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Road to Gold
The Untold Story of Canada at the World Juniors
Table of Contents
About The Book
On the World Juniors hockey stage today, Canada is known as the team to beat. They hold the record for the most gold medals won (eighteen since the tournament’s inception), their games draw millions of fans each year, and the tournament serves as a showcase for each year’s best talent.
But things weren’t always so rosy. For years, Canada languished in obscurity at the World Juniors. Wearing the red-and-white wasn’t a mark of honour but merely a sideshow to the players, owners resented the interruption to their league operations, and Canada was an afterthought at the tournament. Canada was supposed to be better at hockey than any nation on earth, but no one took them seriously.
So, the team set out on a reclamation mission. The Program of Excellence was born, and with it, a new hope for hockey’s future in Canada. No more would Canada be content with merely showing up. Instead, each year, the country would send its best talent—from Gretzky to Lemieux to Crosby to McDavid—to reclaim its spot at the top of the hockey world.
Tracing the owner disputes, off-ice antics, and riveting on-ice action of nearly forty years at the World Juniors, Road to Gold is full of inside stories from hockey greats. And, this edition features a new chapter reliving the amazing final game against Russia in January 2020 that brought the gold medal back to Canada. Funny, smart, and clear-eyed, Mark Spector traces the remarkable rise of the Canadian World Junior program and shows how Canada created not just a new team, but a new dream for the sport.
“If you do this right, we’ll have success. And with your good players, we will have success.”
Murray Costello sat in a chair off the lobby of Ottawa’s old Skyline Hotel, watching the junior hockey owners and executives file past. They walked by on their way to the meeting room, and he smiled. They emerged for a bathroom break, and he nodded. He was clearly available for a chat. But they wouldn’t break stride.
Nine o’clock became ten o’clock with no change. Costello had a copy of The Globe and Mail open in front of him, but he barely registered the articles, instead staring over the top of the paper as he staked out the lobby, like a secret agent in an old Get Smart episode. His focus was on the double doors of the meeting room across the hall, waiting for his moment.
The problem was, that moment wasn’t preordained. Inside the meeting room, the owners and operators of Canada’s Major Junior Hockey teams were gathered for their annual general meeting. Most of them had arrived in Ottawa completely oblivious to Costello and the pitch that he and his lieutenant, Dennis McDonald, had formulated over at the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association. The owners had their own issues, generally of the micro variety, and they weren’t exactly falling over themselves to include Costello in their day.
“I sat there for a long time,” Costello said. “I wondered at times, ‘What the hell am I doing?’?”
What the hell was Costello doing there? To some degree, even he wasn’t sure.
It was May 1981. The New York Islanders and Edmonton Eskimos ruled their respective leagues. The PC, or personal computer, would be introduced to the world later that year. The movie Raiders of the Lost Ark was about to dominate the box office. The virus that causes AIDS was identified. Frequent flyer miles were invented.
And the World Junior Hockey Championships, as Canadians know them today, were born.
The tournament had been around since 1973, though it was no more popular among Canadian hockey fans than were the Izvestia Cup and the Swedish Games. In those early days, there was no guarantee the CBC would even televise the games. If Canada was in the gold medal game, it might be on TV. If not, then CBC Radio would broadcast the game. Maybe.
It didn’t help that Canada was rarely in the gold medal game, so most coverage of the tournament was purely academic. No one wanted to see the Soviets play Czechoslovakia back in 1981. Even the ratings for Canadian games were sketchy.
That indifference was killing Costello, a bespectacled, greying lifetime hockey man who was not quite fifty back in 1981. Costello was sick and tired of watching the antiquated Canadian national program produce ill-prepared teams that couldn’t compete with Russia, the reigning hockey superpower, at the World Juniors. He knew that Canada could—should—be the best hockey nation in the world.
Costello was the president of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, the forerunner to what is today called Hockey Canada. The CAHA was responsible for growing hockey in Canada, through both its programs that certified coaches from coast to coast and its organized age-group hockey from which the best kids would graduate to the junior ranks.
Each year, the CAHA and its thousands of volunteers tilled the fields, planted the seeds, and tended the crops of the hockey world’s most fecund soil—Canada—and then, when the best of the harvest reached Major Junior Hockey, the junior operators would pat the CAHA on the head and say, “We’ll take it from here.”
Costello and McDonald, his right-hand man at the CAHA, had watched this happen year after year. And for every bit as long, they watched as the Canadian junior team was doomed to failure.
Since the World Juniors tournament’s inception in 1974, when the International Ice Hockey Federation invited five nations to join Russia’s Under-20 team in what was then known as Leningrad (today it is Saint Petersburg), Canada had obliged by sending over its reigning Memorial Cup champions, plus a few last-minute pick-ups, to the tournament. There, Canada’s best junior team from the previous season would promptly get toasted.
The problems were many, and they were systemic.
The team that won the Memorial Cup in May tended to lose its best nineteen-year-old players the following season, when they turned pro. Sometimes, even the best eighteen-year-olds from the team would head to the National Hockey League, leaving that year’s champion without its best players at the World Juniors tournament in December.
There was also the culture shock. In the early days of the tournament, none of the kids had played on the larger European ice surface, and few of their coaches had any experience with game-planning for the different style of hockey played by the Europeans.
Even more foreign than the host country’s culture, though, was the on-ice officiating.
“Teams going over had no idea what they were going to face,” Costello said. “If you hit a guy hard, even if it was clean, it would be a penalty simply because it was a hard hit. And the European teams used the basketball pick play, where a guy would come in and block someone out. Over here, that would be an interference penalty, but they wouldn’t call it over there. Our players got frustrated, and of course the sticks would get going, and we’d then pay the price on the special teams.”
By the time the Canadian boys figured out what constituted a penalty, the team was often out of contention for the gold. And even in years like 1977 and ’78, when Canada medaled, there was still one final, intractable problem: We couldn’t beat the Russians.
As the head of the CAHA, Costello was the liaison between the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and the Canadian junior leagues. From his vantage point, he could clearly see the inherent negatives that accompanied sending over what was effectively just an enhanced club team, as opposed to a true national team. The rotating coaching staffs were fresh each year, which meant they encountered every problem for the first time, learned the hard lesson, and then were replaced by another bunch of first-timers the next year. Then those coaches would relearn the same lessons. There was no one to collect the intel and pass it down. No mechanism for amassing accrued knowledge.
Costello likened the process to soccer, where players earned a “cap” for every international game they played. “We were playing every year with zero caps,” he said. “We had to break this cycle, to prepare our players and coaches to be able to play the international game.”
For Costello, the final straw had come a few months before the Skyline Hotel meeting, as he watched the 1981 tournament unfold in what was then West Germany. The reigning Memorial Cup winners, the Cornwall Royals—a team that included Dale Hawerchuk, Doug Gilmour, and a nineteen-year-old Marc Crawford—added a few players from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) and boarded a flight for Fussen, Germany. There, they played the best Under-20 national teams from seven other countries. When the dust settled, Canada finished in seventh place—ahead of only Austria.
“When Germany beat Canada [7–6 in the Consolation Round], with Dale Hawerchuk on the team, I thought, ‘That’s just not fair to him, and it’s not fair to Canada,’?” Costello said. “I said to myself, ‘We have to do something.’?”
Costello had seen this moment coming for a few years, but losing to West Germany and finishing seventh shed a particularly bad light on the CAHA. Seriously? This was Canada. We could handle seventh place on the ski hill, or the soccer pitch. But this was hockey, the one sport where we can say—and truly believe—that we are better than any other nation on earth.
“The only thing we could do was to leave the club team system,” Costello said. “We were sending former winners over to represent Canada, and more and more they were starting to get embarrassed by their performance over there. We had to get some form of either a regional or national team.”
So, Costello had come to the Skyline on a reclamation mission. He wanted some players back. Not many players, and not for very long. Just an All-Star team of the very best junior players, who would be made available over the Christmas holidays. He didn’t need junior hockey to totally grind to a halt during the international tournament. The leagues could continue without their best players, whom Costello would take overseas.
That was the plan, at least. But to make it a reality, Costello first had to get through those double doors and into the meeting room, where the real test lay.
Behind those closed doors sat the heads of the three junior leagues: David Branch of the Ontario Hockey League; Ed Chynoweth from the Western Hockey League; and Jean Rougeau of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. The three junior execs had watched the years of failed World Juniors experiences unfold from a position of passive interest. Sure, each year, one of their teams was involved in the tournament. But they were each running a business whose profits were largely gate-driven in junior markets across Canada and the U.S. What was happening at Christmas in faraway places was of a modicum of concern, but not much more.
“They didn’t want to let me into the meeting,” Costello said. “I thought, ‘I’m going to wait and see if you will.’?”
So Costello sat out in the hallway as hockey man after hockey man marched past dismissively. The clock ticked. The owners left for and returned from lunch. Still, Costello didn’t budge. He’d worked too long at this to simply go away.
In the previous months, Costello had put in time forging relationships with the three junior league commissioners. When they were together as a larger group, they were a united front against the idea of a national team—they rallied around their concerns about the possibility of star junior players getting injured, and their reluctance to lose talent during the lucrative Christmas schedule always won the day. Costello felt that each exec would be more open to his concepts if he approached them individually. Long before he had arrived at the Skyline, Costello had been pleased to discover that their tune changed in a one-on-one setting. That the idea of revamping the World Juniors system actually intrigued them.
In his work behind the scenes, though, Costello had also discovered that each of the leagues was largely a shoestring operation. Costello was an expert at this, as the CAHA was perennially broke as well. He knew that he’d have enough trouble securing support from the junior operators if he were flush, but broke there was no chance. So, weeks before he pitched the junior operators at the Skyline, Costello had gone down the street to the office of Sport Canada, where he met a man named Peter Lesaux.
“We’re not giving any money to you guys,” Lesaux told Costello. “You just deal in recreational hockey. Friendly hockey. The national government shouldn’t be supporting that kind of programming.”
“Peter,” Costello asked, “how is it that the ski teams and the swim teams have training camps in South America in the off-season to prepare for competition?”
“That’s because they have programs that are leading to the Olympics, where they have a reasonable chance of getting medals. That’s what we fund,” Lesaux said.
Costello dug in. “So if we can give you a program where we would be more successful and more prominent in international competition, would you be prepared to fund that?”
Lesaux pondered the idea. “We’d give you seed money. Not something you could count on every year, but seed money.”
Costello had what he needed. “Can we have another meeting in a week?” he asked, before leaving.
In that week, Costello and McDonald brought together years of loose thoughts, planning, and dreams, cementing it all into a plan. They produced clear plastic sheets—transparencies, as they were called back in the day—to help with their presentation. The first sheet showed how they would build the footings for national teams at the Under-18, Under-20, and Olympic level hockey in Year 1, and the next sheet went over top with the plans for Year 2, then Year 3, and so on. It led all the way to success at the Olympic level.
When Costello and McDonald returned the next week, Lesaux wasn’t the only one in the room. Several of his Sport Canada colleagues joined the meeting, no doubt intrigued by their organization’s budding partnership with the national body that represented Canada’s largest participatory sport—and of course, its national game.
Costello and McDonald laid out their dream, plastic sheet overtop of plastic sheet. Lesaux was impressed.
“Yes,” Lesaux said when the pair was finished. “We would fund something like that. We can give you a couple of hundred grand. But don’t count on it every year.”
“Don’t worry,” Costello said. “You give us a shot at this, we’ll get it going, and we won’t have to come back to you.”
Now the CAHA had some money. But it wouldn’t be much use if they could not access the best junior-aged players in Canada.
The plan was simple, and similar to what Hockey Canada employs today: hold a summer camp with forty or so of the best junior players, scout them through the first one-third of their season, and bring twenty-seven or twenty-eight of them back for a pre-Christmas camp. Team Canada would make some final cuts and leave around December 20 for Europe, or wherever the tournament was being held.
That massive change in protocol would require an equally huge leap of faith by the junior governors, but as the hours ticked by inside the Skyline, Costello couldn’t even get inside the door to speak with them. Had this been the first time he’d met these men, Costello might have rotted in that chair out in the hallway. But he’d been preparing for that one meeting for a year, and he had an inkling that, even if the junior operators weren’t letting on that they kind of liked this Costello guy, in their own heads they were all looking to give him a fair shake.
“I’d talked to each of them, separately, before that, three or four times each,” Costello said. “Mainly Ed. He would take my call and always kept the door open, whereas the others would kind of go silent on you. With Ed, I could keep the dialogue going. He became a key guy.”
Ed Chynoweth, who died in 1988, ran the WHL out of Calgary. He was a big, imposing man—six-foot-two with a boiler to match—and an intimidating presence. Big Ed told you what he thought in plain, Western Canadian English. He was the last guy some bureaucrat from Ottawa was going to dictate anything to.
“He was quick with a quip, and always had a smart-ass answer to give back to you,” Costello recalled. “At first we butted heads. It didn’t seem like we would ever find common ground.”
Costello, fortunately, was a deal maker. Dumb like a fox, he knew when to comply, when to give something back to build the relationship, and when to apply some pressure with whatever means he had available.
So, in his early one-on-ones with Chynoweth, Costello steered the conversation towards Ed’s son, Dean, who was only thirteen years old, still five or six years away from a trip to the World Juniors.
“I knew, talking to Ed, about the effect a true national team would have on parents. He had to have some feeling for that. So I told him, ‘Wouldn’t it be a great opportunity for Dean to get a chance to represent his country internationally and then come back and play for his junior team? He’d be a bigger player for his team with that experience.’ How can you go against that?”
Ed didn’t give in, and he would not promise Costello a place on the agenda of the meetings scheduled for the Skyline. But when Big Ed gave him the date, time, and location—in case Costello were to make a surprise appearance—Costello knew he’d made a sizeable dent in the façade.
With that new information in hand, Costello trained his gaze on Rougeau, who served as the QMJHL’s president. Rougeau had just begun his tenure as the head of the Q, the top junior league in Quebec, but he was already making a name for himself. To this day, the Jean Rougeau Trophy is the Q’s version of the President’s Trophy, given to the team that finishes with the most points each season.
By far the most interesting section of Rougeau’s resume, however, was his time as a member of Quebec’s legendary wrestling family. He wrestled professionally under the name “Johnny” Rougeau, and his two nephews, Jacques and Raymond, would find fame in the World Wrestling Federation as the “Fabulous Rougeau Brothers.”
“We’re not trying to do anything to hurt Major Junior Hockey,” Costello explained to Rougeau. “In fact, we really think that if you go along with this, we can build Major Junior Hockey. We can help you.”
“I like what you’re saying, giving kids an opportunity to play for their country,” Rougeau told Costello. “But I’m not sure I’ll be able to sell anyone else on this.” He paused. “If you get the meeting you’re looking for, I may ask you some questions to keep the conversation going. Understand: I’m not against you, even though it may sound like I am.’’
Check! Costello had Rougeau, to some extent, in his corner.
That left only Branch, the youngest of the three junior leaders. Just thirty-three years old, Branch was not so entrenched in tradition. Costello suspected that, as a relative newcomer, Branch would likely follow whatever course was set by Chynoweth.
So Costello had some Sport Canada money, and some currency with the people he would need to convince of his plan. Yet here he was, halfway through the afternoon, still sitting out in the hallway of the Skyline, like Gretzky on the bench in the 1998 Olympic shootout. As the enigmatic Petr Klíma once said, “You need a long stick to score from the press box.” How true: Costello wasn’t converting anyone from out in the foyer.
“I had to give these guys my best shot,” Costello said. “To know that we at least tried the best we could. There was no alternative. We were going to have to get those players one way or another.”
As the day went on, the hockey men trickled out of the meeting room. Eventually, all of the team owners were gone, but the three principals remained: Chynoweth, Rougeau, and Branch.
“To be honest, I think Ed became a bit embarrassed that I was sitting there all that time and not even getting a nod, or some recognition from anyone,” Costello said. “Finally, they let me into the meeting. It was at least two-thirty, maybe after three, when they let me in.”
Finally! Costello walked through the double doors and stepped into the room to present. His initial impression was less than promising.
“It wasn’t that they weren’t happy that I was there,” Costello recalled. “They were just paying me a courtesy to allow me to have a shot. They were going to hear what I had to say, then shut down the meeting and go home.”
Costello realized that this was likely going to be the only shot he would get. He had nothing to lose.
“Look, guys,” Costello began. “This isn’t anything that would work against you guys. This can make you look good. If you do this right, we’ll have success. And with your good players, we will have success.”
To Costello’s credit, history records him as an oracle. The picture he painted for the CHL execs hangs figuratively in every Major Junior rink in Canada and the United States today. In fact, it is a brighter, more lucrative picture even than Costello imagined.
“You’ll have guys coming home after Christmas with a gold medal around their necks, probably the captain of their teams,” Costello told the three junior league execs. “The first game they play when they come back, you could have them go out in the warm-up with the national team jersey on, not the club team. He’ll have a gold medal around his neck, and you can introduce him to the crowd. Have the mayor do the face-off, recognizing the accomplishment of this young lad in his community. This will do nothing but sell your game. Your brand would be broadcast further than ever before as the best junior league in the world!”
Costello could sense some traction. It seemed that some of the seeds he had sown were beginning to germinate. Rougeau, the old wrestler, was adept at playing the heel, and he came off the top rope at Costello.
“Who the hell are you to be doing this? This is our area!” Rougeau snarled at Costello.
Costello knew that Rougeau’s bark was worse than his bite. Just as Rougeau had promised, he was asking questions to keep the conversation going.
It worked. Ed jumped in immediately after. “You don’t know what you’re doing!” he told Costello. “You work for a bunch of volunteers! Most of them don’t know what they’re doing. Why should we be working with you guys?”
“Those volunteers keep it going every Saturday, Sunday at six, seven o’clock in the morning,” Costello responded. “If they didn’t do that, the kids would have no interest in the game, and you owners would have no future. You owe something to the players, to give them the best opportunity to be what they can become. Why don’t you look at it that way?”
The owners didn’t let up. They were in the business of making money, and in their minds, Costello and the rest of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association were in the business of development. They couldn’t see a way to make a profit from that, so back and forth they went, as Costello tried not to lose his cool.
“If we didn’t develop kids, you wouldn’t have any leagues,” Costello said. “You’ve got to have some appreciation for what we do. Every company invests something in research and development. Don’t you guys have to do some of that, too?”
It was difficult for any of the junior men to find holes in Costello’s arguments thus far, even if they were reluctant to let on. Costello sensed as much, so he pushed forward, proving not only that the CAHA—really, he and McDonald—had put a lot of preparatory thought into this, but that they could further be trusted to competently run the program, should the CHL agree to go ahead.
The CAHA was steeped in experience of arranging high-level tournaments across Canada. They knew exactly what could be improved when it came to sending a team into competition at the WJHC. In the past, coaches had shouldered the role of team managers, arranging buses, meals, practice times, and all of the other day-to-day logistics for the team. Such skills weren’t usually a coach’s strength, and worse, they diverted their attention from their coaching duties.
Costello laid out a new idea for managing the team, one that Dennis had come up with. “If we’re going to get the best coach we can get, we should remove all those responsibilities and bring him there only to coach, because that’s the talent we want from him. We’ll put the rest of the people in place to handle all of the logistics, to the nth detail. All the coach will have to do is coach.”
Costello could almost see the thought bubbles forming above the heads of his audience. Then, they asked—no, they demanded—that if the program went forward, the junior leagues would get to appoint the general manager of the team. After all, that was how junior franchises were run. The National Junior Team wasn’t one of their franchises, however, and Costello and McDonald had it planned out a different way.
“If you put a manager in there, he’s going to make some decisions that the coach will use as an excuse,” Costello said. “When we get a coach in there, we’ve got to hold his feet to the fire. Anyone can pick the first twelve players for the National Junior Team. But what makes a gold medal team is the last eight. Those last eight have to be the choices of the coaching staff. If the coaching staff goes to war with the guys they chose, they won’t have an excuse.”
It seemed that the CAHA had thought of everything. Costello made a mental note to thank McDonald again when he got back to the office.
“Dennis McDonald never got the credit that he should have gotten for a lot of the details behind the scenes,” Costello said. “He was instrumental in the whole thing.”
By now, dinner hour was closing in, and like any coach, Costello knew when he was losing his audience. The junior league presidents had heard him out, but they weren’t exactly gushing at the thought of joining forces with the CAHA or putting their best players at risk of injury in a bunch of games that no Canadian was even watching. And before they left, there was one more problem to discuss: the timing.
“You play a lot of games over the Christmas holidays, because there’s no school,” Branch said. “People are looking for things to do, and clearly in all our markets, it’s a huge time.”
Costello had spent most of his bullets. So, in a last ditch effort, he brought out the heavy artillery.
“You guys are really playing a tough game here,” Costello said. “If you say absolutely no, that you’re not going to do it, I’m going to start talking to the parents of those kids. If I tell a parent that their son has a chance to wear the national team jersey and represent his country, but his team will not let him go, you guys are going to be in trouble.”
An empty threat? No sir, it was not. Costello had tried out that exact angle once before, on a trip to Red Deer, Alberta.
“A guy by the name of John Moller had two sons playing junior: Randy and Mike. Both good players,” Costello recalled. “I said to John, ‘I’d really like to see your sons have a chance to play for their country, but the WHL is telling us that they can’t do it.’ John said to me: ‘Nobody is going to tell my sons they can’t play for their country.’?”
Back at the Skyline, Costello continued to outline the journey that he and McDonald had mapped out. It included a committee that would oversee the national program. At the mention of that, the junior leagues sensed an opening to gain a bit of power over the CAHA.
“If we do give you a shot at this, to see if it might work, we want to be an integral part of the National Junior Team Policy Committee,” Branch said. “We’d put forward one person from each league for the board.”
With three of the four spots on the committee going to the junior hockey execs and the CAHA holding the fourth, Costello knew he was putting himself in a position of weakness. But the three junior league presidents promised him that they would be fair. So he acquiesced, but with one caveat.
“I’ll go along with this and make you guys members of the National Team Policy Committee, and I’ll chair it,” Costello told the men. “But if you guys do anything to undermine the program that we’re trying to get going, I’ll pull the money. Because the money comes from the government to us, not to you. The thing will go down the drain, and you guys will wear it if it happens that way.”
The league commissioners agreed. It had been one hell of a negotiation, but somehow, Costello had emerged not only with his plan intact, but with a reasonable amount of control over the newborn Program of Excellence. He’d arrived at the Skyline that day just hoping to get inside that boardroom, and when he walked out in the Ottawa night, he had to admit: This felt very much like success.
Or, at least, tempered success. Costello had convinced the heads of the three junior leagues to look into the future of Canadian junior hockey and play ball, but the individual owners would prove to be another story.
“There was still lot of animosity toward this happening,” Costello said. “A lot of junior owners, they didn’t want any part of this. ‘They’re our players and they’re under contract to us. They can’t be going to play for anyone else.’?”
The stress of getting inside that meeting to talk the talk now paled in comparison to the pressure that Costello and McDonald felt to make their new Program of Excellence walk the walk.
“We still realized it was a tentative thing,” McDonald said. “We now had to make it work.”
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster (November 17, 2020)
- Length: 240 pages
- ISBN13: 9781982111526
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Raves and Reviews
“A great read on a great tournament that has become synonymous with Canadian Christmas.”
— BOB MCKENZIE, TSN Hockey Insider and bestselling author of Everyday Hockey Heroes
“Spector is known as a pro's pro. And his work on Road to Gold is a perfect example of that. Every chapter is filled with the real story behind the phenomenon that is the World Juniors.”
— JIM LANG, sportscaster and writer
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