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World Juniors continues building tradition

01/10/2018, 6:30pm CST
By Dave LeGarde

With its intensity and traditions, the IIHF World Junior Championships is a must-see affair for hockey diehards everywhere.

Team USA went 2-5-0 at the 1982 IIHF World Junior Championships held at various sites in Minnesota.

It’s always perplexing how little attention the IIHF World Junior Championships seems to garner from the mainstream sports media each year. It could be a timing thing, as the looming NFL postseason and college football bowl games tend to dominate the interest of casual fans. Throw in the busy time of the holiday season, and unfortunately this event often becomes an afterthought.

With its fast-paced intensity and tradition-filled international flavor, the tournament is a must-see affair for hockey diehards everywhere. This is especially true in Minnesota, as every year the United States roster boasts numerous homegrown NHL prospects.

While the semifinal loss to Sweden in Buffalo was disappointing, a bronze medal is certainly no small accomplishment considering the level of opposition. The triumphs over Canada and Russia will always be remembered, particularly the former which attracted a jaw-dropping crowd of over 44,000 spectators to an outdoor football stadium. 

The tournament has changed quite a bit since 1982, when the state of Minnesota played host using numerous venues, some so small it seems almost inconceivable today. Grand Rapids, International Falls, Brainerd and Virginia were among the rinks chosen to host the world’s top junior squads in what was then an eight-team round-robin format.

The Canadians won six straight before a closing tie with Czechoslovakia (played in Rochester) to win the gold. Included was a 7-0 blitzing of the Soviet Union, considered by many to be the favorite. International competition was a hot item at that time, less than three years removed the Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid, N.Y. The Soviets and Czechs still provided an element of mystery, and getting to see any of their national teams in person (or even on television) was a rare treat.

I was lucky enough to attend a pair of the games held at the Duluth Arena that year, and it was one of the more memorable sporting events I’ve attended. The doubleheader drew an enormous crowd that saw pretty much everything hockey can offer. 

A feisty United States team, clearly motivated after a disappointing loss to the Czechs in their opener the night before, overwhelmed West Germany 8-1 with a display of speed and skill that had the building roaring throughout. Minnesota high schoolers Phil Housley and Corey Millen were two of the American skaters who led the charge, and were part of a talented roster that also included future NHL stars Chris Chelios and Jon Casey, among others. 

But the highlight of that evening was the nightcap, when the historically powerful Soviets and Czechs put on a mesmerizing display of skill and precision that had all of us watching in near silence, awed by the deft stickhandling, pinpoint passing and speed. There were few whistles, and seamless line changes gave the contest incredible flow. I remember thinking at the time how strange it was to be able to clearly hear skates cutting the ice in an arena jammed with people.

The quiet held for most of the game, until what looked like an obvious Czech tally was disallowed because the goal judge, having not seen the puck enter the net, did not activate the red light. The crowd, particularly on that end of the rink, expressed their disbelief with a deafening cascade of boos. The Czech players, including all who were on the bench, skated to the area behind the net and proceeded to pound fists and sticks on the plexiglass in protest. The goal judge, a local fellow well-experienced in officiating, held his ground despite looking quite worried.

Things were quite heated and emotional from that point on. The Czechs became the clear fan favorites, and when their star forward Vladimir Ruzicka (who later would enjoy a stellar NHL career) scored the eventual winner and broke into a “Goldy Shuffle” type of celebration, the place absolutely erupted.

Next year, the World Junior returns to Canada, where Vancouver will add to its rich history of international hockey. Perhaps someday it will return to the Twin Ports, maybe in some sort of joint effort with the Xcel Energy Center. Amsoil Arena and Duluth would be an ideal setting for some of the preliminary games. 

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Tag(s): State Of Hockey  News  David LeGarde