Over the past several years, various passionate debates have been held among hockey fans about whether forward Theo Fleury should be enshrined into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Hockey fans often point out his statistics, which in a 15 -year career saw him score 455 goals and 1,088 points in 1,084 games while others would highlight his team accomplishments. Those achievements include a winning pedigree which includes being a Stanley Cup winner on the 1989 Calgary Flames team along with excelling on the international stage where he picked up gold medals first in helping Canada win the 1988 World Junior Championships followed by another gold with Team Canada at the 1991 Canada Cup and 11 years later, picking up an Olympic gold as a member of Team Canada at the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Olympics.
However, what hockey fans may have forgotten was that prior to establishing himself in his NHL career, Fleury was part of World Junior hockey history, as he was on the Canadian team which in 1987 was involved in that historic and controversial “Punch-Up in Piestany”, which occurred during the World Junior Championships in a game against the Soviets.
Chances are Junior hockey historians will know the date January 4, 1987, when history was made in Piestany Czechoslovakia, as Canada, who entered that game with a 4-1-1 record were beating the Soviets 4-2 with 13:53 remaining in the second when Fleury, who is only 5’6” and 180 pounds got into a fight with Soviet opponent Pavel Kostichkin, which eventually resulted in tensions boiling over between both teams and a 20 minute bench clearing brawl that continued even after the officials left the ice and the arena lights were shut off.
More than 30 years later, books have been written about the incident and fans along with hockey historians still like to debate the controversial brawl which resulted in disqualification for both teams, and no medal for Canada. Eventually, both teams tired themselves out and things settled down as both teams were sent to their respective dressing rooms. Fleury, who never shied away from fighting believed it was just a matter of time before both teams would be returning to finish that game. That however didn’t happen.
“People don’t understand that (fights) were happening every night in the Western Hockey League as either a bench-clearing brawl or a five-on-five,” Fleury said. “So, when you get a bunch of 18 and 19-year-old kids with a lot of testosterone and playing for a gold medal, anything can happen.”
Even though the Canadian squad was disqualified, they received a medal and strong praise from former Toronto Maple Leafs owner, the late Harold Ballard who was known for his strong dislike for the Russians.
“We got one (medal) from our buddy Harold Ballard, who was not a fan of the Russians at that time,” Fleury said. “It says ‘Maple Leaf forever’ on it. I still have it, packed away with everything else in some storage room in my basement.”
Saskatchewan born Fleury, who is of Metis descent, admitted that the Canadian team, which was coached by the late Bert Templeton and the late Pat Burns, were no strangers to being involved in brawls.
“The funny thing was it wasn’t the first brawl we had on that trip,” Fleury said. “We went to Switzerland for a camp before the world juniors and we brawled one of the Swiss men’s team over there in an exhibition game. Then we brawled the Americans in warm-ups on New Year’s Day.”
However, it was the ‘’Punch-Up in Piestany” on January 4, 1987 which captivated hockey fans around the world and is still remembered and talked about to this day. Not only was Fleury involved in that infamous brawl but as mentioned above he was in that initial fight with Kostichkin, which eventually led to Russian Evgeny Davydov joining the fray followed before long by both benches emptying and players squaring off and history being made with this famous controversial World Junior hockey brawl.
Today, Fleury can look back with no regrets and chuckle at what happened. He along with his teammates from that 1987 team will always be part of World Junior Hockey Championships history.