It was December 1982. Ronald Reagan was President of the United States. Yuri Andropov was the General Secretary of the Soviet Union, having succeeded Leonid Brezhnev after Brezhnev’s death a month prior. The Cold War was in full swing.
Tom Barrasso was 17 years old, a high school senior from Acton-Boxborough High School. He was standing in a net in Leningrad, USSR (St. Petersburg was known as Leningrad at that time), preparing to face a team with CCCP across their sweaters. The Soviets were on home ice, hosting the 1983 World Junior Championships. As much as that goaltender would achieve in his career, it was at 17 that he faced be the ultimate road challenge.
Today, Barrasso, now an assistant coach for the Carolina Hurricanes, returned to the scene of that game.
“It was not a friendly environment to be in at that time,” Barrasso said today, standing in Jubilee Arena. “The Soviet Union was a vastly different place than Russia is today. It was truly the height of the Cold War.”
It goes without saying that not many Americans were traveling to the Soviet Union in 1982. So even just being in Leningrad at that time, let alone playing a game here against the home team, was a truly unique experience.
“We considered it a tremendous opportunity, just to be here,” Barrasso said. “We got to see what it was really like, and to go home and tell stories about the entire experience.”
It was also a serious opportunity to make an impression, hockey-wise. The 1983 World Junior Championships were a star-studded affair. Players on the Canadian team included Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman, Mike Vernon, Dave Andreychuk, Pat Verbeek and Sylvain Turgeon. And they finished third.
The Americans ultimately finished fifth. But they gave the hosts all they could handle in a 2-1 loss in Leningrad. Barrasso allowed just two goals to a Soviet team that scored 50 (yes, 50) goals in seven games in the tournament, en route to the gold medal. The USSR allowed just 15 goals.
“They were really, really good,” Barrasso recalled. “We were totally outmatched; their depth was just too strong. And obviously they were somewhat motivated, playing on home ice.
“We had a handful of guys that ultimately played professionally, but we couldn’t match them player-for-player.”
After the tournament, teams from the United States, Canada and Finland actually shared a plane leaving the Soviet Union, flying to Finland before heading to their respective homes.
Back home, Barrasso had more than just memories to share with his friends and family. His performance against the USSR throughout the tournament had made an impression on NHL scouts. Four months later, he was selected by the Buffalo Sabres fifth overall at the 1983 NHL Entry Draft.
The following year he would win the Vezina and Calder Trophies, as the NHL’s top goaltender and top rookie. He remains the youngest player to win the Vezina.
“That game against the Soviets is the one that really put me on the map for the draft,” he said. “To play here at that time, in that atmosphere, was truly special.”