Salt Lake City – February 20, 2002
The 2002 Olympics were rounding into shape quite nicely during the Final Round. Germany and Belarus, the two weakest teams which had advanced from the Preliminary Round, finished in fourth and last place of their respective groups, and the world’s top six nations had each played three games to get to know each other.
Sweden finished atop Group C with a perfect record, including an impressive 5-2 win over Canada to start the tournament. And, the Czechs finished ahead of Canada for second place based on a better goals differential. In group D, the Americans coached sentimentally by 1980 Miracle on Ice coach Herb Brooks, were first with a 2-1-0 record, while Finland was impressive in second place (2-0-1) while Russia was third (1-1-1).
This set up a series of quarter-finals games that would surely lead to two amazing semi-finals matchups. Canada played Finland, the former the obvious favourites. The host Americans played Germany, an almost certain win for the USA. Russia played the Czechs in the toughest battle. And, Sweden played Belarus in the other easy battle—on paper.
But Sweden did not have such an easy time — on ice.
Nicklas Lidstrom scored early for Sweden to confirm the team’s superiority, but then it was Belarus that scored two goals less than two minutes apart later in the first period. The Swedes tied the game midway through the second thanks to Michael Nylander, but Andrei Kovalev put Belarus ahead 3-2 early in the third. Five minutes later, captain Mats Sundin tied the game, but the Swedes knew now that if they were going to win it wasn’t going to be a blowout as so many people had anticipated.
And then, the unthinkable happened. With time winding down and overtime looking like a distinct possibility, Vladimir Kopat skated down the right side. As soon as he crossed centre ice he fired a long shot at goalie Tommy Salo, content simply to get the puck deep. Salo, however, lost sight of the puck, and it hit him on the top of the helmet. He reacted but didn’t know what to do, and the puck fell behind him and dribbled over the goal line before he could find it. Kopat, in utter disbelief, slid along the ice toward his bench in celebration. The go-ahead goal came with just 2:24 remaining, and Belarus played perfect defense to preserve arguably the most remarkable upset in Olympic history after the Miracle on Ice win in 1980.
Salo never recovered. Although he led Sweden to a bronze medal at the World Championships several weeks later, he never again played with the confidence necessary to play at the world-class level. His downfall came on a fluky goal at the worst time imaginable, and the team went home in disgrace. But for all the blame Salo received, it is easy to forget that Salo was a standout with the Swedish national team for almost a decade and without any doubt the best Swedish goalie in the 90s.
It was also important to note that Sweden being in a 3-3 game with Belarus in the quarter-finals of the Olympics was the result of poor performance by the entire team. It was just easiest on this night to blame the goalie.
As part of the IIHF's 100th anniversary celebrations, www.IIHF.com is featuring the 100 top international hockey stories from the past century (1908-2008). Starting now and continuing through the 2008 IIHF World Championships in Canada, we will bring you approximately three stories a week counting down from Number 100 to Number 11.
The Final Top 10 Countdown will be one of the highlights of the IIHF's Centennial Gala Evening in Quebec City on May 17, the day prior to the Gold Medal Game of the 2008 World Championship.
These are the criteria for inclusion on this list: First, the story has to have had a considerable influence on international hockey. Second, it has to have had either a major immediate impact or a long-lasting significance on the game. Third, although it doesn't necessarily have to be about top players, the story does have to pertain to the highest level of play, notably Olympics, World Championships, and the like. The story can be about a single moment — a goal, a great save, a referee's call — or about an historic event of longer duration — a game, series, tournament, or rule change.