NHL takes break and releases players for 1998 Olympics
February 7-22, 1998 – Nagano, Japan
There were two key events which led to the almost full participation of NHL players at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan. The first was the NHL lockout that cost fans most of the 1994-95 season. Out of this lockout came a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, and among the agreed-upon paragraphs in the new CBA was a commitment by both the players and the league to shut down NHL operations for long enough to ensure worldwide promotion of the North American game during the Nagano Games.
The second event represented a textbook definition of irony. In 1970, Canada had withdrawn from international hockey in protest over the IIHF’s refusal to allow pros to play in the World Championships and Olympics. Yet, in the discussions for participation in 1998, Canada alone objected to the use of pros, preferring instead to see the Olympics remain an amateur competition. Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson confessed as much: "All of the European countries, along with the U.S., wanted NHL players involved because they really thought it would give better exposure to hockey globally. We were the odd federation out, so we went on side with it."
IIHF president René Fasel also saw this participation as a tremendous opportunity, and the NHL hoped it would kick start interest – and NHL participation – again in 2002, when the Olympics would take place in Salt Lake City, Utah. The biggest obstacle to overcome in 1998 was time. For NHLers, Nagano was halfway around the world, and playing with severe jetlag would hardly produce the high level of hockey that would, indeed, be great promotion.
Again, there was agreement and compromise. The NHL went so far as to shut down for 17 days, and the IIHF re-jigged the playing format to allow for the top teams to overcome their travel fatigue without jeopardizing their chances of winning. Some 14 countries took part in Nagano, but the tournament was held in two distinct stages. The first was a qualifying stage among the lower eight countries which played a round robin within two groups of four teams. The top team from each group advanced to the next round, the round NHLers started to play.
Those “best of the worst” teams proved to be Kazakhstan and Belarus, and each was put in a group of four teams in another series of round-robin games featuring the top teams. The advantage to this format was that it virtually guaranteed three warm-up games for the NHL-heavy big-hitters prior to the quarter-finals. Of course, Kazakhstan and Belarus failed to advance to the playoff round, and only the top teams remained for a tense series of elimination games.
These provided drama and upsets that the NHL, IIHF, and fans around the world couldn’t have anticipated. Czech goalie Dominik Hasek shut out Canada in a semi-final shootout, and then he shut down the Russians in a 1-0 Czech win for the gold medal. Earlier, Finland beat Canada for the bronze medal. The TV ratings were excellent, and the general response to NHL participation was so favourable that it has been the norm ever since. But 1998 remains the pivotal Olympics, another in the series of turning points that is hockey’s history.
About the Top 100 Stories
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.