With the NHL declining to send its players to the 2018 Winter Olympics, there is, admittedly, a lack of star power in the men’s hockey tournament in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
The highly anticipated Connor McDavid vs. Auston Matthews showdown won’t happen this year. There will be no Carey Price heroics or Sidney Crosby golden goals.
That said, no NHLers doesn't mean no excitement. The last time the world’s top hockey league did not participate fully in the Olympics, in 1994, there were plenty of memorable moments.
In fact, former NHL superstar Paul Kariya, who was recently enshrined into the Hockey Hall of Fame, says playing in the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, Norway was the best thing that ever happened in his career. That’s quite a statement when you consider Kariya, now a 43-year-old surfer dude living in Southern California, was a member of Canada’s gold-medal team in 2002 in Salt Lake City.
“My father played rugby for Canada and he always told me the highest honour you can have as an athlete is to represent your country. So even as a young boy growing up, that was probably a bigger goal than trying to play in the NHL for me,” Kariya says. “To achieve that and play in the Olympics, that was a huge moment for me and my family.”
The Canadian team was a hodgepodge of players — some trying to make it to the NHL, some on their way out and a few players involved in contract disputes. It even included Petr Nedved, a Czechoslovakian defector who obtained his Canadian citizenship in time to play in the Games.
The tournament was a thriller, culminating in a nail-biting gold-medal game between Canada and Sweden that went to overtime and then a shootout. It concluded with one of the most remarkable and memorable goals ever scored in the Olympics — future Hall of Famer Peter Forsberg’s one-handed deke to beat Corey Hirsch, an image that ended up on a Swedish postage stamp.
It was a goal for the ages, and one that showed you don’t always need the biggest stars to get a gripping hockey tournament.
Growing up in Cranbrook, B.C., Tom Renney was infatuated with the Canadian men’s national hockey team. So when, in 1992 — fresh off coaching the Kamloops Blazers to the Memorial Cup championship and landing a three-year contract extension — Renney was offered the opportunity to coach the Olympic squad, he jumped at it.
Blazers owner Bob Brown said he would never stand in the way of anybody pursuing his dream job and agreed to terminate the new deal. Renney’s dream of coaching the Canadian men’s national team had come true.
“When I was 12 years old, Father David Bauer [an ordained Catholic priest and longtime executive with the national team] came and spoke at a minor hockey banquet in my hometown,” Renney recalls.
“Father Bauer spoke about the national team, representing your country and the feeling of playing hockey with a maple leaf on the front of your sweater. At that time I was thinking about how much I’d love to play for the national team one day.”
That did not happen, but Renney never took his eyes off the prize. He got into coaching and, while others in his position had aspirations of working behind the bench of an NHL team, Renney had a different goal in mind.
“My only objective was to coach the national team,” he says. “As time went on and I was navigating my coaching career, it became more and more clear that I wanted to coach the Olympic team.”
Dany Dube was hired as a co-coach with Renney for the 1992-93 season, while George Kingston, who had considerable international hockey experience, was made the team’s director of hockey operations. Paul Henry was added as a scout, and went to work with Kingston on constructing the roster.
Thus began the long and onerous chore of building an Olympic hockey team.
The Team Canada dressing room could have used a revolving door as 77 players suited up for at least one game during the 1992-93 season.
Among them was Greg Johnson, who would go on to play in the ’94 Olympics before embarking on an NHL career where he’d appear in 785 games. Other former and future NHLers included Derek Laxtal, Brad Werenka, Serge Boisvert, Ken Yaremchuk, Marc Habscheid, Cory Stillman and Aaron Ward. Brian Propp, who was 33 and had 934 NHL games to his credit, played three games and had three goals and four points. Brett Lindros, 16 years old at the time, played 11 games, scoring a goal and seven points with 33 penalty minutes.
Adrian Aucoin, then 19, played 42 games with the national team, scoring eight goals and 18 points. Chris Therien, 20, played eight games with Team Canada and also spent time with Providence College and the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League. Both players made the Olympic team.
“I had just finished my junior year at Providence and the Philadelphia Flyers, who drafted me in 1990, were expressing a lot of interest in me,” Therien says. “Paul Henry told me if I didn’t want to go to the NHL or I thought I’d be spending time in the minors, I could still get good experience playing at a high level with the national team. He said if I played well enough I’d get a shot at making the Olympic team the following year.
"The Flyers weren’t too happy about my decision to go that route, but in hindsight I’m glad I took the opportunity.”
Therien played well enough in his ’92-93 audition that he was signed to a contract to play with the Olympic team the following year. He didn’t need to worry about being cut, even if he played sparingly in the Olympic tournament.
Interestingly, when the 1993 world championship rolled around, just three players that would ultimately play for the Olympic team — Johnson, Kariya and Brian Savage — would play for Team Canada. The rest of the team was made up of NHL players.
When the 1993-94 season began, it was time for the Olympic team to get down to business. Leading up to the Games, Team Canada continued to play exhibitions, including a series of games against the United States. Renney was named the head coach of the team and Dube was named associate coach.
Slowly, but surely, the final roster started to come together.
Kariya agreed to play for the Canadian team, but was allowed to spend the first semester studying at the University of Maine and playing NCAA hockey. He joined the Olympic team in December.
Team Canada was fortunate to land a few NHL players who were at odds with their teams. Chris Kontos, who scored 27 goals and 51 points in 66 games with Tampa Bay in 1992-93, turned down what he felt was an unflattering offer to remain with the Lightning and elected to play for his country.
Kontos, along with Todd Brost, had been a last-minute cut from Canada’s 1992 Olympic team after it secured the services of NHLers Dave Tippett and Dave Hannan. Even though his desire was to land an NHL contract in 1993-94, he decided to take another shot at playing in the Olympics.
“I’m of Greek descent,” Kontos says. “As a 10-year-old I lived in Greece and saw the Olympic ruins. It was on my bucket list to play in the Olympics.”
Kontos was a very good NHL player who enjoyed a couple of career highlights, including scoring nine goals in 11 Stanley Cup playoff games for the Los Angeles Kings in 1988-89. Renney was happy to have him aboard.
“He had the ability to fill a leadership role on our team,” the coach says. “He still had enough runway and we believed he’d be very helpful to us. Turns out we were right.”
Then there was Hirsch. The goaltender was coming off his rookie season in the New York Rangers organization, where he was the AHL goalie of the year and rookie of the year with the Binghamton Rangers. He believed his future was bright and that he would ultimately replace John Vanbiesbrouck. The dream went up in smoke when the Rangers signed veteran Glenn Healy to a four-year contract for $1 million US per season. Hirsch was loaned to the Canadian Olympic team.
“I wasn’t cool with the Healy contract,” Hirsch admits. “Back then a backup goalie making a million a year was an unmovable contract. It meant I wasn’t going to get my shot at playing in the NHL for four more years. That wasn’t Healy’s fault, but looking at my own situation as I was trying to get to the NHL, I had to consider what was best for me. I was excited to go to the Olympics, no question.”
The strangest addition to the team was Nedved. Born in Liberec, Czechoslovakia in 1971, he had defected to Canada as a teenager. After playing three NHL seasons with Vancouver, the 21-year-old was at an impasse in his contract negotiations with the Canucks. Having never played internationally for his home country, Nedved was eligible to represent Canada at the Olympics after attaining his Canadian citizenship.
“We made inquiries with Pat Quinn and George McPhee in Vancouver and asked if we could sequester Petr to play with us in the Olympics,” Renney says. “They said as long as the player is interested, they would have no problem with it. It served a purpose for them, too. If they were going to try to trade him and he had a great Olympic Games, it would help them. Or they could sign him based on his Olympic performance. Petr played for us as a Canadian and he was outstanding.”
The players on Team Canada were thrilled when they got the news that Nedved was in, even if they didn’t quite understand the mechanics of how a Czech could play for Canada at the Olympic Games.
“It’s amazing what can happen when you tell your government you need a guy to help you win an Olympic gold medal,” Therien says.
“We had a ringer,” Kariya laughs. “Petr was one of the most talented players I ever played with. He had great vision and incredible hands. He also had one of the best wrist shots I have ever seen. We were lucky to have him on our team.”
The Canadian coaching and management staff’s plan was to ice a skilled two-way team that could attack and put pressure on the opposition from an offensive standpoint.
“We put together a team that would be balanced and responsible defensively,” Renney says. “We wanted a couple of players on each line that would be able to score, but because we thought scoring would be at a premium, we had to have 200-feet by 100-feet players who could play the game collectively well together. We thought the goaltending would be key as we worked our way through the competition and it was.”
Because there were so many players moving in and out of the lineup leading up to the Games, Canada was late in building the team chemistry that would ultimately allow it to get to the gold-medal game.
“The constant shuffling in and out of players was a nightmare, an absolute nightmare,” Therien says. “Guys were coming in and out all the time. A few of us young guys had contracts so we didn’t have to worry, but for some guys it was a terrible experience. You could be with the team one day and the next day get a random phone call from Tom Renney telling you you’d been let go. You were trying to build team chemistry, but guys were coming and going all the time.
“I didn’t have to live on eggshells like some other players, but I saw some guys literally get cut a few days before the Olympics.”
Things started to come together when Kariya and Nedved joined the team. Suddenly a team that was goal-challenged had two legitimate scoring threats. Throw 22-year-old Brian Savage into the mix and you had some serious offensive oomph.
Still, Canada was not regarded as a medal threat for the Games in Lillehammer.
“We weren’t ranked very high, barely in the top 10 in the world,” Kariya says. “But I really felt we had a great team. We also knew we’d be adding a few players who were playing pro in Europe. I could see our team really coming together.”
Hirsch, however, struggled as the Olympic Games were drawing near.
“Around early February, Corey wasn’t feeling particularly good about his game and wasn’t sure of his status,” Renney says. “We met and I told him, ‘Just so you know, I don’t give a crap what happens between now and the Olympic Games, but at the Olympic Games you are our starter so let’s get to work and go win ourselves an Olympic gold medal.’ I had him in Kamloops and won a Memorial Cup with him and knew what he was capable of doing.”
Hirsch recalls being concerned about losing his job with the team and was thankful for the reassurance from his coach.
“I had heard rumblings they were thinking of bringing somebody else in,” Hirsch says. “So for Tom to tell me the job was mine allowed me to put my focus on playing the first game of the Olympics. It settled me down. He’s a good coach who knows what to say to players. He knew what I was going through, but he also knew I could get the job done.”
It turned out to be a great decision on Renney’s part as Hirsch played brilliantly at the Olympics.
Had there been full NHL participation, the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Doug Gilmour, Joe Sakic, Mark Messier, Joe Nieuwendyk, Ray Bourque, Al MacInnis, Steve Larmer, Eric Lindros, Theoren Fleury and Brendan Shanahan, among others, would have been called upon to represent Canada.
As it was, Canada’s final roster included Hirsch, Manny Legace and Allain Roy in net; Aucoin, Therien, Derek Mayer, Brad Werenka, Ken Lovsin, David Harlock and Brad Schlegel on defence; Kariya, Nedved, Kontos, Savage, Todd Hlushko, Fabian Joseph, Dwayne Norris, Wally Schreiber, Greg Parks and Jean-Yves Roy at forward.
There weren’t a lot of household names on the team, but Hirsch was convinced Canada could find success.
“Because of the bigger ice we had to play a possession game,” Hirsch says. “In the first half of the year it was all about defending because we were getting killed. Then we added some offensive talent and once we got to the Olympics we started to get more aggressive.”
Canada played in a handful of pre-Olympic tournaments, including the Izvestia Cup in Russia, the Globen Cup in Sweden and another event in Anchorage, Alaska. The team also toured through North America and Europe playing exhibition games.
“That’s the way the national team was run back then,” Kontos says. “You’d play in all these pre-tournaments like a circus. You’d play seven games in nine nights across Alberta and the Northwest Territories. You’d be just dying, but you do it for the national team. We had a bunch of gritty, good guys.”
It was a tough schedule and Team Canada suffered its share of defeats. The players, however, believed in Renney and kept working hard.
“Tom was very methodical and polished,” Kontos says. “He had a great strategy and had things very well planned out. We had guys that knew what they were doing. In some of the games we took our lumps, but we just kept working hard and eventually I think we wore teams down.”
Renney felt good about his squad going into the Games.
“We came together when we needed to,” he says. “I think we played the Americans 10 times leading up to the Olympics and lost to them seven times, but we knew we were going to be a good team. At the end of the day we tied them [in the round robin] at the Olympics, but we played in the last game of the tournament and they didn’t.”
Canada’s unheralded team opened the Olympic Games with a 7-2 win against Italy and followed that with a 3-1 victory against France. Canada tied the United States 3-3 and then lost 3-1 to Slovakia before concluding the preliminary round with a 3-2 win against Sweden.
“With every game we were getting better,” Kariya says. “Corey Hirsch was playing great for us in goal.”
Did Renney lose faith after Canada tied the States and lost to Slovakia?
“No, not at all,” he says. “When you’re playing with house money, poker is a lot of fun. We were not picked to do well, but we believed in ourselves completely... you can appreciate that motivated us.”
Kariya, just 18 at the time, scored the overtime winner in Canada’s 3-2 win over the Czech Republic in the quarter-finals.
Then, in the semifinals, Canada defeated Finland 5-3. After falling behind 2-0, Canada rattled off five straight goals to secure the win.
With the victory, Canada was suddenly assured of winning at least a silver medal. With full NHL participation, it’s gold or bust for Canada. But back in ’94, with a rag-tag team of hockey vagabonds, just making it to the final game was quite an accomplishment.
“There was nothing to lose in the gold-medal game,” Hirsch said. “We were getting a medal, we just didn’t know what colour. That took a lot of pressure off.”
The gold-medal game was played on Feb. 27 before 9,187 fans at Hakons Hall in Lillehammer. Sweden took a 1-0 lead in the first period on a goal by Tomas Jonsson and the second period was scoreless.
In the third period, Kariya tied the game at 9:08 and Mayer scored the potential game-winner at 11:43. Suddenly the team that nobody thought would amount to much had a gold medal within its grasp.
Renney admits, all these years later, that it occurred to him as the clock ticked toward 60 minutes that Canada could win it all.
“Just because we wanted it that bad,” he says.
Cue the disappointment.
Magnus Svensson tied it 2-2 with a power-play goal with 1:49 remaining in regulation and then the teams went scoreless in overtime.
So on to the shootout. And here’s where things got a little weird.
For starters, Canada’s plan entering the game was to replace Hirsch with Legace if the game got to a shootout.
“Because of Corey’s style as a standup goalie, Dany and I thought we’d put Manny in for the shootout because of his ability to play the butterfly style,” Renney says. “The Swedes liked to deke. Not many of them came in and shot. The bottom line is we thought Manny gave us a better chance to win the shootout.”
That plan was squelched when Legace was injured in warm-ups, which meant Roy dressed as the backup. Not that Hirsch ever believed he’d actually be pulled.
“Legace was a better shootout goalie than me, no question,” Hirsch says. “But would they have really done it after I had played so well? Are you really, in a gold-medal game, going to throw in a cold goalie?”
Nedved shot first for Canada and snapped a shot past Tommy Salo, who went on to play 526 NHL games, high to the glove side. Hakan Loob, who played 450 games with the Calgary Flames between 1983 and 1989, shot low on Hirsch and was stopped.
Kariya was up second for Canada and followed Nedved’s lead, beating Salo glove-side high. With Canada holding a convincing 2-0 lead in the five-man shootout, gold seemed almost inevitable.
That feeling didn’t last long. Svensson, a defenceman, got it back for Sweden when his deke froze Hirsch.
Norris, Parks and Johnson missed for Canada on its next three shots and Forsberg, Sweden’s fourth shooter, beat Hirsch with a backhand deke.
With the shootout now in sudden-death mode, Svensson shot first and missed. Nedved was up next and made a move that should have given Canada gold. No luck, though.
“Nedved went in and he had a huge curve on his stick,” Kariya says. “The European toe-curve, plus an upshot. He beat the goalie cleanly and tried to take a backhand shot, but the curve on his stick caused the puck to roll off the blade and he missed the open net.”
Forsberg then scored the goal of a lifetime. The man who would go on to win the NHL’s rookie of the year award the following season, capture the scoring title and MVP honours in 2002-03 and win two Stanley Cups with Colorado faked to his left, causing Hirsch to follow him. Then, with one hand on his stick, the 20-year-old Swede reached back and allowed the puck to roll off his blade and into the yawning cage.
“I thought I had it,” Hirsch says. “When you see me reach back with my glove, he barely gets around it. He dekes me and there is a thought in my mind when I cut him off at the post that I had him. He seemingly had nowhere to go. Then he does the move and it was like, ‘Oh, crap!’”
That left Kariya to try to tie it for Canada and keep the shootout alive.
Kariya headed to centre ice prepared to shoot, but an off-ice official held his arm up, signaling for the player to wait. And wait. And wait.
“They must have been replaying Peter’s goal over and over again because the official wouldn’t let me shoot,” says the man who would score more than 400 NHL goals and be Forsberg’s teammate for a brief time in Colorado. “I just kept circling and circling and the longer it took, the more nervous I got. My plan went right out the window. By the end all I wanted to do was make sure I got a shot on goal.”
He did. But Salo stopped it.
Gold: Sweden. Silver: Canada. Bronze: Finland.
The baby-faced Kariya led Canada in scoring in the tournament with three goals and seven points. Nedved came through with five goals and six points while Hlusko, who was a secondary scorer in junior and in the minors, surprised with five goals in eight games. The no-name defence was solid and Hirsch was superb.
A silver medal wasn’t what he planned for, but Renney was proud of his team’s accomplishment nevertheless. He’d go on to be a head coach in the NHL with Vancouver, the Rangers and Edmonton and is now involved in getting Team Canada ready for the 2018 Olympics as the president and CEO of Hockey Canada.
“We were picked to finish seventh or eighth and not even come close to making the medal round,” Renney says. “So to beat the teams we did, including Finland, which was undefeated until we beat them, I am still very proud of that team.
“They say you don’t win a silver medal, you only lose a gold. I would tell you we won that silver medal without a doubt.”