February 22, 1998 – Nagano, Japan
Although the Czech Republic could not have won gold at the 1998 Olympics without goalie Dominik Hasek, it was Petr Svoboda of the Czech Republic who was the final hero of the tournament, the first Olympics which included full participation of NHL players. Hasek had led the team to the gold-medal game by stopping all five Canadian players in a semi-finals shootout win, but it was Svoboda who scored the lone goal in the final game of the Olympics against Russia.
The goal came midway through the third period of a scoreless game, and it came on a surprisingly unspectacular play. With a faceoff deep in the Russian end, Czech centre Pavel Patera won the draw from Sergei Fedorov. Martin Prochazka got the puck at the top of the circle and moved it further back to Svoboda at the point, and his hard quick shot beat goalie Mikhail Shtalenkov for the game’s only goal. Amazingly, this was Svoboda’s first appearance with the national team at the senior level, even though, at 32 years of age, he was the second-oldest player on the team. This was his only goal of the Olympics.
As soon as the puck went in, many fans at the Big Hat arena in Nagano celebrated, but tens of thousands more joined in from long distance. A giant TV screen had been erected in Old Town Square in the centre of Prague, and they waved flags, hugged each other, and cheered with pride as the goal was scored. At the end of the game, history had been made. The Czechs had defeated the two most successful hockey nations in the sport’s history—Canada and Russia—to win its first gold in 78 years of Olympic hockey.
After the medal ceremony, Hasek said: "When I saw the flag go up, I saw my whole career flash before my eyes from the first time my parents took me to a hockey game until now." The team flew to Prague the next day for a celebratory parade, and estimates of more than a million people in the national capital speak to the win not just as a sporting moment of Czech history but a cultural one as well.
Perhaps, however, the single most important aspect about the win was the makeup of the team. The Czechs used only ten NHLers. The other players came from the Czech Extraliga. The message was clear. European leagues were of very high quality, and, if coached properly, could beat the best from any country on a given day.
The 1998 Olympics weren’t the success many had thought they’d be for Canada and the United States—neither country won a medal—but for European fans and for those who wanted only the best players to participate in the Olympics the message was clear—this is the way of the future.
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.