Road To The Olympic Games

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Men's Ice Hockey History

On Feb. 22, 1980 a bunch of young, brash and inexperienced American hockey players shocked the sporting world.
Team USA celebrates their 4-3 victory over the Soviet Union in the semi-final Men's Ice Hockey event at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. The game was dubbed 'the Miracle on Ice', and the team went on to defeat Finland 4-2 in the gold medal game. ((Steve Powell /Getty Images) )

On Feb. 22, 1980 a bunch of young, brash and inexperienced American hockey players shocked the sporting world.

It seemed that the entire United States sat transfixed as the final seconds ticked away and an underdog U.S. team, led by captain Mike Eruzione, celebrated a shocking victory over the heavily favoured powerhouse from the Soviet Union.

"Do you believe in miracles?" shouted ABC-TV broadcaster Al Michaels.

The Americans later beat Finland to win the men's hockey gold and complete the biggest upset in American sports history.

The Miracle on Ice team was one of the biggest stories in a sport that has already given Olympic fans its share of heartbreaking moments and triumphs. From the events at Lake Placid to the Czech Republic's win in Nagano in 1998, it seems the only certainty in the Olympics is that something unexpected is going to happen at the hockey tournament;

But it hasn't always been that way.

Ice hockey first joined the Olympic program at the 1920 Antwerp Summer Games - before there were any Winter Olympics. By the time the Winter Games debuted in Chamonix, France four years later, Canada looked like a hockey Goliath. Represented by the Winnipeg Falcons, Canada allowed just one goal in three games and scored victories of 15-0 over Czechoslovakia, 2-0 of the United States and 12-1 over Sweden to capture the gold medal.

"Acrobats on skates"

In an indication of how times have changed, the Europeans were in absolute awe of the North American style of play - one reporter called the players in the game between Canada and the U.S. "acrobats on skates."

While Canada was represented by different amateur teams over the next couple of years, the results didn't change, as the Canucks continued to display superiority over weaker opposition from countries where hockey had yet to become part of the national culture. Between 1920 and 1952, Canadian hockey teams compiled an astounding record of 31 wins, 1 loss and 3 ties. In those 35 games they scored 333 goals while allowing only 26.

The only time Canada didn't win the gold came at the 1936 Garmish-Partenkirchen Games, when the team suffered its first loss after 20 straight victories - a defeat at the hands of a British team largely made up of Canadian residents born in Britain.

Canada rebounded to claim gold in the next Olympics, but the nation's dominance in the event would soon be eclipsed by an emerging hockey power.

The Soviet dynasty and Canadian refuseniks

Since professional players weren't allowed to compete in the Olympics, the Soviet Union and other communist countries enjoyed an enormous advantage over their Western counterparts over the next 30 years. Although members of the Soviet and Czechoslovak teams played hockey fulltime, they weren't considered pros because they were paid by the government, not by privately-owned teams.

As a result, the Soviets often faced teams made up of players not skilled enough to earn a living in the sport and dominated the Olympic hockey scene. In protest, Canada refused to take part in the tournament at the 1972 Sapporo Olympics, just months before the pivotal Summit Series between Canada and the Soviets. Four years later, Sweden followed Canada's lead. Both teams returned to the Olympics in 1980, but their point was made, and the International Ice Hockey Federation eventually voted to allow professionals, including those from the NHL, to play in the Games.

In the meantime, the Soviets enjoyed an Olympic hockey dynasty from 1956 until suffering their first upset in Lake Placid 24 years later. The loss didn't exactly demoralize the Soviet team, though, and it continued to capture gold throughout the 1980s and in Albertville in 1992, when they played under the banner of the Unified Team.

The hockey dynasty collapsed three years after the Soviet Union at the 1994 Games in Lillehammer. With the most talented players in Russia playing their trade in the NHL, the nation was unable to field the same type of dominating team of years past.

Shootout with Sweden

After a 40-plus-year drought, Canada finally had a chance to reclaim the gold and faced off against Sweden in a close, intense 1994 final. After skating to a 3-3 draw through regulation and a 10-minute overtime, the game advanced to a shootout. Czech expatriate Peter Nedved and Paul Kariya gave Canada a 2-0 lead, but Magnus Svensson and future NHL superstar Peter Forsberg tied it up for Sweden to proceed to a sudden-death shootout.

Sweden celebrates after beating Canada 3-2 in the hockey final at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. ((Steve Dunn/ Getty Images))
After both teams missed on their first chances, Forsberg slipped the puck under goalie Corey Hirsch's glove for a goal to set up a must-score situation for Kariya. The small, but crafty forward tried the same move that beat Swedish goalie Tommy Salo in the earlier shootout, but was denied to give Sweden the gold.

In 1998, the NHL agreed to suspend its season to allow its players to compete in the Olympics. The media was abuzz about the most-hyped hockey tournament in Olympic history - one in which the likes of Wayne Gretzky would vie for a gold medal.

The Canadians played well, but wound up in the semis against a red-hot goaltender in Dominik Hasek, as well as a blend of NHLers and players from the Czech clubs that gelled brilliantly at the Games.

In one of the most exciting games of the tournament, both teams played a scoreless 2 ½ periods until Jiri Slegr put the Czechs ahead. Trevor Linden scored with 63 seconds remaining to tie it up. After a scoreless overtime, the game proceeded to a shootout. Canadian goalie Patrick Roy stopped four of five penalty shots, but Hasek was better, stopping all five Canadian attempts to advance the Czechs to the final.

Yet again, in the gold-medal final against Russia, Hasek was unbeatable in a 1-0 victory, eliciting a delirious celebration in Prague.

Golden anniversary in Salt Lake City

At the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, Utah, Team Canada suffered through a shaky start and a difficult loss to Sweden. Canada's formidable team, captained by Mario Lemieux, faced tough criticism.

Martin Brodeur celebrates Canada's fifth goal during the third period of the gold medal final at the 2002 Winter Olympics. ((Tom Hanson/ The Canadian Press))
But with each game, the team, led by its architect Wayne Gretzky, gained steam and confidence leading up to the epic gold-medal game against the United States.

In that final, played 50 years to the day after the Edmonton Mercurys won Canada's last Olympic gold medal in men's hockey, Team Canada played skillfully without error. The line of Joe Sakic, Jarome Iginla and Simon Gagne was more than a handful for the American defence, with its blend of aggressive fore-checking, raw speed and pure skill.

Sakic and Iginla both scored twice to lead Canada to the win, with Sakic registering the game-winner late in the second period and potting the fifth goal late in the third. In the end, Canada deftly defeated the United States 5-2 in one of the most watch events in Canadian television history, a thrilling finale to the Games.

Giant letdown

In Turin, Italy four years later, the Canadian men failed miserably in their attempt to defend their Salt Lake glory following an embarrassing 2-0 loss to Russia in the quarter-finals.

Sweden, bolstered by the addition of many NHL superstars to its team, including Mats Sundin, Peter Forsberg and Daniel Alfredsson, held off Finland during a hard-fought 3-2 victory.