Since the 1972 Summit Series there have been many great games between Canada and Russia (the former Soviet Union). Some have provided thrills for Canadian fans, others disappointments.
Last year's narrow loss to the Russians in the finals of the world junior tournament in the Czech Republic would count both as a thrilling game and a heartbreaker for Canadian fans. Canada had a two-goal lead going into the second-period of that game, only to see the Russians rally and withstand a furious last-minute seige.
Yet the memories of that game are not as sour as those that come out of Canada's 5-2 victory over the Russians in the opening round of that tournament. In that game, with Canada comfortably in front late in the game, Russian forward Alexander Svitov spat on Canadian centre Brian Sutherby.
When Sutherby spoke to the media after that game, he was visibly shaken and could barely hold back tears. In a voice barely above a whisper, he talked about how difficult it was not to retaliate and risk suspension. When asked about the incident, Svitov and Russian team officials insisted that it was Sutherby who initiated the incident and did the spitting.
This had to rank as the lowest point in sportsmanship involving the two hockey powers since the Soviet ambush of the Canadian juniors that resulted in the teams' disqualification from the 1987 tournament in Piestany, Czechoslovakia.
Scottie Upshall, captain of this year's Canadian team at the world junior tournament and one of four returning players from last year, tried to remain diplomatic about relations between the teams on the eve of Sunday's final in Halifax.
"It is historically a great rivalry and there have been a lot of great games between the teams," he said. "I don't think that what happened last year (between Svitov and Sutherby) has much to do with that rivalry or what we think of them or they think of us. That was the case of one player and his actions, that's all. It's nothing that had to be sorted out at the tournament. Eventually Tampa Bay has to play Washington."
Upshall was referring to the National Hockey League franchises that own the rights to Svitov (Tampa Bay) and Washington (Sutherby).
Yet many people close to last year's team believed that there were something more than the usual tensions between the teams. One hockey official in Pardubice saw members of the Canadian team socializing with members of Finland's squad in a restaurant the night after the tournament was over. According to some accounts, tensions between Canadian team members and Russians threatened to boil over that same night.
On the ice, Canada and Russia have provided sublime moments and great hockey in recent years. Though the Canadians had a distinct advantage in the 1990s during their run of five straight world junior gold medals, the Russians have had the better results in recent years: an overtime victory in the quarter-finals in Finland in 1998; an overtime victory in the finals in 1999; an opening-round victory in Moscow in 2001, sealed by Ilya Kovalchuk's furiously fist-pumping empty-net breakway goal; and then last year's final.
Neither Svitov nor Stanislav Chistov, the Russians' best player in last year's tournament, is back for another try at the gold. And this year's junior final isn't the first look at their Russian rivals: players such as Derek Roy and Jordin Tootoo have memories of the Russians from under-17 tournaments.
"I missed a chance to play against the Russians in the finals of the under-17s because I suffered a concussion in the semis against the U.S.," said defenceman Brendan Bell. "But before we get to the world juniors a lot of us, probably most of us, have seen them and played against them. On that Ontario team at the under-17s we had Derek Roy, Jay McClement, Carlo Colaiacovo and Steve Eminger. There are lots of other guys on the other Canadian teams that have played against them before. In the old days it was a big rivalry because the two teams didn't know anything about each other. Maybe it's getting to the point that we know too much."