The night the lights went out on Canadian juniors

Team Canada players (in white) and Soviet Union players fight during a bench clearing brawl on...

Team Canada players (in white) and Soviet Union players fight during a bench clearing brawl on January 4, 1987 in Piestany, Czechoslovakia. (QMI Agency File)

WES GILBERTSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:37 AM ET

It'll always be remembered as the night the lights went out.

For Theoren Fleury, the unfortunate part is many hockey fans are still in the dark about what happened one year later.

Fleury was in the middle of the so-called Punch-Up in Piestany -- the now-infamous brawl between Team Canada and the Soviets that resulted in both squads being disqualified from the 1987 world junior hockey championship in Czechoslovakia -- but earned a measure of revenge at the next tournament in Moscow.

"Obviously, (the brawl) happened, but I think what was more important was the year after, when we went into Russia and basically stole the gold medal right out of their own hands, and in their own country, too," Fleury said.

"The Hockey Canada Program of Excellence was created to create gold medals for us at international competitions. The following year, we accomplished that, and nobody ever talks about that team. That team was unbelievable. We had 12 first-round drafts picks. We had Joe Sakic, Trevor Linden, Theo Fleury, Jimmy Waite ... and nobody ever talks about that team.

"Everybody talks about the '87 team that didn't win a medal, and they don't talk about the '88 team that was as good a junior team as Canada ever sent overseas."

At the 1987 tournament in Czechoslovakia, they were just 26 minutes and seven seconds away from clinching a medal of some colour.

Team Canada needed a five-goal victory over the Soviets in their round-robin finale to secure top spot -- the world junior tourney didn't adopt the current medal-round format until 1996 -- and had grabbed a 4-2 lead thanks to a pair of goals by Fleury and markers by Dave Latta and Steve Nemeth.

The grainy footage of the what happened next is now immortalized on YouTube and replayed on the highlight shows every holiday season.

With just over six minutes remaining in the second period of what was a chippy game from the opening faceoff, a skirmish in the corner sparked a fight.

The Soviets emptied their bench, prompting the Canadians to rush to the defence of their outnumbered teammates. Soon, gloves and helmets littered the ice.

As things spiralled out of control, officials flicked off the arena lights in a failed attempt to stop the fisticuffs.

"That was actually a really scary moment," recalled Team Canada defenceman Luke Richardson, who would eventually skate in 1,417 NHL contests and is now an assistant coach with the Ottawa Senators.

"I remember the coaches walking around the ice trying to stop things, because the referees left the ice. When they turned off the lights, that was a scary thing because you could still hear the skates spinning around out there. When you're in a bright-lit rink and the lights all of a sudden go off, it's black. You couldn't even see silhouettes out there. You can hear the noise of the crowd -- screaming, whistling, crying, all kinds of stuff -- and you could hear voices and you could feel things, but you almost feel like a turtle. You feel like your head is shrinking inside your shoulder pads because you don't want to get hit by something -- accidentally or on purpose. You wouldn't even know if it was your own guy.

"That was odd, but I guess they panicked and they didn't know what to do."

The on-ice mayhem lasted about 15 minutes, but the Punch-Up in Piestany remains one of the most memorable moments in the history of the world junior tourney.

Team Canada (4-1-1) should've been guaranteed a medal even with a loss in their final game but instead was disqualified for unsportsmanlike behaviour. With a roster that included future NHL all-stars Sergei Federov and Alexander Mogilny, the Soviets (2-3-1) were also wiped from the standings, although they were out of medal contention before the puck dropped in that final game.

"We went to our dressing room and we got the tough news and the room just went silent," Richardson said. "We were booted out of the country, basically. We weren't allowed to go the awards ceremony. We were disqualified from the tournament, and we were leaving. They told us the army is escorting us to the bus outside the rink. When we came out of the room, they were lined up on both sides of the hall all the way to the bus. That's how we had to leave the country."

They left empty-handed, too.

Fleury has since admitted he lost a bit of sleep in the months that followed, motivated by the feeling he was "robbed" of a medal in his first trip to the world juniors.

Exactly one year after scrapping in Piestany, the skilled spark-plug captained Team Canada to a first-place performance in Moscow. That's the part the longtime NHLer, whose trophy collection also includes a Stanley Cup ring and a gold medal from the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, wishes more people would ask about.

"To me, (the brawl) is irrelevant now. It's like beating a dead horse," Fleury said. "When you put on a Team Canada jersey, nobody accepts anything less than gold. If you don't get gold, it's considered to be an unsuccessful trip. So in the big scheme of things, 1987 was a huge disappointment."

wes.gilbertson@sunmedia.ca On Twitter: @SUNGilbertson


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