Silver anniversary of Czech Olympic gold
by Derek O'Brien|22 FEB 2023
The Czech players celebrate with their medals after beating Russia in the gold medal game of the 1998 Olympic Winter Games Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament.
photo: IIHF Archive
In the history of the sport of ice hockey, it’s highly possible that there has never been an event more highly anticipated than the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. For the first time, a women’s tournament was included and, also for the first time, the National Hockey League took a break in its schedule to allow the sport’s biggest stars to compete best-on-best at the biggest stage for winter sports.
Against that backdrop, fans around the world debated which of the star-studded lineups from Canada, the United States, Russia and Sweden would win gold but it was the team from Czechia, with only 11 NHLers on its 23-man roster, that seized the day. The day of the final was 22 February, and it was shortly past dawn on a Sunday morning in Czechia when the final seconds ticked off the clock half a world away, with the puck deep in the Russian zone and Czech television play-by-play commentator Robert Zaruba exclaimed: “Otevíráme zlatou bránu olympijského turnaje, jsme olympijští vítězové!”

(We’re opening the golden gate of the Olympic tournament; we are Olympic champions!)
Just 17 months earlier at the World Cup of Hockey – the most recent “best-on-best” international hockey tournament – a Czech team with a larger NHL contingent went 0-3, finishing with an embarrassing 7-1 loss to Germany. Partly because of that, the Czechs were not considered one of the pre-tournament favourites. But when choosing a team for Nagano, the Czech coaching staff of Ivan Hlinka, Slavomir Lener and Vladimir Martinec went a different route.
Of course there were stars such as Dominik Hasek and Jaromir Jagr, Robert Reichel and Roman Hamrlik. But there were also players who played virtually all of their careers in Europe such as defender Libor Prochazka and left winger David Moravec, former NHLers Vladimir Ruzicka and Josef Beranek, and future NHLers like defenders Frantisek Kucera and Jaroslav Spacek, and unheralded 21-year-old winger Milan Hejduk.
“It was a huge surprise for me. I probably wouldn’t have even chosen myself,” Hejduk recently told journalists at a recent legend’s game in Prague to honour the Nagano heroes. “At that time, the coaches had a lot of very good players from the NHL to choose from. I went there as the 13th forward. They could have taken pretty much anybody and they took me as a young guy, but honestly? I didn’t even think I would make the reserve squad.”
In addition to 11 NHLers, the Czech roster included eight players from the Czech Extraliga, three from the Swedish Elitserien and one from the Finnish Liiga. The fact that the two rinks being used in Nagano were of the standard international size rather than the narrower North American variety was an obvious influence on the decision to take so many European-based players.
“It's a different sport on a wider rink,” said Hejduk, who at the time was playing for Czech club HC Pardubice and had never played in a major international tournament at the senior level. “There was probably a reason why the coaches decided on such a mix. In the end, the tournament went perfectly for us, and I believe that the NHL players had problems with those dimensions. Transitioning to the bigger ice without much practice time is not easy at all.”
The group stage held few surprises for the Czechs. They finished second in the four-team group after wins 3-0 over Finland and 8-2 over Kazakhstan followed by a 2-1 loss to Russia. Waiting in the quarter-finals was a U.S. team that many people considered the team to beat heading into Nagano after winning the 1996 World Cup, but had been underwhelming in the group stage with losses to Sweden and Canada and an unconvincing win over Belarus.
“Before the quarter-finals, we had a team meeting and Ivan Hlinka announced that I would play on the fourth line instead of Jan Caloun,” Hejduk recalled. “I don’t know what was behind it either. Jan had played well so it probably wasn’t necessary, but he put me there for some reason.”
The Czechs trailed 1-0 after the first period but captain Ruzicka gave a rousing speech in the intermission, and the team came out for the second period fired up. Czechia scored three times in an 8:14 span in the middle frame, then sat back and withstood an American onslaught in the third period, with Hasek the team’s last line of defence.
Dominik Hasek kisses his Olympic gold medal in Nagano 1998.
photo: IIHF Archive
A tough defensive struggle followed in the semi-finals against Canada, in which Hasek and Patrick Roy matched each other save for save until the last 10 minutes, when Jiri Slegr broke through for the Czechs but Trevor Linden equalized on a late Canadian push. Overtime settled nothing, setting up a nerve-racking shootout. There was only one goal but it was a beauty, with Reichel going post and in on Roy on the Czechs’ first attempt. 

“I just skated in and scored. I wasn’t nervous. Ivan told me on the bench to score, so I did,” Reichel smiled. “It was probably the most important goal I scored for the national team because, if I hadn’t, we might not be sitting here together now.”

That was all the offence Hasek needed, as he famously foiled all five Canadian shooters. 

“I remember Dominik in the breakaway relay at NHL All-Star Skills Competition that season and didn’t let in a goal there either,” said Reichel. “You could see that he was confident, but at the same time it was important that we scored that goal, so then maybe Dominik felt more comfortable as well.” 

The quarter-final and semi-final games both started at 6:45 AM Central European Time on weekday mornings. Many Czechs watched at work or school, while others not willing to miss any of the games on the commute chose to stay home until they were over. Morning rush hour was exceptionally light on those two days. Parents often came up with creative excuses for their children’s lateness. 

The final against Russia started at 5:45 AM on Sunday. Still pitch black on a cold February morning, fans nonetheless gathered to watch outside at public squares throughout the country, most famously and in greatest numbers at Prague’s Old Town Square. They were ready to cheer, but they’d have to be patient. 

The game’s only goal came midway through the third period on a shot from the point by Petr Svoboda, who was himself an interesting choice for the team. Svoboda had defected from communist Czechoslovakia in 1984 at age 18 to play for the Montreal Canadiens, and had since become a naturalized Canadian citizen. Just past his 32nd birthday at the time of the gold medal game – his 14 February birthday coincidentally the same as Hejduk’s – he was representing Czechia for the first time. 

“Pavel Patera got the rebound, Martin Prochazka pushed the puck to Petr Svoboda and I actually just blocked the player who wanted to get to Petr. He fired and it went through us toward the net,” described Hejduk, who was on the ice. 

“But I held the guy there for an awfully long time. It was a pretty obvious penalty,” he laughed. “If you watch the games from Nagano, you’ll see 15 infractions every shift. It was a completely different game of hockey (from what we have now), but that stuff wasn't called at the time.”

Immediately after receiving their medals, the Czech team departed for the airport and made the 9,000-kilometre flight from Tokyo to Prague. The scene awaiting them was absolute bedlam. 

“We heard some news, but only after arriving in the Czech Republic did we really find out how big it was,” said Hejduk. “Life came to a complete standstill here, games were watched in schools, and most of all, the welcome at Old Town Square was incredible. I don’t know if something like that could ever happen again.”
Czech players celebrate a win at the 1998 Olympic Winter Games. Visible from left to right: Milan Hejduk, David Moravec, Petr Svoboda and Pavel Patera.
Then just as quickly, the players dispersed in different directions. Some stayed in Europe, some back to North America, and resumed their regular hockey jobs. 

“I think that for those of us who have already played in the NHL, not so much changed, but for the guys who had only played in the Czech Republic until then, a lot changed,” said Reichel, who was 26 at the time and in the midst of his sixth of 11 NHL seasons. “There was suddenly much more interest in them and some went to the NHL. I think that Nagano was a big help for our hockey.” 

“I was drafted by Quebec in the fourth round in 1994, but there wasn’t much interest in me until 1998, and Nagano helped me a lot after that,” said Hejduk. “Over the summer, I immediately signed a contract and went overseas. They didn’t even send me to the minors – I jumped right into the NHL.”

Hejduk went on to play 14 NHL seasons with the Colorado Avalanche, recording 805 points in 1,020 regular-season games. He led the league with 50 goals in 2002/03 and was a member of the 2001 Stanley Cup championship team. 

“The tournament helped me a lot. I proved to myself that I am capable of playing against the best players in the world. It was very good for my confidence.”

The Czechs kept rolling in international hockey after Nagano, winning three straight IIHF World Championships from 1999 to 2001. The core of players that formed those teams is known domestically as the Golden Generation. 

Hejduk retired from playing in 2013. Patera, Slegr and Martin Rucinsky were among the last Czech players from Nagano to hang up their skates in 2015. The only one left – Jagr – is still chugging along with the Rytiri Kladno team he co-owns, having recently turned 51.

Twenty-five years have passed since that whirlwind scene but it’s not forgotten. Virtually every Czech who is at least 30 years old remembers where they were watching on that cold Sunday morning. Those that aren’t hear the stories. 

Such is the legacy of the men’s Olympic hockey win that a new film has just been released in Czech cinemas to coincide with the anniversary called “Děti Nagana” (Children of Nagano). Set in 1998 with the euphoria of the Czech hockey triumph as a backdrop, a ragtag group of kids are inspired to play hockey and beat a powerful team from a neighbouring village. The main protagonist is the goalie who idolizes Hasek. 

“I’m glad I was part of something that’s never happened here before, and I hope that something like that can be experienced by one of our next generations,” said Reichel.