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Reflections: 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics

August 10, 2011

Mame zlato. Ano. 

The Nagano Olympics were the first set of Winter Olympics I truly remember watching. Atlanta in 1996 was the first Summer Olympics, and it worked out well, living on the East Coast and all. But it was the Nagano Olympics that truly had the greatest impact on me. Somehow, the vast time-zone difference actually worked to my advantage: I recall watching many events early in the morning before school, eating cereal. And February vacation fell on the schedule, so that provided even more time to enjoy the coverage. It was a dark, snowy winter that year. A perfect time for the Olympics.

Little did I know, as far as ice hockey went, those Olympics were perhaps among the most important ever, particularly for the victor: the Czech Republic. They defeated Russia, 1-0, with a lone goal by Petr Svoboda in the third period. It was also one of the more politically charged (a politically charged Olympics, no way, you say!). How about one 20 years in the making? Just think back to 1968: Soviet Invasion in then Czechoslovakia. 20 years later, it was payback time. But how did it get to that point, in that gold medal game? It’s pretty impressive. Then you look at the Czech roster, and the image becomes clearer. Hasek at his height, Jagr, Spacek, Hamrlik, Straka, Svoboda, Lang. And you realize just how special that collection of players was.

My first instinct is to look at who else was in those Olympics. The Canadian entry was nothing to sneeze at. Yzerman, Sakic, Pronger, Shanahan, Stevens, Nieuwendyk, Gretzky, Brodeur, Bourque. Sure, some of those players were in their later years, others were just blossoming. They came in fourth.

Look at Russia, the silver medalist, who had the likes of Pavel and Valeri Bure, Federov, Gonchar, Kasparaitis. Look at Finland, and shutter: Selanne, Saku Koivu, Timonen, Numminen, Kurri, Tikkanen. And the Americans, who scraped by at 6th: Hull, Tkachuk, Modano, Roenick, LaFontaine, Weight, Guerin, Chelios, Leetch, Vanbiesbrouck, though it was an off-year for some of those players.

Simply put, the Nagano Olympics are among the golden greats of Olympic hockey. Those were some special Olympics. Sure, the 2010 ones were good. But 1998. Yowzer.

So, starting from just that impeccable field, the importance of the Czech victory comes into even sharper contrast and focus. The Czech team winning the gold that year was a huge deal. They still routinely spill ink on the matter in magazines and newspaper, as recently as last year. And they should.

Victory over the Russians was a test of will for the Czechs, who somehow had the ability to make it all look effortless. Sure, I was 10 years old went I watched it, but there was something seamless about their style of play, something fluid. They played as a team, as one. The sum was greater than their parts. And watching the clip above only enforced that. It was a high-water mark for Czech hockey, and for a national team, very different today, it is a place to reflect on. I’d like to resist romanticizing the win, pouncing on tired Cold War cliches and the like. But it’s true: victory for national Czech, not Czechoslovak hockey, over Russian, not Soviet hockey, was an important and constructive effort in the foraging of national identity and pride. A half century of oppression in every sense had blighted that. We talk of Russian and Canadian rivalry, American and Canadian rivalry–but really, Czech v. Russian rivalry is every bit as gripping. It was just concealed for so long, behind layers of think-speak and politics. It’s never quite been as acute for the Slovak national team, perhaps owing to its team’s early struggles, its relatively rural and remote nature, and the fact the political seat of power was in Prague. In the context of the post-Communist era, the win was a unifying event, one of ascendence for a state which had always been one of the economically better off during the Cold War, but had consequently been more stunted with respect to freedom of speech and expression and travel. A global coming of age was needed.

The Czechs weren’t expected to win gold that year, or any medal at all. Yet they did, against taller and mightier opposition. They were trounced by Team Canada in 1994’s Lillehammer games in the quarterfinals, 3-2. They beat the Americans, and then the Slovaks (by a six goal margin, ouch) in the now defunct consolation matches thereafter. Signs of what would happen four years later were there. And they were realized.

A win.

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