Hello everybody and welcome to the first episode of what will hopefully be many.
Conspiracy Corner is my little chunk of internet where I will be shining light on some of the most controversial, unlikely, and bizarre stories in the sporting world. Since my pedigree is mostly hockey writing I admit this will be hockey-heavy to begin, but expect it to grow. As everybody knows, conspiracies about sports stretch far and wide, from East to West and from amateur to professional to high-level international competition.
What is it about conspiracy theories—even the outlandish, silly ones—that captures the imagination? We’ve all met someone who thinks they’ve taken the proverbial red pill. They’ve pulled the wool from their eyes and can see the world as it truly is: a world where man has never walked on the moon, reptilian spacepeople zip up human suits to walk among us, and Stevie Wonder isn’t really blind.
Each time I lay out a new conspiracy theory, we’ll take a good long look at the setup, the evidence, and the conclusions to be drawn (if any). Of course, my repeating these conspiracies does not equal endorsement, much like when we all shared around that clip of a CNN anchor asking Bill Nye the Science Guy whether or not meteorite impacts were caused by climate change.
The irreverent humour should be a tip-off, too.
Without further prattling, let’s dig into our first slice of delicious conspiracy pie: was the IIHF complicit in the bench-clearing brawl between Canada and the Soviet Union at the World Junior Championships in 1987? Or was it just the Russians ensuring that Canada would be ejected from the tournament, thus forfeiting their medal?
The so-called “Punch-up in Piestany” needs no introduction for anyone raised on a hearty childhood diet of Canadian hockey. But we are getting to a terrifying era when there are way too many people on the internet who weren’t even born in 1987, so I’ll set the scene.
The Rivalry: Canada vs the USSR
Nowadays, a line brawl so intense that it caused the officials to just give up is a little unthinkable. But in 1987, the World Junior Ice Hockey Championships wasn’t quite the media circus it is in its current incarnation. But the late 80s were a different era: hockey was faster and looser. U2 still wore flannel, Skodas were still terrifying death traps. And there was a heated, decades-old rivalry simmering between Canada and the Soviet Union that was nearing the peak of its intensity.
That rivalry was born of years of suspicion, bitter competition, and mistrust that would eventually boil over into one of junior hockey’s most memorable cluster events.
1963 to 1983, the Soviets were sitting pretty. They won 17 of a possible 20 World Ice Hockey Championship titles. This led to accusations from Hockey Canada in the mid-70s that they were secretly dressing teams of professionals—ripe fodder for Conspiracy Corner already! Canada was so convinced that the Soviets were dressing pros masquerading as amateurs that the Canadians boycotted all World Championships and Olympic hockey events for six years, from 1970 to 1976.
Then came the Summit Series in 1972, which saw the NHL’s top Canadian talent square off against Soviet all-stars. Though Canada won the first Summit, the Soviets won the second in 1974.
Enter the World Juniors, established in 1977.
The World Juniors originally saw Canada send either an all-star team or their reigning Memorial Cup champion. But so far, it hadn’t been enough. On the junior level, the Soviets ruled. They won the first seven World Junior titles, and it wasn’t until Canada started sending a national junior team that they began to win gold medals, one in 1982 and one in 1985.
The Match & Officials
The 1987 World Juniors took place in Piešťany, Czechoslovakia, with Canada and the USSR set to play the last match of the round robin. Leading up to the match against one another, they were sitting at different positions on the table:
Canada was guaranteed at least a bronze medal with their 4-1-1 record. The Soviets, record 2-3-1, were already eliminated from a podium finish. If Canada beat the USSR, they’d take home silver. If they won by more than five goals, they’d eke past Finland on the goal differential tie-breaker and take home gold.
Officiating at the international level is always a contentious subject. As someone who’s worked at IIHF events in the past, I’ve experienced it firsthand: Swiss refs officiating a game between South Africa and Mexico. New Zealand refs officiating a game between Turkey and China. You name it. The obvious reasoning behind this is that organisations fear the inherent nationalistic bias (and subsequent backlash) that would stem from allowing officials to work their own home country’s games. And something about the fairness of competition, I suppose.
The IIHF assigned a Norwegian referee by the name of Hans Rønning to the Canada/USSR game. It sounded good enough on paper: Norway didn’t have a stake in the match at all, as they were a B-Pool team.
But Rønning had little international experience and had already made questionable calls earlier in the tournament. His inability to contain a warm-ups brawl was criticised, as was his decision to eject one player from each team at random despite the fact that he wasn’t even on the ice when the brawl took place.
The two teams involved? The United States and Canada.
The Canadian player Rønning arbitrarily suspended? Captain Steve Chiasson, who missed not only that game but the following one. Canada still beat the USA 6-2, but some blamed their narrow 4-3 victory over Sweden on Chiasson’s absence.
Canada tried to convince the IIHF that Rønning wasn’t the hero the tournament needed right then, but their concerns fell on deaf ears. Or did the IIHF look the other way on purpose?
Brawls between forty some-odd hockey players don’t just generate out of thin air. A
typical line brawl is a culmination of many little things, and this was no exception.
From the get-go, the officiating was fast and loose. (Literally from the get-go, as the opening faceoff began with an elbow and a cross-check.) And things only went downhill from there. When Theo Fleury scored Team Canada’s first goal, his celebration consisted of a wild slide across centre ice on his knees. He whipped his stick up, posed as though it were a machine gun, and mimed firing it at the USSR’s bench.
Given the above (and several smaller incidents glossed over for brevity’s sake), it’s difficult to express surprise that this eventually happened:
The brawl itself and its aftermath have been summarised excellently in both article and book form, so I’ll offer a slimmed-down summary: the brawl exploded and continued on for several minutes, to the jeers of an exasperated crowd who just wanted to watch some hockey. The officials, overwhelmed by the scale of the fight, retreated at one point to watch from a hallway. NHL referee Bruce Hood famously said that Rønning was “out of his ballpark.”
The scrap continued, eventually resulting in the shutdown of the arena lights in the hopes that the players couldn’t or wouldn’t fight in the dark. The image of the scoreboard at Patrícia Ice Arena 37 glowing above the chaos below became instantly iconic:
(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The IIHF shut things down when the players finally ran out of steam, calling an emergency meeting right then and there. While media speculated that the match would be wiped from the books and put down as a 0-0 tie, the IIHF returned with shocking news: both Canada and the USSR were disqualified from the entire tournament.
Let’s put on our tinfoil hats and peek beyond the wool.
The Conspiracies: Dirty Referees
The Punch-up in Piestany changed the game of hockey. Given it’s such a major event, there’s more than one theory about bribery, collusion, and corruption floating around. We’ll try to hit the major ones.
All of the conspiracies about officials being bribed and/or coerced zero in on one thing: the Soviets wanted to make sure Canada was ejected from the tournament, thus forfeiting their medal. If the Reds couldn’t place, they wanted to make sure their hated rivals wouldn’t even get a podium finish. Keeping that in mind…
1. Hans Rønning was on the take. He took a bribe from the Soviets to ensure the match got out of hand.
Accusations of referees accepting bribes are a tale as old as time and as modern as YouTube comments. The magnitude of scandal that would erupt if an IIHF official were ever caught taking bribes can’t be understated. But is there any evidence? Proponents of this theory suggest that the remainder of Rønning’s international officiating career are suspect: namely his lack thereof. He never officiated another international match.
2. The USSR bribed/pressured the IIHF into retaining Hans Rønning as an official despite his inexperience or because he was on the take (also to ensure the match got out of hand).
This is a harder pill to swallow than one ref taking bribes on the sly. It’s the standard dirty zebra theory but kicked up a notch. The problem I see with this theory is that if the corruption went all the way up, why involve Rønning at all? If the USSR had the governing body in their pocket, surely they could have used any official. They could have picked someone that didn’t already have a reputation (deserved or not) for trying to damage Team Canada’s chances.
Dirty Referees: The Evidence
Gare Joyce chronicled the events leading up to and surrounding the brawl in his excellent book When the Lights Went Out: How One Brawl Ended Hockey’s Cold War and Changed the Game. In his book, he touches on the subject of Hans Rønning and what happened to him.
It’s true: Rønning never again officiated at the international level.
But as is often the case, the truth is complicated.
For starters, Rønning was 38 during the 1987 tournament. He’d already mentioned it might be one of his last. Even today, officials retiring around the 38-41 mark is common. While Rønning went on to ref two more seasons in his Norwegian league, he retired for good in 1989. There is no evidence he did so on a private island far from the wrathful reach of Hockey Canada.
Further, there is evidence that the IIHF did have an ulterior motive when selecting Rønning, but it had nothing to do with Soviet pressure or bribery.
The Norwegians had just won the rights to host the 1994 Winter Olympics at Lillehammer, and a contingent of Norwegians were in attendance at the Canada/USSR match. As Norway’s staff were observing the game, other officials saw the IIHF’s selection of Rønning as a congrats to his countrymen. It may not have been the right call due to Rønning’s inexperience, but is that really so nefarious?
While the IIHF’s referee selection left a lot to be desired, there is little evidence other than blind speculation that Rønning was bribed or that the IIHF selected him to appease the USSR.
I rate the Dirty Ref Conspiracy 2 out of a possible 5 tinfoil hockey helmets.
But We’re Not Done Yet!
The cloud of suspicion that hangs around Piestany is far from penetrated, folks.
Part Two of Conspiracy Corner: The Punch-up in Piestany will look into the possibility that the IIHF’s post-brawl vote was rigged. Along with that, we’ll take a look at the clip that started it all, when Don Cherry famously accused the Russians of orchestrating the whole thing to ensure Canada wouldn’t finish on the podium.
Thanks for reading, and trust no one.