Turning Japanese: Team Canada and the dreaded Nagano shootout
It’s Olympic season so I thought I’d take a little trip down memory lane. It’s not such a great memory but one that sticks out of Canada’s hockey history like a sore thumb. The lessons learned at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan were pivotal to the shape of how Team Canada creates and maintains it’s roster in the present time. Sit back and enjoy the tale of Team Canada and Czech Republic’s quest for hockey gold.
The 1998 Canadian Men’s Olympic hockey team came into Nagano looking for a score to settle with the United States. Just two years earlier, the US captured gold at the 1996 World Cup. What both teams didn’t expect though, was neither of them even medaling.
The Canadian team was put together with once again gold in mind. With it being the first time the National Hockey League would take a break from their regular season and allow NHL players to compete, household names such as Patrick Roy, Steve Yzerman, Joe Sakic, Scott Stevens, and Martin Brodeur complemented the greatest player in the world. That player named Wayne Gretzky.
With a stacked team at hand, Team Canada made its way to the medal round with a perfect 3-0 record. Wins came from the beatings of Belarus, Sweden and the aforementioned Team USA. While coming into the game against Kazakhstan a bit cocky, the hockey gods bestowed its power against the red and white. Proving just anything can happen in Olympic sport, Joe Sakic strained a knee ligament and was out for the rest of the tournament. The not so good turning point for Team Canada.
Entering the semifinals against the Czech Republic, Team Canada again once had the advantage. The Czechs iced a team that at the time only had 10 players on its roster playing in the NHL. Things were neck and neck and anxiety was at an all time high as both teams entered the third period with a score knotted at one.
The Canadian team was carefully put together by none other than Mr. Broadstreet Bully, Bobby Clarke. With a little input from head coach Marc Crawford, the Team Canada brass was beaming with pride with their selections. On paper, there was no way anyone could come close. Back home, some of the choices were controversial. Eric Lindros was named captain ahead of the likes of Gretzky, Yzerman and Raymond Borque. Clarke’s pick of Lindros may have been a bit biased as he was General Manager of Lindros’ Flyers at the time. A sleeper pick that had heads shaking was Rob Zamuner.
As the third period ended, a solemn aura came over the crowd at The Big Hat arena. A 10 minute overtime was in pursuit but that proved nothing. It was down to a do or die shootout.
Shootouts in 1998 were very rare. Almost unheard of. The excitement of having the game decided on one shot was felt all around the countries of Canada, the Czech Republic and live in Japan. Canada was in good hands with Stanley Cup winner, Patrick Roy. The Czech Republic however, had the best goaltender in the world at the time: the Dominator, Dominik Hasek.
Marc Crawford and Czech coach, Ivan Hlinka set their 5 shooters and the coin toss was flipped. Theo Fleury was first up for Team Canada.
Momentum turned to the Czech Republic. 2 time 40 goal scorer Robert Reichel goes high and beats Patrick Roy.
1-0 Czechs. It would be the only goal scored in the shootout.
The best part of that video is Bob Cole saying “We don’t want this in the NHL.”
Ray Borque, Joe Nieuwendyk, Eric Lindros and Brendan Shanahan fail to score. The Czech Republic beats Team Canada and an entire nation cries in disbelief. Many questions were raised at the end of this tournament. Why weren’t certain shooters selected? Canada was regulated to the Bronze Medal game. Failing to win that, Canada finished 4th overall.
However, with bad comes the good. This tournament made Hockey Canada think long and hard about the beauty of gold. They were and still are committed even more than ever to producing gold whether it be on home soil or abroad. Team Canada retaliated in 2002 with a first place finish at the Salt Lake City games against the U.S.
Nagano was a tough lesson. However, it was one that was learned.