Even if you’ve never watched a hockey game from beginning to end, you’ve heard of the Miracle on Ice. In 1980, at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, the underdog Americans beat the heavily-favored Soviet team 4-3 during the men’s hockey semifinal. It happened despite the Americans being outshot 39-16 and despite the fact that, within a year, the captain of the American team would be hosting a game show in which people played arcade games against one other for a chance to meet Larry Wilcox from CHiPs. Some level of overstatement is the rule when it comes to the Olympics, but “miracle” isn’t quite the wrong word, here.
The appeal of the Miracle game for Americans—other than Cold War hysteria and Al Michaels’s immortal broadcast—was that while the Soviets were effectively professionals in their country and had played together internationally for years, the U.S. team was a comparatively ragtag bunch of college kids and castoffs. The gestures to amateurism that the Olympics required were what made it possible for Americans to see their team as they like to see themselves—scrappy and determined all but written off, outgunned but never out of the fight. These were the Carter years, after all.
The problem with the Olympic ban on professional hockey players was that, Disney adaptations aside, handing things over to the amateurs didn’t make for particularly good hockey. The NHL has been dominated by Canadians since its beginning, but by the 1980s elite players from non-Soviet European nations were seeking spots on NHL rosters, which meant that those players were also ineligible to represent their national teams. In 1988, the IOC voted—largely in response to the way the Soviets supported their quote-unquote amateurs—to allow professionals to compete in the Games. Given that the Winter Olympics take place in the middle of the NHL season, the league balked, which again left the tournament without the game’s top talent. The Olympics during this period produced a smattering of memorable moments—see: Peter Forsberg’s gold-clinching shootout goal from ‘94, which Sweden literally put on a stamp—but paled next to the more prestigious Canada Cup, which pitted the world’s best players against each other in Olympic-style competition.
That all changed in 1998. Starting in Nagano and continuing through Salt Lake City, Turin, Vancouver, and Sochi, the NHL agreed to shut down for more than two weeks every four years to accommodate the Games, releasing its players to compete for their countries. There were still oddities: in a 2002 quarter-final, Belarus upset a Swedish team laden with NHL stars with a bizarre goal on a dump-in attempt. (After the game, the Belarusian goalie told the Associated Press, “Sometimes a gun without bullets can shoot.”) For the most part, though, the NHL era at the Olympics yielded some of the best hockey ever beamed to international audiences. The games were fast, almost impossibly skillful on every line, and carried unmatchable stakes. Of course it couldn’t last, but it left a mark all the same.
During that span, Canada won three of five possible gold medals. The win over the Americans in the climactic game in ‘02 was an instant classic, and the 2010 gold medal game, also against the United States, is one of the greatest hockey games played this century. Canada was up 2-1 with 24 seconds left when Zach Parise tied the game; while it hasn’t been rendered on postage, a faithful retelling of Sidney Crosby’s overtime winner can still be used as legal tender north of the border.
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But the single most unforgettable moment of the Olympics’ NHL era wasn’t a Canadian victory. It wasn’t even a medal game. Twenty years ago this month, in Japan, the Canadians lost a shootout to the Czech Republic in a semifinal game. A would-be powerhouse went down with a thud, and the result cemented the Czechs as major players on the international stage. It was a frankly implausible convergence of the sport’s biggest stars on a stage that was barely big enough to contain them. Of course it ended in a shootout.
Both teams barrelled into the semifinal. In the round robin, the Czechs had beaten Finland and Kazakhstan and lost 2-1 to the Russians, then rolled over the United States 4-1 in the quarters, chasing John Vanbiesbrouck from the net. Canada outscored their opponents by a combined total of 16-4, going undefeated in group games against Belarus, Sweden, and the U.S., and Kazakhstan in the quarters.
Nagano was only the second Olympic cycle in which the Czech Republic and Slovakia competed as separate teams. By 1998, the Czechs had produced some of the NHL’s premier players, which was a point of pride in a country where hockey had once been almost absurdly political. In the late 1940s, the Czechoslovakian team had become a serious international force, taking silver at the 1948 Olympics and winning IIHF World Championship titles in ‘47 and ‘49. But in 1950, when the national team was scheduled to fly to London, their flight was grounded, officially because the Czech press had not secured credentials to cover the team.
The grounding was actually orchestrated by the communist party, which had seized power in 1948, and feared the team might seek asylum in England. Eleven players were convicted of treason and espionage; they received sentences varying from one to 15 years. Those players were released in 1955, but seven died from the effects of forced labor in uranium mines.
In Canada, hockey had little to do with democratic revolt. If anything, it was the opposite: the game was was a fundamental part of the country’s fabric and identity. And yet despite the relative stranglehold Canada had had on the game since its creation, the country had not won an Olympic gold since 1952.
The task of putting together a team to break that drought fell to Bobby Clarke, the former Philadelphia Flyers great who had taken over as that team’s reigns as general manager. Clarke had experience in best-on-best international play—despite being a relative unknown, he played a major role in the 1972 Summit Series, an eight-game exhibition that pitted Canada’s top NHL players against the USSR. In fact, Clarke was responsible for the series’ most infamous moment when, in the sixth game, he fractured Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle, some say deliberately.
It certainly seemed like Clarke had an advantage in this one. The Czechs complemented a solid core of NHL stars with role players and experienced international competitors, but the Canadian roster looked, at least on paper, like it was ripped from a future Hall of Fame exhibit—Gretzky, Yzerman, Sakic, Bourque, Roy. Martin Brodeur, who would eventually go down as the winningest goalie in the history of the sport, never even saw the ice.
But in this particular semifinal, all those guns were quieted. International hockey is played on a larger ice surface than the one used in the NHL—both rinks are 200 feet long, but where the North American sheet is 85 feet wide, the Olympics expand it to 100. This makes for a fundamentally different game, one that’s more spread out and which unfolds mostly in the neutral zone. Proponents of the bigger surface claim the extra space allows for more speed and finesse, but the international game can, at times, more closely resemble soccer than the hockey played in the NHL. This game, as it happened, was a case in point. After Jiri Slegr finally broke a scoreless tie, putting the Czechs up 1-0 halfway through the third period, his team retreated into a defensive mode, barely even gesturing at an offensive attack.
And yet, with 63 seconds left and Patrick Roy rushing off the ice for an extra attacker, Trevor Linden tied the game for Canada. That gave way to a blistering overtime: Canada outshot the Czechs 5 to 1, but were stoned by Czech goalie Dominik Hasek. After 10 minutes of sudden-death play, the game went to a shootout, with each coach filling out a five-shooter lineup card and handing it to the officials.
The Canadians shot first. Theoren Fleury, who was listed very generously at 5-foot-6, was a star for the Calgary Flames. He’d grown up in a tiny town in Western Manitoba, right on the Saskatchewan border; when he was 13, an on-ice cut severed his brachial artery and sidelined him for a year. His neighbors eventually raised enough money to send him to a hockey academy in Brandon, where he met a scout who would in turn lead him to the major junior team in Winnipeg. Years later, in an autobiography, Fleury would alleged that that scout, Graham James, sexually abused him. (James would serve two years in prison after pleading guilty to the charges Fleury brought against him.) In the book, Fleury cited this as the catalyst for decades of drug and alcohol abuse; he also claimed that, while he was playing for the New York Rangers in the early 2000s, he failed 13 consecutive drug tests, but was allowed by the league to continue playing.
Fleury didn’t score. If Patrick Roy, who was waiting in net for Canada, was a model of strategy and precision and every bit his generation’s standard-bearer for the butterfly style Glenn Hall pioneered in the 1950s, Dominik Hasek was his diametric opposite. In a sort of golden era for goalies—aside from Roy and Hasek, the league was being shaped by performances from Brodeur, Ed Belfour, and Curtis Joseph, the third goalie on Canada’s roster—Hasek was the most singular talent. When the NHL paused for Nagano, Hasek was not only the defending Vezina Trophy winner as the league’s best goalie, but was still polishing his Hart Trophy, as the league’s MVP. He would win both trophies again at the end of 1997-98, and his 13 shutouts would be the second highest single-season total since the Great Depression. A year later, he’d drag the Buffalo Sabres, kicking and screaming, all the way to the sixth game of the Stanley Cup final.
But Hasek’s brilliance jerked and splayed well outside the confines of a box score. He was known for flopping and scrambling and throwing down snow angels in the crease; when Fleury opened the shootout by skating straight down the middle of the slot and shooting toward the middle of the net, Hasek responding by collapsing to his right side, sending the puck fluttering back toward the glass.
The Czechs opened with Robert Reichel, Fleury’s former teammate in Calgary, who was in the middle of a career year for the New York Islanders. A left-handed shot, Reichel put the puck in the extreme left-hand side of the net, past Roy’s blocker. He danced back toward the Czech bench with his arms raised above his head.
Next was Ray Bourque. Bourque began his career with Boston at the tail end of the ‘70s and was still a Bruin––two years later he would be traded to Colorado, where he would win a Stanley Cup with Roy and retire as the highest-scoring defenseman in league history. Hasek again redirected the shot high, off toward the end boards.
The Montreal Canadien Martin Rucinsky tried to deke to Roy’s left, but was stopped; for Canada, Joe Nieuwendyk, another former Flame who had been shipped to Dallas for a prospect named Jarome Iginla, was stopped on move nearly identical to Rucinsky’s. Pavel Patera, who at 26 had yet to make the jump to the NHL, buried the puck in Roy’s right pad. Through three of five shooters, the Czechs were up 1-0.
Shooting fourth for Canada was Eric Lindros, a phenom then just shy of his 25th birthday. In junior hockey, Lindros was a virtually unparalleled talent: offensively explosive and, at 6-foot-4 and more than 220 pounds, physically dominant. He was such an unmissable talent that despite his insistence that he would never play for the Quebec Nordiques, they drafted him with the top overall pick in 1991. Lindros refused to report, and remained in juniors for the next season—and won a silver medal with Canada at the ‘92 Olympics in Albertville. At the ‘92 draft, he was traded to the Flyers, where Clarke took him under his wing. In a somewhat controversial move, Clarke and Canadian coach Marc Crawford named him the Olympic captain over Wayne Gretzky and other veterans. But there was little arguing the fact that Lindros was the most dynamic forward on the Canadian team: by the end of 1997-98, Lindros racked up more than 500 points in his first 360 NHL games.
The hockey world had no way of knowing as much in 1998, but Lindros was nearing his end as a dominant player. In the next handful of years, his relationship with Clarke would disintegrate. He suffered at least seven concussions, culminating in an infamous hit in the Eastern Conference final by Scott Stevens, one of his teammates in Nagano. Clarke frequently questioned Lindros’ toughness in the press and eventually stripped him of his captaincy; Lindros sat out the entire 2000-01 season, demanding a trade.
What happened next in Nagano has gone down as one of the most memorable misses in hockey history. Lindros stormed down the middle of the ice, breaking at the last second toward the left post. Hasek again collapsed onto his right side, throwing his glove hand up and behind his head. The backhand shot from Lindros ricocheted off Hasek’s glove and then the post; Bob Cole, calling the game for the CBC in Canada, gasps: “Is this guy human?”
Finally, Jaromir Jagr. After the 1996-97 season, Mario Lemieux retired, buckling under a debilitating back injury and the cumulative weight of cancer treatments. This left Lindros and Jagr as the best pure scorers in the league. In Nagano, Jagr was newly 26 and at the height of his powers: he was about to win the first of four consecutive Art Ross Trophies as the league’s leading scorer.
Jagr was named after his grandfather, whose farm was seized by the communists in 1948 and who was jailed for refusing to work his newly collectivized fields. The younger Jagr wore, both for Pittsburgh and the Czech national team, the number 68 to commemorate the Prague Spring, the 1968 uprising that was stamped out by the Soviets.
He could have clinched the game with a goal. Instead, his shot hit the post to Roy’s right, leaving an opening for Brendan Shanahan to tie the game––but Hasek chased him all the way to the post. The Czechs poured off their bench, mobbing Hasek and throwing their gloves in the air. The Canadians filed soberly toward the tunnel; the CBC broadcast captured Wayne Gretzky sitting alone, dejected, on the Canadian bench. He had, inexplicably, been left off the shootout roster.
Two days later, after a round robin loss and a military occupation, Jagr, Hasek, and the Czech team finally beat the Russians. The gold medal game was 1-0. The Canadians lost to the Finns in the bronze medal game, despite outshooting them 34-15.
There are no active NHL players in Pyeongchang. What began as a dispute between the league and the IOC over insurance and travel costs for players eventually metastasized until it encompassed effectively all of the NHL’s grievances—over NBC’s monopoly on video and promotional rights, over the risk of injury to players and changes to the regular season schedule, and so on. Players like Alexander Ovechkin have lashed out at the league for the decision to keep players home. (Though for whatever it’s worth, the Czechs beat the U.S. in the quarterfinals on a thrilling, lengthy shootout, and a rematch with Canada is just one win for each team away.) It now seems inevitable that Olympic participation will be used by the owners as a bargaining chip in the league’s looming labor talks, which threaten to cause a third work stoppage for the league this century.
When it returned after the longest such stoppage, the lockout that canceled the entire 2004-05 season, the NHL both looked and felt different. A series of rule changes ensured as much; one such change was adopting shootouts to resolve regular season games that were tied after overtime. Certain shooters and goalies have separated themselves from their peers in these shootouts over that time, but there’s little correlation between a team’s regulation and overtime winning percentages and its success in the shootout. It’s not exactly random, but it’s close. And as of yet, none of those NHL shootouts have marked the coronation of a post-Soviet state as a hockey power or chronicled the decline of the greatest player in the history of the sport. Maybe this year, though.