted the most revolutionary rule change since allowing body-checking in all three zones in 1969.
The delegates looked at each other in amazement, and many of them were not really prepared for the decision. It took some minutes for them to realize what had just been decided, but they realized it was irreversible.
In hindsight, this was one of the most important congress decisions ever taken. Just a couple of weeks earlier Sweden and Finland had played a best-of-two World Championship final that amounted to a 120-minute snooze-fest. One goal was scored in the two games, by a defenseman from the blue line.
The new rule almost immediately changed the game for the better. The 1999 IIHF World Championship in Norway was a stark contrast to the finals the year before with many more goals scored and with end-to-end action – not defence – dominating play.
Today, no one can imagine going back. The fans and the creative players are the major beneficiaries. There are few plays in hockey that are more exciting than the beautiful outlet pass from a defenseman to a streaking winger who receives the 30 or 40 metre pass and cuts to the net. A decision that took less than a minute has turned into an everlasting story of success.
Vladimir Kopat bounces Sweden from the 2002 Olympics|
Salt Lake City
February 20, 2002
The 2002 Olympics were rounding into shape quite nicely during the Final Round. Germany and Belarus, the two weakest teams which had advanced from the Preliminary Round, finished in fourth and last place of their respective groups, and the world’s top six nations had each played three games to get to know each other.
Sweden finished atop Group C with a perfect record, including an impressive 5-2 win over Canada to start the tournament. And, the Czechs finished ahead of Canada for second place based on a better goals differential. In group D, the Americans coached sentimentally by 1980 Miracle on Ice coach Herb Brooks, were first with a 2-1-0 record, while Finland was impressive in second place (2-0-1) while Russia was third (1-1-1).
This set up a series of quarter-finals games that would surely lead to two amazing semi-finals matchups. Canada played Finland, the former the obvious favourites. The host Americans played Germany, an almost certain win for the USA. Russia played the Czechs in the toughest battle. And, Sweden played Belarus in the other easy battle—on paper.
But Sweden did not have such an easy time — on ice.
Nicklas Lidstrom scored early for Sweden to confirm the team’s superiority, but then it was Belarus that scored two goals less than two minutes apart later in the first period. The Swedes tied the game midway through the second thanks to Michael Nylander, but Andrei Kovalev put Belarus ahead 3-2 early in the third. Five minutes later, captain Mats Sundin tied the game, but the Swedes knew now that if they were going to win it wasn’t going to be a blowout as so many people had anticipated.
And then, the unthinkable happened. With time winding down and overtime looking like a distinct possibility, Vladimir Kopat skated down the right side. As soon as he crossed centre ice he fired a long shot at goalie Tommy Salo, content simply to get the puck deep. Salo, however, lost sight of the puck, and it hit him on the top of the helmet. He reacted but didn’t know what to do, and the puck fell behind him and dribbled over the goal line before he could find it. Kopat, in utter disbelief, slid along the ice toward his bench in celebration. The go-ahead goal came with just 2:24 remaining, and Belarus played perfect defense to preserve arguably the most remarkable upset in Olympic history after the Miracle on Ice win in 1980.
Salo never recovered. Although he led Sweden to a bronze medal at the World Championships several weeks later, he never again played with the confidence necessary to play at the world-class level. His downfall came on a fluky goal at the worst time imaginable, and the team went home in disgrace. But for all the blame Salo received, it is easy to forget that Salo was a standout with the Swedish national team for almost a decade and without any doubt the best Swedish goalie in the 90s.
It was also important to note that Sweden being in a 3-3 game with Belarus in the quarter-finals of the Olympics was the result of poor performance by the entire team. It was just easiest on this night to blame the goalie.
"Sikora case" - Vienna court decides the 1987 Worlds medal
April 21 – 27, 1987
The mere mention of the name Miroslav Sikora is enough to make the international hockey establishment tremble. A disputed eligibility case regarding the Polish-German hockey player went so far that a district court in Vienna decided the outcome of the 1987 IIHF World Championship in the Austrian capital.
This is what happened in Vienna 21 years ago.
West Germany named the then 30-year old forward Miroslav Sikora to the team which travelled to Vienna for the 52nd IIHF World Championship. Sikora was a native Pole and when he was spelling his first name “Miroslaw” ten years earlier, he represented Poland in minor junior international competition. But when Sikora came to the World Championship, he was a naturalized German and eligible to play for his new country.
Or, so the Germans thought.
With the excellent new forward on their team, West Germany had a good start in the eight-team tournament. The team suffered “budgeted” losses to Sweden and the Soviet Union, but already in the third game, on April 20, the Germans defeated Finland 3-1. Sikora had one goal in the upset win.
At this point, events off the ice started to unfold. Finland filed a protest following the loss to the Germans. Assisted by Finnsih statistician Tom Ratschunas, Team Finland’s management produced documents which showed that Sikora had in fact represented Poland in the inaugural 1977 IIHF World U20 Championship in Czechoslovakia.
The Finns demanded that their 3-1 loss be overturned because West Germany used an ineligible player. At that time, the IIHF statutes did not -- under any circumstances -- allow a player to switch national eligibility. (The rules have been altered over the years since).
When the IIHF council sided with the Finns and revoked the two points from West Germany, the incensed Germans took the case to Landesgericht, Wien, the district court of Vienna. This started a series of protests and counter-protests which lasted a week.
During this chaotic week, the international media more or less stopped covering the championship itseld. Instead, they set up a mini-press centre at the building of the district court. Fritz Klebermass, the highest judge of the district court, became the key figure of the tournament.
Meanwhile, the hockey community did not know which was the official world championship standing--the one with West Germany getting their points from wins against Finland, and also later against Canada, 5-3 (Sikora had one goal and one assist in that game), or the one with the score reversed to 5-0 for Finland and Canada (the standard score of a forfeited game) as ruled by the IIHF.
Finally, the court and Mr. Fritz Klebermass overruled the IIHF council. One week after the original Finnish protest-and only one day before the medal round was scheduled to begin--the IIHF had to adjust the standing according to the court’s decision. The official IIHF standings carried a note: “Nach Anordnung des Landesgerichts Wien.” (“According to the ruling by the district court of Vienna.”)
The West German team was allowed to keep its points from the wins with Sikora, but the player was ruled ineligible and had to leave the tournament after his four games.
At the centre of the drama was IIHF’s former General Secretary Jan-Ake Edvinsson who had just started his new job at the IIHF, which, at that time, had its offices in Vienna.
“We must remember that this was still before the times of computers,” said Edvinsson. “Today, it’s so easy to confirm a player’s previous participation. As the IIHF office had just opened in Vienna, we simply didn’t have the game sheets from 1977. We had to rely on information from our national member associations and that was sometimes not satisfactory.”
“The Vienna district court made the correct ruling,” Edvinsson said later. “They saw the thing clearly, while the IIHF council was a little too emotional.”
So, how did the saga end as the championship moved from the district court of Vienna back to the Wiener Stadthalle, the hockey arena?
And poor Miroslav Sikora’s career as a West German national team player was over after four games.
Borje Salming becomes the first European superstar — paves the
way for other Euros|
No one knew exactly what to expect. In the summer of 1973, the Toronto Maple Leafs poached two young Swedish players from their league in the hopes these rising stars of European hockey could adapt to the NHL and make a solid impression. It was a gamble. After all, the man who scouted defenceman Borje Salming and forward Inge Hammarstrom, Gerry McNamara, was the same who scouted Vladislav Tretiak prior to the 1972 Summit Series — and gave a resoundingly poor report! As well, Ulf Sterner had barely stirred North American interests when he tried to crack the NHL in the early 1960s, and another Swede, Thommie Bergman, had proved a decent, but hardly spectacular, player with the Detroit Red Wings the previous year, 1972-73.
But Salming and Hammarstrom reported to Maple Leaf Gardens in remarkable physical condition, ready to play right away. This was a far cry from the standard of the day. Salming had the tougher time because he was supposed to be a rushing defenceman, a great skater, and a slick puckhandler. In the NHL in 1973, there was only one man who fit that description, and that was Number Four, Bobby Orr.
Orr was also tough as nails and fought his own fights, and that’s just what the rest of the NHL was going to put Salming through. The Leafs’ first away game of the season was against the Broad Street Bullies, the Philadelphia Flyers, and Salming was virtually assaulted all night long. Battered and bruised, he held his own, and over time the attacks became more infrequent and his ability to dominate the game became more obvious. Hammarstrom didn’t fare quite so well. He couldn’t handle the physical play, and the 80-game season and constant travel took a toll on his body.
Salming, though, earned his stripes one shift, one hit, one fight at a time. He was so perfectly conditioned that the long season and 30-minutes of play every night were demands he could handle. He proved the scouting reports correct with his end-to-end rushes, great passing, one-timer from the point on the power play, and gritty play inside his own blueline. Salming did this not for a game or a season, but for 17 seasons. It was his ability to survive first and excel thereafter which gave the next generation of all Europeans the confidence to know it could be done. Scouts and managers took note as well, and they started drafting and signing more Swedes, more Finns, more Europeans. Europeans not only could play in the NHL; they could succeed. Those who followed had Salming as pioneer, mentor, and inspiration to thank.