If history is any barometer, one of seven teams will win Olympic gold next month in Vancouver – Canada, Russia, Sweden, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Finland, and United States.
These nations have captured every Olympic and World Championship gold since 1920 (with the exception of Great Britain’s 1936 gold in Garmisch), and the chances of a nation other than these receiving the gold medals on February 28 is slim, indeed.
Of course, history is a large reason these countries continue to win, and history provides motivation and inspiration to current players who know well of the achievements of their countrymen from days gone by. For each of these top nations, there has been a defining moment, an act of heroism, a great play which made victory possible, which created dreams for the present and future generations in these countries. Herewith is a look back at those great players and great moments.
Canada is probably the nation best-known for last-minute heroics during the most crucial games, but no example is greater than Paul Henderson’s goal to win the Summit Series for his nation on September 28, 1972. Henderson’s goal with just 34 seconds left in the eight-game series gave Canada a 6-5 win and a 4-1-3 record to claim victory. It was his third successive game-winning goal at Luzhniki Arena in Moscow and was hailed as the “Goal of the Century” in 1999.
Fast forward to 1987 and the final minutes of game three of the Canada Cup. The Soviet Union won game one, 6-5, in overtime, and Canada responded with its own 6-5 win in double overtime of game two. The deciding game was tied 5-5 and seemed destined for overtime again, but Wayne Gretzky put a soft pass on the stick of Mario Lemieux trailing on the play, and he buried a high wrist shot over the glove of Sergei Mylnikov at 18:34 to give Canada victory.
Of course there have been many other dramatic goals before and since, but none captivated the country and defined Canadian “heart” more than these two.
There is absolutely no doubt the image of Dominik Hasek jumping in the air after stoning all five Canadians in the semi-final shootout in Nagano in 1998 was the penultimate moment in Czech hockey history, and just two days later when he jumped for joy again after shutting out the Russians, 1-0, in the gold-medal game, the great Dominator had completed his career.
Nagano marked the first Olympic gold for a Czech or Czechoslovak hockey team, and while some people might recall it was Robert Reichel’s shot off the post and in that counted as the lone goal in that semi-final shootout, or that Petr Svoboda’s goal was the only score of the gold-medal game, everyone who watches hockey knows it was Hasek’s brilliant play that brought the gold medals to Wenceslas Square.
Finland has produced many great hockey players and come close in many events to winning it all, and yet surprisingly it has just one top-level gold medal in its history, that from the 1995 World Championship in Sweden against the host nation, no less. Even more satisfying, Finland’s coach was Swede Curt Lindström.
But in 1995, it wasn’t one hero who carried the day for Finland but three – Saku Koivu, Ville Peltonen, and Jere Lehtinen. The trio was nicknamed “Tupu, Hupu and Lupu” (Finnish for Donald Duck’s nephew triplets Huey, Dewey and Louie). Behind those names was the “Youth Line” of Koivu (born ’74), Peltonen, and Lehtinen (both ’73). Lehtinen made his major international debut as a 19-year-old in the 1992 Worlds, Koivu came one year later; and, Peltonen arrived at the 1994 Olympics. There, in Lillehammer, they were united for the first time, and going to Stockholm in 1995 they were already known as the “Donald Duck Line”.
The final game was a no contest from start to finish. “Hupu” (Ville Peltonen) scored the three first goals and assisted on the fourth giving Suomi an insurmountable 3-0 lead after two periods. The 4-0 killer goal came early in the third. But the goal that deflated both the Swedish team as well as the partisan crowd was the 3-0-marker, a beautiful tic-tac-toe play between Koivu, defenceman Mika Strömberg, and Peltonen, who connected at 19:56 of the middle period. Final score: Finland 4, Sweden 1.
The name Tretiak is synonymous with great goaltending, and if ever the Cold War’s consequences could be quantified it would be in the fact that this Soviet sensation was never allowed to play in the NHL. His performance internationally, however, left no doubt he would have been a star in North America, and his extraordinary play at the 1981 Canada Cup in Montreal proved as much.
Tretiak made his North American debut on September 2, 1972 at the Montreal Forum in game one of the Summit Series. After two minutes, Canada was leading, 2-0, Tretiak was shaking from nervousness, and a slaughter seemed imminent. Two hours later, his team prevailed, 7-3, and he was on his way to proving his worth to a Canadian audience which had never heard of him.
But Canada managed to win that series, and the Soviets sent far from their best lineup to the first Canada Cup, in 1976. Five years later, best on best, the Soviets would not accept losing in another Canada Cup. In the one-game finals, CCCP faced the Canadians at the Forum, and the first half of the game was so dominated by the home side one wondered if the Soviets deserved to be on the same ice.
Tretiak alone was the reason the score was tied 1-1 midway through the game, and the Soviets soon poured on the offence and coasted to an embarrassingly easy 8-1 win. The Soviets have had other great victories in their history, starting with a 7-2 pasting of Canada at the 1954 World Championship and going all the way to Olympic gold in 1992, but 1981 defined the team’s greatness and the exceptional play of their greatest goalie, Tretiak.
The 2002 World Championship was the sweetest retribution for Slovakia. While the “big six” hockey nations looked forward to Salt Lake City that February, the Slovaks could only wring their hands in frustration as they shuffled players in and out of the lineup based on their NHL availability during the early games. The result was a disappointing 13th place showing, but everyone associated with the team’s hockey program knew they were better than this. Way better.
So, two months later, when the World Championship arrived in Sweden, every top Slovak player available jumped at the chance to play. They advanced to the gold-medal game in dramatic fashion, beating Canada in the quarterfinals by rallying from 2-0 down to win, 3-2, and beating Sweden by the same score in a shootout. They met Russia in the finals, but this time it was the Russians who rallied from 3-1 down after 40 minutes to tie the game in the third period.
Just when overtime seemed likely, though, Peter Bondra scored the greatest goal in Slovak history with just 100 seconds left on the clock, giving his nation a 4-3 win and its first gold medal since achieving independence in 1994. The team hasn’t come particularly close to replicating this glorious victory since, but Bondra will never be replaced as Slovakia’s first great hockey hero.
There have been several great moments that define Swedish hockey, from Tre Kronor’s first win over Canada, 5-3, at the 1962 World Championship to Mats Sundin’s incredible goal to win the 1991 World gold medal in Finland, to Nicklas Lidström’s booming slapshot goal 10 seconds into the third period of the team’s electrifying win in Turin four years ago.
But for all these great moments, none quite speaks to the nation the way Peter Forsberg’s shootout goal over Canada in 1994 in Lillehammer did. The goal, part daring, part steely nerve, was shockingly successful and stunned the hockey world for its success, and it gave Sweden the first ever Olympic gold via the penalty-shot format. Tre Kronor has had several other great moments, but only Forsberg’s goal was made into a postage stamp.
Of course, when you think about the United States in international hockey, one moment towers above all others – the final countdown to the “Miracle on Ice” game, a remarkable 4-3 win over the Soviet Union in the penultimate game of the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. Yes, Jim Craig was the goalie who made it all possible, and Mark Johnson scored two goals in the win, but it was Mike Eruzione, who scored the fourth American goal to break a 3-3 tie with exactly ten minutes to go in the game.
The Americans thwarted one Soviet rush after another for the final half of the third period, giving way to Al Michaels’s historic call, “Do you believe in Miracles?” as he counted down the final ten seconds of the game. The IIHF called this game the greatest moment in international hockey history during its centennial celebrations in 2008, and no American game better encapsulates hockey’s importance to that country.