Nagano still nags at Gretzky

Wayne Gretzky and the Canadian men's hockey team arrived in Nagano looking to avenge their 1996 World Cup loss to the United States.

But when the 1998 Winter Olympics were over, both Canada and the Americans went home empty-handed, having been served a lesson in international hockey by their European masters.

Acrobatic goaltender Dominik Hasek all but stole the gold medal for the Czech Republic, which ousted the U.S. in the quarter-finals, beat Canada in a nervy shootout in the semis and then blanked Russia 1-0 in the tournament final.

A dispirited Canadian side then lost the bronze medal game 3-2 to Finland.

But Gretzky has one souvenir from Nagano he can use in his new job as director of Canada's team for the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City - the experience of having played in the first Olympic hockey tournament with full participation by NHL players.

"The 1998 team management did close to everything right, and yet didn't win a medal," Gretzky recalled Wednesday. "There is a narrow margin between winning and losing."

In February 1998, Gretzky was mobbed by autograph seekers as Canada's team of NHL stars arrived at Nagano's train station as the clear gold medal favourite.

The team put together by general manager Bob Clarke and coached by then-Colorado coach Marc Crawford bounced over-matched Belarus 5-0 in their first round-robin game at Nagano's Big Hat rink.

Then Joe Nieuwendyk had a goal and two assists as Canada beat Sweden 3-2.

Keith Primeau was the hero with two goals as the Canadians exacted revenge with a 4-1 pounding of the Americans to send them into the medal round with a perfect 3-0 record.

A routine 4-1 win over Kazakhstan in the quarter-finals proved costly when centre Joe Sakic's tournament was ended with a strained a knee ligament.

The injury turned out to haunt Canada in the semifinals against the Czech Republic, an underdog side that had only 10 players from NHL teams.

Canada bombarded the Czech net, but Jiri Slegr's goal on a screened point shot had Canadians sweating until Trevor Linden tied the game late in the third period.

When a 10-minute overtime period failed to produce a goal, it went to a shootout. It still stuns many Canadians that Crawford did not select Gretzky as one of his five shooters.

Robert Reichel beat Patrick Roy with the Czechs' first shot. Hasek, in turn, stopped Theoren Fleury, Raymond Bourque, Nieuwendyk, Eric Lindros (who had him beat, but hit the post), and Brendan Shanahan.

That's when the anguished self-analysis started in Canada over a team that clearly was the strongest side in Nagano, but was done in by Hasek and by its own inability to score.

Clarke had opted for size in selecting players and then lost perhaps the quickest and most skilled of his few small forwards when Paul Kariya was knocked unconscious by a cross-check to the jaw from Gary Suter, an American, in an NHL game just before the Olympics.

With Kariya out and Sakic injured, the Canadians were all energy and no finish against the Czechs.

"It hurt us that Joe Sakic got hurt and Kariya wasn't part of it," Gretzky said. "If there was one thing we missed was their goal-scoring abilities.

"Other than that, the team played tremendously. More importantly, it carried itself very professionally."

Look for a greater emphasis on speed and skill in the next Olympic team and for some lessons to have been learned about playing on the larger international ice surface and in a high-pressure tournament environment.

Clarke said at the time the NHL players controlled the areas of the ice that are important in the NHL - the corners and along the boards.

"But over here, those areas aren't as important," Clarke said. "The Europeans play the middle of the ice better."

One aspect Gretzky will likely want to repeat is how the team behaved in Nagano - mingling in the village with poorer and less famous athletes from other sports and supporting other Canadians.

The U.S. team came home in ignominy after some players trashed their rooms.

"I can only speak for myself, but it was one of the highlights of my hockey career," Fleury said of his Olympic experience.

"It went to a shootout. We had momentum and probably would have prevailed in overtime.

"Instead, we went out against probably the best breakaway goaltender in the history of the game."

By Bill Beacon