The first time NHL players played in the Olympics, in 1998, it was supposed to be a trial run.
Of course, when some prankster U.S. players barged through a door to spray a sleeping Mike Richter with a fire extinguisher, the Americans practiced zero self-restraint. And it was only humility the Canadians practiced when they had the door slammed on them in the semifinals by the Czech Republic’s Dominik Hasek.
But with the NHL currently participating in a fifth Olympics, its first, in Nagano, Japan, deserves a look-back, largely because, for all the disappointments, the NHL and the NHL Players Association never looked back. Debate about the value of the exercise towards the business of hockey remains, but the hockey itself in Nagano proved too good not to reprise.
Nobody, including this columnist, then with the New York Post, went to Japan knowing what to expect from this grand experiment in growing the NHL brand. Not the league, which radically was shutting down in midseason for 16 days; not CBS, which never mind the time difference between New York and Nagano, wanted to test the television appeal of the best hockey players in the world for a wider market in prime time in Salt Lake City four years later. And certainly not any distinguished veteran of pressure-packed and prestigious Canada and World Cups, who still wanted to play in an Olympics for no better reason than they are the Olympics.
“As many big games a I‘ve been in, I’ve never played in an Olympics before,” said Wayne Gretzky after thousands had jammed the Nagano train station hoping to get a glimpse of him upon the Canadian team’s arrival. “I don’t think it’s hit me until now.
“I’m one of the oldest guys here and I’m as excited as the young players.”
At 37, Gretzky wasn’t part of the under-35 demographics that networks crave. Women watch the Olympics, not an audience that generally would know a Mike Eruzione from an Eric Lindros. The Canada and World Cups, despite levels of play had enthralled the hardcore hockey fans, had drawn only niche U.S, media attention. So if you wrapped Brett Hull in a flag would America wrap his arms around him any more than some college player.
Represented by a generation of NHL players who had been inspired by the 1980 Miracle at Lake Placid, the U.S. had stunned Canada in the 1996 World Cup, winning the last two games in Montreal. In Nagano, most of the same Americans started badly with a loss to Sweden and with World Cup hero Richter looking ordinary in goal this time, went out meekly with a 4-1 quarterfinal loss to the Czechs.
“It was a waste of time coming here without winning a gold medal,” Tkachuk said.
Victory may be the only thing, unless it is acting like a 14-year-old on his first overnight trip without Mom and Dad. Before the village trashing, U.S. Coach Ron Wilson railed against the media feeding frenzy that he insisted was exaggerating the transgressions. But a lot of his guys came to Japan of a mind to do more than just play hockey.
“I really believed our chances were as good as anybody’s, but the Canadians felt something was stolen from them (in 1996),” said Chelios when it was over. “And I don’t think we came with the same motivation they did.”
He didn’t mean the ice cream. Sprinkled as usual with the most talent in the tournament, the Canadiens outscored their first four opponents 16-4, and forced the overtime of the classic against the Czechs on Trevor Linden’s deflection of an Al MacInnis shot with just 1:03 remaining. For 70 minutes – overtime lasted 10 -- it was one of the most compelling contests we ever have seen in 40 years of covering the game, and the shootout, as bizarre as it seemed – actually they still seem to this purist -- had high drama, too.
Robert Reichel proved the only shooter in ten to beat either Hasek or Patrick Roy. Hasek barely got a glove on Lindros’s attempt, which then hit the post and stayed out. Brendan Shanahan, shot Canada’s last chance into Hasek’s pads after Coach Mark Crawford had not used Gretzky, who had never been deadly on breakaways, in the shootout, not that his country wanted to hear that.
“[Crawford] told us we played as hard as we could and lost a skills competition,” said Gretzky, who, having parked his ego at the door, didn’t second-guess his coach. But seven years before the NHL would adopt shootouts, this was a particularly galling way to lose, especially for Canada, which, with amateurs had lost the gold medal to Sweden in 1994 on Peter Forsberg’s shootout goal.
“We were on a crusade,” said Canada GM Bob Clarke.
“Some crusade. We didn’t even get a medal.”
Indeed, in losing the game for the bronze, 3-2, to Finland, the Canadians suddenly looked like 18 Keith Tkachuks. It had been gold or bust for Canada, too, and the 5-year-old Czech Republic, represented by a team that had only 11 NHL players, quickly warmed to that sentiment. A crowd of 70,000 jammed Prague’s Wenceslas Square to watch on big screens as Hasek beat the once Russian oppressors 1-0 on a goal by Petr Svoboda of the Flyers.
“It’s the greatest moment of my life,” said Hasek.
Ultimately, the Americans had turned the fire extinguisher on the wrong goalie. And Canada had to learn to accept the probability that no longer would its best always be good enough.
“One of the things that makes hockey so great in Canada is how much we care about it,” said Gretzky. “It goes with the territory that we come into every one of these tournaments feeling we have to defend the way we play.
“There’s nothing wrong with that challenge. We welcome it. But it’s probably become unreasonable to expect to win every time. There were six team that could win this tournament and that’s a big change from the past.”
Four years later -- same crusade, most of the same Canadians – they beat the Americans for the gold, many of those same American frat boys from 1998 this time playing inspired hockey under Coach Herb Brooks. That time, the fire extinguishers stayed on the wall, and Flourtown’s Richter stayed hot. Good thing Tkachuk and the Americans didn’t take their pucks and sticks and go home.
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