International Ice Hockey Federation

Quirky facts from 1978

Quirky facts from 1978

Could Gretzky have jumped to Sweden?

Published 16.12.2014 07:50 GMT-5 | Author Lucas Aykroyd
Quirky facts from 1978
Wayne Gretzky (left) was slightly built in 1978, but the 16-year-old was more than slightly better than his foes, leading the World Juniors in scoring with 17 points. Photo: Doug Ball / Canadian Press
Although Montreal is arguably the world’s mecca of hockey, it hasn’t hosted the World Juniors since 1978. That year, some funny things were said and done.

Of course, nobody in Canada was chuckling about a bronze-medal finish behind the Soviet Union and Sweden. But especially with the benefit of hindsight, you can’t help smiling, raising your eyebrows, or even frowning a little when you look back on events surrounding the host nation.

Wayne Not Strong Enough?

Before the tournament, Canada defeated Sweden 6-4 in an exhibition game in nearby Hull, Quebec, and a 16-year-old Wayne Gretzky paced the victors with two goals and an assist. But coach McLean said afterwards that he wasn’t happy with the defensive play of the future “Great One.” “I don’t know if he’s strong enough at 16 years of age to play with these older guys,” said McLean.

In practice one day, the skinny Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds superstar tried out a stick that belonged to Darryl Sittler of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Gretzky said it was twice as heavy as what he was accustomed to, and added: “You get a workout just carrying it around.”

Regardless, Gretzky went on to top the tournament with eight goals and nine assists in his lone World Juniors appearance.

A Punchy Bunch

For the first and only time, Canada’s World Junior coach and general manager were both nicknamed “Punch.”

Coach Ernie “Punch” McLean, led the New Westminster Bruins to four straight Western Hockey League titles (1975-78) and two consecutive Memorial Cups (1977-78). General manager Walter “Punch” Scherer was a fixture in the Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario hockey scene for decades, including stints as the GM of the Kitchener Rangers and the Kitchener-Waterloo Flying Dutchmen.

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Future NHL Brass Left Behind

Among the final 11 roster cuts for Canada’s ‘78 squad were two players who arguably became even better-known in their post-NHL careers in suits than as NHLers.

Defenceman Joel Quenneville (Windsor Spitfires) would go on to play 803 games in five different NHL cities. But he’s secured his place as a Chicago legend by coaching the Blackhawks to two Stanley Cups (2010, 2013).

Forward Don Maloney logged 765 NHL games, mostly in a New York Rangers uniform, sometimes serving as team captain. Yet in 2010, he became the first man ever named the NHL’s General Manager of the Year with the Phoenix Coyotes.

Empty Seats? Seriously?

It’s hard to imagine, but the IIHF World Junior Championship didn’t loom nearly as large in the imagination of Canadian hockey fans at this time. Case in point: the paltry crowd of 1,200 who came to the Montreal Forum to watch Canada beat the United States 6-3 in the round-robin opener.

Bizarrely, Czechoslovakia’s 5-4 win over West Germany in Quebec City the same day got slightly better attendance (1,670).

Nowadays, of course, any Canada-U.S. game in this country is sold out weeks in advance.

“A Temperamental, Pretty Girl”

While taking in the tournament, legendary Soviet coach Anatoli Tarasov, the architect behind three Olympic gold medals and nine straight World Championship titles, offered his thoughts on the Canadian hockey style. He likened it to a “temperamental, pretty girl.” (Clearly, based on that metaphor, women’s hockey hadn’t gained the respect it enjoys today.)

The 59-year-old Muscovite then added that he was happy he hadn’t taken Maurice “Rocket” Richard’s advice to hire Canadian coaches to build the free-flowing, offensive Soviet game. “If we had gone Maurice Richard’s way,” he told reporters, “then international hockey would not be as interesting as it is today. Then everyone would be playing boom-boom hockey.”

Gretzky’s Swedish Speculation

At the end of the World Juniors, Wayne Gretzky said that he didn’t foresee himself spending another four years in junior hockey before leaping to the NHL. The 16-year-old even floated the possibility of playing in Sweden: “I could just go over there and play with one of their major-league teams for a couple of years. The risk of injury wouldn’t be so great and it would be a great learning experience for my hockey skills.”

Of course, nothing ever came of these comments. Gretzky would spend 1978-79 in the World Hockey Association (WHA) with the Indianapolis Racers and Edmonton Oilers. After the WHA merged with the NHL, he went on to become the league’s all-time leading scorer with 2,857 points through 1999.


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