Thanks largely to the efforts of the TSN network over the last quarter-century, the IIHF World U20 Championship, commonly known as the “World Juniors,” has become one of the biggest hockey tournaments in the world. This is particularly true in Canada, where hype and ratings for the tournament are immense. However, ’twas not always thus. When the World Juniors began, 40 years ago this past winter, it did so as a little tournament dreamed up by the hockey authorities of the USSR. It was not recognized by the International Ice Hockey Federation — that did not occur until 1976-77. And when Hockey Canada received its invitation to send a team to Leningrad for that inaugural World Junior Championship in 1973-74, the organization did not comb the country to amass a squad of the best Canadian junior-age players; instead, it simply sent the Peterborough Petes.
Sending a club team to represent the country was nothing particularly new for Canada. In fact, it had been the standard practice for both World Championships and Olympic Games until the early 1960s, when the increasing superiority of the Soviet teams led Canadian hockey authorities to look for a better way. They didn’t find one; a dedicated national team program, run by Fr. David Bauer, fell victim primarily to the intransigence of the NHL, and Canada withdrew from both Olympic and World Championship hockey entirely after the 1968 Winter Games. However, the Summit Series of 1972 rekindled an appetite for the international game, and the Petes’ participation in Leningrad marked Canada’s return to international amateur competition.*
If you were going to send a club team to represent Canada, the Peterborough Petes of the 1973-74 season were far from a bad choice, although the defending Memorial Cup champion Toronto Marlboros had been Hockey Canada’s preferred candidates (the Marlboros turned down the invitation). The Petes had finished runners-up for the Memorial Cup in 1972, and also finished 2nd in the Ontario Hockey Association in 1972-73. And they were the early leaders in that league when the team departed for the Soviet Union in December of 1973.
That edition of the Petes was coached by the now-legendary Roger Neilson, who would go on to become a respected innovator in the NHL. Several players on the team were destined for significant NHL careers as well. Captain Doug Jarvis would win four Stanley Cups as a useful player for the Lafleur-era Montreal Canadiens, and later set the NHL record for most consecutive games played with 964. Doug Halward went on from Peterborough to become a solid defensive defenseman for a number of teams, and twice played for Canada at the World Championship in the 1980s. And Stan Jonathan became a fan favourite in Boston as a tough guy who could score a little bit too. So the Petes were well set up, both on the ice and behind the bench.
Despite that, their campaign in Leningrad got off to a bit of a stuttering start on December 28, 1973, as they found themselves down 4-2 to the Americans in the third period of the opening game. But a Jarvis penalty shot goal got them to within one, Gord Duncan tied it, and Bill Evo notched the winner for the Petes with only eight seconds to play in the game. However, in their second game two days later, the tables were turned on the Canadians by Team Finland. The Finns, who had already lost to the Soviets and to Sweden, got superb goaltending from Tapio Virhimo and a hat-trick from Tauno Makkela to win the game 4-3. The Petes found themselves with a 1-1 record, and their win had hardly been a convincing one. Furthermore, the Petes’ three remaining games were against Czechoslovakia, Sweden, and the host Soviet Union, meaning that the degree of difficulty was not decreasing.
Step forward, goalie Frank Salive! In the Petes’ third game, on New Years’ Day, 1974, they were out-shot by the Czechs 29-15, but prevailed 4-2 largely on the strength of Salive’s performance. Then, after a day off that featured a team expedition to the Leningrad Circus, the Petes found themselves once again trailing in the third period, this time 3-2 against Sweden. Halward, however, scored a rare goal to tie things up, and Evo tallied his second late winner of the tournament with only three minutes to play. Suddenly, the Petes were 3-1, guaranteed a medal of some colour, and set to play the host nation to see if that colour would be gold.
Going into the final game of the tournament, the Petes’ math was very simple: beat the USSR and they would win the tournament, lose and they would be relegated to third place because of the earlier loss to Finland. Beating the Soviets, however, would be easier said than done. The USSR was 4-0 going into the last game, and while it was certainly not one of the all-time great Soviet teams, it had some weapons. Boris Alexandrov, a fast little forward from the Kazakh S.S.R., would gain fame in North America a couple of years later when he scored the tying goal for Central Red Army against the Canadiens at the Forum, in a game that is considered by some to be the greatest ever played (Viktor Zhluktov, who set up Alexandrov’s goal in Montreal, was also on the junior team at Leningrad in 1973-74). Viktors Hatuļevs (often referred to as “Viktor Khatulev”**), from Riga, could score as well, as could fellow-Latvian Edmunds Vasiļjevs. And goalie Vladimir Myshkin would go on first to back up and then to replace the great Vladislav Tretyak as the Soviet national team’s starting netminder. All in all, they would be a formidable challenge for the Petes.
Far too formidable, as it turned out. The score was 9-0, and the shot count of 42-11 in favour of the Soviets suggest that it was not unfair result. Vasiļjevs and Alexandrov scored a pair of goals each, while five other players added singles. Neilson, who must have recognized very early what his team was up against, defended the Petes in the press:
“The Petes came over here facing insurmountable odds and they stood up well. They conducted themselves like real international sportsmen and made an excellent impression on the people here. Both Peterborough and Canada should be proud.” (Peterborough Examiner, Jan. 7 1974).
Peterborough was indeed proud, greeting the team with a motorcade and civic reception upon its return to Ontario. Sadly, the Petes could not maintain their good start to the OHA season, whether due to fatigue from their trip overseas or for other reasons. They would end up finishing third, behind the Kitchener Rangers and St. Catherines Black Hawks.
In truth, however, the Petes had no reason at all to feel bad about how the Leningrad tournament ended. The Soviet teams were absolutely dominant in the early years of the World Juniors, winning the first seven in a row before Sweden finally unseated them for gold in the 1980-81 edition. It was not until the next year, the ninth time the tournament had been played, that a Canadian team even won a game against the USSR (by that time the Petes had had a second crack at the World Juniors, once again representing Canada in Helsinki in 1979-80. They finished fifth). So Neilson was not far wrong when he spoke of “insurmountable odds” at that inaugural tournament in the Soviet Union.
Neilson also commented on the brand-new tournament in general, saying: “…it was top notch hockey. I think it’s unfortunate the fans in Peterborough could not have seen the games” (Peterborough Examiner, Jan. 7 1974). Nowadays, of course, the problem of fan access to the World Juniors has been well and truly solved, but it is still fun to look back at the beginnings of the tournament and the role played by the Peterborough Petes in getting it off the ground!
*Well, sort of. Canada did not return to World Championship competition until several years later, and did not play again at the Olympics until 1980.
**”Viktor Khatulev” being the transliteration from Russian. Hatulevs’ story is actually a sad one, as his career was undone by his inability to control his temper. He was suspended from the Soviet Championship for five years in 1975 for fighting. This suspension was later reduced to three years, but in the early 1980s he was suspended again, this time for life, for punching a referee. In 1994, Hatulevs was murdered, a victim of the lawlessness that over-ran the former Soviet Union in the wake of the country’s breakup.