How the heck do you bench Wayne Gretzky for the shootout?
All these years later, it’s still the first thing you hear when fans dissect Canada’s shocking loss to the Czech Republic at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano.
With the semifinal game on the line and Canada trying to advance to the first gold-medal match involving NHL players, how do you not give The Great One a chance to win it?
“I didn’t like the fact we didn’t use Gretzky, but that was the coach’s decision,” says Hockey Hall of Famer Bob Clarke, who was Team Canada’s general manager.
Many Canadian hockey fans would agree. But Marc Crawford’s decision to sit Gretzky was just one in a string of questionable calls that started with some of the GM’s own moves and would end in one of the most humiliating chapters in Canadian hockey history.
Nearly two decades after Nagano, as a now-dominant Team Canada hopes to take a run at a third consecutive gold in 2018 in Pyeongchang, many of those involved with the ’98 squad are still shaking their heads.
When the NHL agreed to halt its season to allow the world’s best hockey players to compete in the Olympics for the first time in Nagano, many assumed the game’s leading nation would waltz to a gold medal.
Hockey Canada, led at the time by president and CEO Bob Nicholson, started by assembling an all-star management team.
Clarke, who built the Philadelphia Flyers lineup that reached the Stanley Cup Final in 1997, was joined by assistant GMs Bob Gainey — the architect of the powerhouse Dallas Stars teams of the late ‘90s — and Pierre Gauthier from the Ottawa Senators.
Behind the bench, Crawford — a Cup-champion head coach in 1996 with Colorado — was joined by assistants Wayne Cashman, Andy Murray and Mike Johnston.
When it came time to choose players, Clarke and his management team faced a buffet of future Hall of Famers.
Patrick Roy, who would be named the starting goaltender and play superbly throughout the tournament, was backed up by Martin Brodeur and Curtis Joseph.
The defence featured Ray Bourque, Chris Pronger, Rob Blake, Eric Desjardins, Adam Foote, Scott Stevens and Al MacInnis.
This is where the second-guessing can begin. Scott Niedermayer, the smooth-skating 2004 Norris Trophy winner who would retire with four Stanley Cup rings, didn’t make the cut.
The forwards were Gretzky, Eric Lindros, Theo Fleury, Joe Nieuwendyk, Brendan Shanahan, Rod Brind’Amour, Shayne Corson, Trevor Linden, Keith Primeau, Mark Recchi, Steve Yzerman, Joe Sakic and Rob Zamuner.
That final pick proved to be the most controversial.
Zamuner, a dependable but relatively obscure defensive forward with the Tampa Bay Lightning, for all intents and purposes beat out Mark Messier — one of the top scorers of all time and a six-time Stanley Cup champion who is considered one of the greatest leaders in sports history.
“Zamuner had played for Canada at the world championship the year before and had played well, helping Canada win the gold medal,” Crawford explains.
The move speaks to management’s strategy of constructing a team that would be successful in the NHL. That meant a place for role players like Zamuner who would be happy doing the grunt work.
The problem, of course, was that this team was not playing in the NHL, where rinks measure 200 feet by 85 feet. International-sized rinks are 200 x 100, putting a greater emphasis on skill.
Clarke admits he didn’t take this into proper account.
“We tried to build a team in the sense of including guys who were regular penalty-killers and guys who could shut down opposition players,” the GM says. “I think what we learned from that tournament is better players will adapt. You put them in a role they might not be used to and they’ll adapt because they want to play.”
It didn’t help that Mario Lemieux, the NHL's scoring champion in 1996-97, wasn't available to Team Canada because of his retirement after that season (he'd return in December 2000).
Father Time was also working against Clarke. The Nagano Games arrived at a transitional time for the NHL, when many of the superstars who dominated the league in the ‘80s and ‘90s were either retiring or getting long in the tooth. Messier was 37 and in the midst of a season in which he’d register only 60 points in 82 games. Gretzky was 36 and would retire after the 1998-99 season.
But with so many revered veterans on his roster, Clarke made a curious choice in naming their leader.
Clarke’s prized pupil in Philadelphia at the time was Eric Lindros.
At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, the 24-year-old "Big E” represented the NHL’s most lethal combination of size, skill and downright meanness, and he already had an MVP award a Cup-final appearance under his belt.
But Clarke’s decision to name Lindros, not Gretzky, the captain of Team Canada seemed to run counter to the natural order.
“I’d say if you had to do it again you’d probably make a different choice,” Crawford says. “I can tell you this, though — it didn’t matter that Wayne was not the captain. Wayne was the leader. He was the guy everybody gravitated to.”
“Absolutely it was Gretzky’s team,” says Pronger, who was 22 at the time. “But I was a kid so I wasn’t paying attention to that stuff. I was just trying to survive and play to the best of my ability.”
Despite the controversial captain pick and the debatable roster moves, Clarke and his staff put together a team that was easily capable of mining gold. And to his credit, Lindros would tie for the team scoring lead with Nieuwendyk with five points.
Lindros and his team started strong as he scored a pair of goals in a 5-0 rout of Belarus. They followed by defeating Sweden 3-2 and the United States 4-1 to close out the preliminary round before dispatching Kazakhstan 4-1 in the quarter-finals.
But then, as Lindros says, “we ran up against a hot goaltender who had the day of his life.”
If Canada was supposed to cruise to gold in Nagano, someone forgot to tell Dominik Hasek.
When the Olympics arrived, the Buffalo Sabres star was in the midst of winning back-to-back Hart Trophies as the NHL’s most valuable player — a feat no other goalie has accomplished.
Hasek’s goaltending style wasn’t by the book, and there often seemed to be no rhyme or reason to his acrobatic movements, but he always seemed to stop the puck.
Hasek’s Czech team in Nagano featured several non-NHL players, but it wasn’t without talented skaters — among them Jaromir Jagr, who was on the cusp of winning his second NHL scoring title, along with Roman Hamrlik, Milan Hejduk, Robert Lang, Martin Rucinsky, Martin Straka, Jiri Slegr and Petr Svoboda.
But even with that talent, and even after dominating the U.S. 4-1 in the quarter-finals, the Czechs decided their best chance to upset the heavily favoured Canadians would come via the shootout.
Relying heavily on Hasek, the Czechs went long stretches without mounting an offensive attack, frustrating the daylights out of the Canadians.
It only got tougher for Canada after Slegr broke the stalemate by scoring the game’s first goal midway through the third period.
“We should have played the game on a soccer field because that’s how the game was played,” Fleury says. “They didn’t even come into our zone after they went up 1-0. It wasn’t hockey. It was awful. It was like skating through Velcro.”
Injuries also affected the Canadian team. Paul Kariya, at the time one of hockey’s fastest skaters and greatest offensive performers, missed the tournament because of a concussion. Sakic was injured in the quarter-finals and did not play against the Czechs.
Both players would likely have taken part in the five-man shootout that was to come, had they been available.
Canada finally broke through with just over a minute left in regulation time when Linden beat Hasek from the slot, with a nice setup by Lindros.
The goal forced overtime — and more Hasek heroics.
“We were dominant,” says Crawford. “In overtime I think we out-chanced them 6-0. Dominik stood on his head.
“You could just tell they were waiting to get to the shootout. They weren’t afraid of it like we were. Afraid might not be the right word, but we were uneasy with it and it showed.”
Perhaps for good reason. This was seven years before the NHL introduced shootouts to settle ties in the regular season, so most of the Canadian players were unfamiliar with the experience.
Same for the coaches. Crawford and his staff prepared a list of shooters prior to the game should a shootout be required.
No. 99 was not on the list.
Fleury went first for Canada and missed. Robert Reichel then beat Roy for what would surprisingly turn out to be the only goal of the shootout.
Bourque, Nieuwendyk and Lindros then missed for Canada, while Rucinsky, Pavel Patera and Jagr failed to convert for the Czechs (Lindros and Jagr both hit the post).
That left Shanahan with a do-or-die attempt. Hasek read it perfectly, clinching the upset and touching off a wild celebration by the Czechs.
All the while, Gretzky — hockey’s greatest all-time scorer — sat on the bench and watched.
Surely, Hasek must have smiled to himself when he saw Bourque — a defenceman — climb over the boards to take Canada’s second shot.
Bourque’s proficiency at hitting stationary Styrofoam targets from about 20 feet out in the NHL’s skills competition is legendary, but how the Canadian coaches figured that talent would translate to beating the world’s top stopper on a breakaway is anybody’s guess.
“As great a player as he was, defencemen don’t get breakaways, so to put him in that position was probably unfair,” Clarke says. “It was a poor decision in my opinion not to use Gretzky and to put Raymond in that position.”
Gretzky’s omission from the shootout has been debated ever since. But two things are worth noting.
First, although he finished with a team-high four assists in five games, Gretzky did not score a goal in the tournament.
And also, while Gretzky did many things well, breakaways were not among them.
Gainey, for one, was not surprised that Gretzky was left out of the shootout.
“I can tell you that I coached in an All-Star Game where I had Gretzky and Brett Hull on my team,” Gainey says. “We had some kind of a penalty shot competition and neither of them wanted to shoot.”
Crawford stands by the decision.
“Wayne would have loved the opportunity to shoot and I never feel poorly about the choices I made,” he says. “Ultimately, as a coach, you have to recognize that you have to stick with your decisions, good or bad. I think had I changed my mind and we had lost, I would have felt worse. With the information we had at our disposal at the time we felt the choices we made were the right ones.”
Pronger, meanwhile, believes Team Canada’s downfall was its inability to play with the type of authority it was capable of.
“I think we played scared,” the big defenceman says. “There were high expectations because we had a lot of big names on the team. We played not to lose. We played every game not to lose. We were afraid of letting people down and we didn’t play to win.
“We didn’t play better as the tournament went along. We won some games and you can argue we should have won the Czech game, but at the end of the day we didn’t come together as a team like we did in 2002 in Salt Lake City and 2010 in Vancouver.”
In the end, Hasek may have simply been unbeatable. He went on to make 20 saves in a 1-0 shutout of Russia in the gold-medal game to deliver the Czech Republic its only Olympic hockey title.
“When I look back at the ’98 Games, our team was pretty darned good,” Nicholson says. “We just lost to a goaltender who, at the time, was pretty impossible to score on.”
A day after the shocking defeat to the Czechs, Canada was back on the ice for the bronze-medal game against Finland.
Despite outshooting the Finns 32-15, the Canadian players’ heads were not in the game. While other countries may cherish a bronze medal, Canadian hockey players see them only as a token of failure.
“We had to gather the players three hours after the loss to the Czechs because the bronze-medal game was to be played the following afternoon,” Crawford recalls. “That was a really, really difficult meeting.
“I spoke to the team, Wayne spoke to the team, Lindros spoke to the team and all of them were pretty eloquent. Bob Gainey did a terrific job to prepare us, but it was foreign territory for us. The conversation was, ‘We didn’t lose a game in this tournament in regulation or overtime, so let’s win the game against the Finns and leave here saying we were undefeated and we got a bronze.’ ”
It didn’t work. A goal by Ville Peltonen 17 seconds into the third period gave the Finns a 3-2 victory.
“No one’s head was in that game,” Lindros says.
Fleury agrees. “We don’t play for silver or bronze. All the hard work you put in as a kid is about winning, not placing second or third.”
“For the Finns, it was like a gold-medal game,” Crawford adds. “They just wanted to be medallists.
“One regret I have is that I should have played Martin Brodeur in goal instead of Roy. You need somebody with something to prove in that game to get you over the top. Playing Marty probably would have been exactly what we needed. As it is, we lost 3-2 and actually played pretty well.”
For Hockey Canada, Nagano was a bitter pill to swallow — but maybe a necessary one.
“In the end, it may have turned out to be a good thing because it made us stop and re-evaluate how we did things,” Nicholson says. “Now we pick the best players and ask them to adapt to new roles.
Indeed, Canada appears to have learned plenty from the stinging defeat in 1998. In the four Winter Olympics since, Canada has earned three gold medals — in 2002, 2010 and 2014.
But Pronger, who won gold in 2002 and 2010, still thinks about the one that got away.
“We’re always the favourite to win in every tournament, and in that one we were massive favorites because we had Gretzky and Lindros, Sakic and Bourque among others,” Pronger says. “We also had Patrick Roy in net and he was amazing in that tournament.
“You go down the list of our players and you say, ‘How could we possibly lose?’”
For Gretzky, an Olympic medal remains the missing piece in hockey’s most decorated career.
As for that shootout, hockey’s greatest ambassador said in a 2014 interview that he wishes he’d been chosen.
“I don’t know if I would have scored,” Gretzky said. “When the Czechs scored that one goal I was praying one guy from our team would score, and I was praying that I would be the sixth guy picked to hopefully score that goal.
“Had I been picked and missed, we wouldn’t be talking about it today.”