The truly epic shootout between the U.S. and Russia a few days ago reminded me of one of my favourite Olympic hockey memories. It isn’t the most famous moment in Olympic hockey, not by a long shot — it can’t compare to the Miracle on Ice or Sidney Crosby’s overtime shot in Vancouver, but it’s my favourite.
It was 1998, the first year that NHL players were allowed to play in the Olympics (taking a cue from the success of the 1992 Olympics Dream Team and the 1996 Hockey World Cup, in which NHL stars from the U.S. beat NHL stars from Canada in a three-game series that was fanatically watched in Canada). I was living in the San Juans, and in the San Juans, you could get CBC from Vancouver.
CBC shows 6 straight hours of hockey every Saturday on Hockey Night in Canada and during the Stanley Cup playoffs would show hockey literally every night, so there were a lot of hockey fans in the San Juans. A lot of people only had over the air TV and the CBC station plus one in Bellingham were the only stations available over the air.
Anyway, this was a big deal in Canada because Wayne Gretzky, Eric Lindros, Patrick Roy, Steve Yzerman, Joe Sakic and the other superstars of the era were going to play in the Olympics. For other teams, superstars such as Brett Hull (USA) and Jaromir Jagr (Czech Rep.) and Pavel Bure and Sergei Federov (Russia) were getting to play in the Olympics for the first time.
Canada was the heavy favourite, especially in Canada; Russia was considered the top contender. I found something somewhat distasteful in the Canadian attitude toward Olympics hockey. With the best players in the NHL in the Olympics now, I sensed a massive attitude of entitlement from the Canadians about the gold medal, as if they had already won it before the Olympics ever started.
The games came on late at night because of the time difference. Canada more or less chewed threw the competition early, while the USA team, full of NHL stars, completely fell apart. The U.S., just two years removed from the winning the World Cup, completely flopped and didn’t even get a sniff of the medal rounds and got in trouble for tearing apart its hotel rooms.
It set the stage for a huge semifinal between Canada and the Czech. Rep. The Czechs were led by Jagr and one of the best goalies in the world at the time, Dominick Hasek. Hasek was good, we all knew that, but other than Jagr, the Czechs didn’t have a lot of big names on their team. Canada had legendary Patrick Roy in net and a roster full of superstars and fully expected to win.
The game began at about midnight and unlike NBC, the CBC showed all of the matches live. I actually had work the next day, but it wasn’t an important day at work, and it was the kind of job in which I could go in late if I needed to. My boss at the time was pretty cool with this, and I told him I would likely be coming in late, but that there was an 11 a.m. meeting I needed to attend.
The game started late, if I remember because the game before it went long. It ended up starting sometime around 1 a.m. Still no big deal, I thought. I was still young and full of beans back then and figured I could go to work after four hours of sleep.
Well, Hasek was absolutely spectacular. It was literally the most amazing, otherworldly goaltending I have ever seen. The Canadian, with all their raw, Hall of Fame, talent, with Wayne Gretzky (granted, toward the end of his career), simply could not crack him.
The game went into overtime. I believe back then they played a full 20-minute overtime. Still after all that, the game remained tied 1-1. I got the sense the Canadian announcers were in disbelief. You have to understand, Canada simply expected the gold medal was all theirs. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I remember after one play that didn’t go Canada’s way, one of the frustrated announcers actually said, “Oh, that’s a kick in the groin!”
The shootout lasted for five shots each. It wasn’t quite as dramatic as T.J. Oshie’s heroics. The format was different in that a shooter could not shoot twice. You had to go through the entire roster. The Czechs scored on their first penalty shot, and then Hasek stoned five straight Canadian penalty shooters. Canada was in shock; they literally had been beaten by one man. There would be no gold medal. I found myself during the game actually cheering for the Czechs. They were huge underdogs and were being carried by one, superhuman man.
I was so mesmerized by the game, I wasn’t even paying attention to the time. When the game was over, it was actually 5 a.m. and the sun was starting to come up. I had expected the game to end between 2:30 and 3 a.m., not 5 a.m.
The morning DJs on the Vancouver radio station (Larry and Willy, legends in Vancouver for like 20 years) I usually listened to (CFOX) were furious about the game. It was all they talked about, that and wondering what the Canadian announcer’s, “Well that was a kick in the groin” was all about. Larry and especially Willy had been spending the whole Olympics trashing the U.S. team for being such a bunch of losers and were being pretty unsparing in their disgust with the Canadian team, too.
I sheepishly called my boss about the game at about 8:30 and explained I had only managed to get a couple of hours sleep. He found it all funny, and the fact that Canada was devastated by the loss. I made the staff meeting, then went home in the afternoon to nap.
The Canadian team was demoralized and barely showed up for the Bronze medal game, losing to Finland. The Czechs went on to beat that very powerful Russian team full of superstars 1-0 behind Hasek. Hasek was a huge hero (and still is to this day) in his home country. Never had I seen one player literally carry an entire team the way he did in those 98 Olympics.