Monday, February 23, 1998
All Europeans can celebrate Czech win
With a bouquet of flowers in one hand and his other hand waving to the fans, Dominik Hasek skated a victory lap, with his team skating right behind him.
A perfect athletic ending to a wonderful athletic event.
"A celebration," Russian coach Vladimir Yurzinov called it.
"A celebration of hockey."
This is how the Winter Olympics of Nagano came to an end, with the gold-medal hockey game, the first hockey gold for the Czech Republic and the championship Hasek so desperately wanted.
"It was a brilliant performance throughout the Games," Yurzinov said of the Czechs. "And a brilliant victory for them."
This is how the Winter Olympics came to an end, after weather delays and too much flu and taxi cabs that would not stop. It came to an end with celebrations in the old town square in Prague and hockey questions being asked all over Canada and Sweden and United States.
And the world of hockey sits closer today than it ever has before. This was supposed to be an NHL hockey tournament, a tournament about marketing, about selling jerseys, about strutting NHL stuff. But it turned out to be about the game, the depth of the game, the strength of the game, a game that was played so superbly here.
A game that belongs not to Canada, but to the world.
"God willing," said Yurzinov, the outspoken Russian coach. "This is the kind of ice hockey tournament of the future."
More than anyone else here, Yurzinov seemed to comprehend what Canadians have learned in the past few days: How hockey has grown and come together, how the NHL game and the European game have married into one, a better game than it has been before, how each country does something a little bit different, a little bit special.
"Our goal was to play our style," Yurzinov said. And in the end, that was what the Olympic hockey tournament turned into. It was about style and substance. "But you have to maintain your tradition and your identity.
"We're not supposed to pray to just one God."
If Canadian hockey was unclothed here for everyone to see, it was only partially unclothed. The supreme talent level at the top of any nation is thin. The Czechs had Hasek and Jaromir Jagr. The Russians had Pavel Bure and Sergei Fedorov. The Finns has Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu. The Canadians should have had Paul Kariya and Joe Sakic, but one never arrived and the other didn't finish the tournament. That isn't an apology, just a fact.
You need only look at who participated in the penalty-shot contest to see how thin the Canadian talent pool is at the highest level. In order, the shooters were Theoren Fleury, Ray Bourque, Joe Nieuwendyk, Eric Lindros and Brendan Shanahan. Two traditional Canadian power forwards, one defenceman and two decent NHL scorers.
Nobody completely frightening. Bobby Clarke blamed the Canadian problems on lack of finish, but a better suggestion might be lack of approach. The first two goals Finland scored against Canada in the bronze-medal game came from pure finesse -- a one-time pass to Jari Kurri and a terrific passing play from Koivu to Jere Lehtinen.
Contrast those goals to the two-man advantage Canada had in the game. The plays all went down low, near the net, a shot, a rebound, a body being knocked down. No finesse. No plays made. Big bodies waiting for layups, playing the Canadian game.
"I'm very happy the way European ice hockey was played at the Games," said Yurzinov, who coaches professionally in Finland and isn't pleased about the NHL view of European hockey.
He said the NHL looks upon European club teams as "fun clubs." When asked to clarify if he had said fun clubs or farm clubs, he reiterated fun clubs. "That's exactly what I meant," he said. "We need (more) reciprocity and mutual respect (in hockey)."
The winning goal in the gold-medal game says much about the game of hockey. The goal was scored by Petr Svoboda of the Philadelphia Flyers, who was born in Most in what was then Czechoslovakia, defected from his homeland, lives in New Jersey, is a Canadian citizen and played Sunday for the Czech Republic.
None of these explanations will reduce the angst and the anger and the embarrassment of Canadian hockey and what happened here. That will take time to digest and even more time to fully comprehend.
The celebration expected to take place in Canada will now take place in Prague. The players, all except Svoboda, will leave on a charter plane to Prague, and spend a day of celebration before scattering to their club teams in the NHL and in other places.
"I play for the Buffalo Sabres," Hasek said. "I do the best I can, I'll always do the best. I don't even know if we get bonus or money or anything. I don't even care. I play for the country which taught me how to play hockey. This was one of my last chances to win something big.
"The whole country is waiting for us. It'll probably be the best moment ever."