Back in 1994, the two nations met at the semi-final stage. Once again, it was a game involving a defending champion, and once again, there was a change of identity. In the early 90s, the Unified Team – the last hurrah for the Soviet Union – won gold in 1992. Two years later, playing at an ‘extra’ Winter Games shoehorned into the schedule to have summer and winter Olympics at two-year intervals, we now had Russia lining up in the red corner. Sweden, meanwhile, came to Norway eager to claim its first ever gold.
Since the late 80s, Swedish hockey was on the rise. In World Championship play, the Tre Kronor won three trophies in five tournaments from 1987 to 1992, adding silver medals in 1990 and 1993. That followed a run of three consecutive Olympic bronze medals in Lake Placid, Sarajevo and Calgary. Olympic gold was final achievement needed to firmly cement the country’s place as a leading hockey power.
And the 1994 roster had the quality to raise expectations. The likes of Mats Naslund – World Champion, Stanley Cup winner – and his fellow former NHLers Hakan Loob and Tomas Jonsson added depth and experience. Patric Kjellbeg, Roger Johansson and Jonas Bergqvist also had NHL know-how. Youngsters Peter Forsberg and Kenny Jonsson were on the cusp of starting their illustrious careers across the Atlantic, and six more of the team would go to the big league after these golden Games.
In Russia, though, it was a different story. The 1992 Olympics was the last time the Red Machine was piloted by the biggest names of Soviet hockey. Now, most of the top stars were in the NHL and unable to come to Norway. Similarly, the likes of Vyacheslav Bykov and Andrei Khomutov remained in Switzerland, where their clubs would not release them for international duty. Just six of the 1993 World Champions were available. Amid a background of infighting within Russian hockey, the 1994 roster was underpowered and ill-prepared.
Experienced Russian coach Vladimir Yurzinov recalled in a later interview with Sport Express: “That team was lost, lacking belief in itself. Every player was thinking: ‘Well, all the top players have left, it’s all over; we’re the unlucky leftovers and everyone will beat us.’ Yet, they were good players.”
Among those players was one Alexei Kudashov, currently on Alexei Zhamnov’s coaching staff here in Beijing. Then aged 23, Kudashov had played 25 NHL games that season, but spent most of his time in the AHL and was available to join his country for the Games.
Sweden was very much the favourite. Russia had suffered a shock loss to Germany in the group stage – it’s first ever, and by a deserved 4-2 scoreline. It also endured a chastening 0-5 defeat to Finland, finishing fourth in its group before edging past Slovakia. Sweden, though, had struggled to cope with expectation in the group stage, tying with Slovakia and losing to Canada, but showed signs of progress as it defeated Germany 3-0 in the quarter final.
And there was no shortage of confidence early in the game as the Tre Kronor grabbed two goals in the first seven minutes. Magnus Svensson and Patrik Juhlin did the early damage. Russia got one back late in the opening frame thanks to Andrei Tarasenko, but Bergqvist restored a two-goal cushion in the second period and Juhlin’s second of the game, helped by defensive errors, made it 4-1 early in the third. Russia seemed well beaten but produced a striking rally in the closing moments. Sergei Berezin made it 2-4, then with 11 seconds left Kudashov set up Ravil Gusmanov to make it a one-goal game.
The Russians slumped to a 0-4 loss to Finland in the bronze medal game and went home to face the music. Few in the motherland felt that the Sweden game was as close as the final scoreline suggested, but team captain Alexander Smirnov disagreed, telling R-Sport in 2017: “We got stronger after the second period, put on some pressure and could have scored more. I clearly remember how we had a good advantage, but fate had other ideas.”
Slavic fatalism had little bearing on a Swedish team that was battling sky-high expectations. After reaching the final, Naslund suggested that, counter-intuitively, the weight of home hopes might ease a little.
"I think we've been playing under a lot of pressure since the start because the media in Sweden really wanted us to win the gold," the former Montreal Canadiens said at the time. "Now, that we're in the final, we're more relaxed I think."
Naslund also admitted that he had expected Finland to defeat Canada and go to the final - another sentiment that could be echoed in Beijing, where Finland is again in contention for gold. After the semi-finals, he hinted that the 1994 Finns might have been guilty of believing their own hype. “The Finns have been very impressive throughout the tournament,” he said after the win over Russia. “Maybe, their heads got too big. You've got to play with your feet down on the earth and I don't think they did that."
‘Relaxed’ might not be the word for one of the more memorable Olympic finals. Sweden got its gold medal – and Naslund his place as the founder member of the prestigious Triple Gold Club – but only after a mighty battle with Canada. Tomas Jonsson gave Sweden a first period lead, but the Canadians turned it around with two quick goals midway through the third from Paul Kariya and Derek Mayer. Svensson’s 59th-minute marker salvaged the game and the outcome was decided in a penalty shoot-out when 20-year-old Forsberg pulled off the winning play to stamp his place in hockey history.
Russia had to wait 12 years for a chance to avenge this defeat in Olympic play. The opportunity arrived in 2006 in Torino, and the Russians grabbed it with a 5-0 victory. However, Sweden recovered from that loss to win its second Olympic gold. Will a third meeting of Russians and Swedes at the Games ultimately lead to a third Swedish triumph?