NOVEMBER 2005
The 1994 Winter Olympic Gold Medal Game
Saving The Best for the Last

By Mark Weisenmiller

Actually, the above line is a bit of a misnomer — we are starting this regular feature series with what is easily the best (in terms of suspense and tension) hockey game that this reporter ever saw.

Traditionally, the men's ice hockey gold medal game is the last major event held during a Winter Olympics. This was the case with the 1994 Winter Olympics, held in Lillehammer, Norway.

The game pitted Canada against Sweden. Two of the many young NHL stars-to-be who played in this game were Canada's Paul Kariya and Sweden's Peter Forsberg. Both men played pivotal parts in the match. At the time, NHL players were not eligible to play in Winter Olympics tournaments.

Not only was this hockey game notable for sports historians, but so was this particular Winter Olympics. As the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to hold Summer and Winter Olympics in different years, the XVIII Winter Olympics of 1994 were the first festival of sports to be held in such a manner.

Twelve countries had hockey teams in the 1994 Winter Olympics and the teams were separated into two groups. Group A had teams from Austria, the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Norway, and Russia. Those hockey clubs in Group B came from Canada, France, Italy, Slovokia, Sweden, and the United States.

Eight teams qualified for the quarterfinals and the winners of the games in this series were Canada, Finland (which beat Team USA, 7-1, which thus made the Americans finish eighth in the tournament, it's lowest posting in Winter Olympics history), Sweden, and Russia. Then Canada beat Finland (5-3) and Sweden beat Russia in a close game (4-3). In the bronze medal game, the Finns surprised the hockey world by shutting out Russia (4-0).

The gold medal game between Canada and Sweden was played in Hakons Hall in Lillehammer on February 27th, 1994. Due to the game's length, it didn't end until the early morning hours in the eastern portion of the United States.

The teams were evenly matched and for some time, Sweden seemed like it was going to hold on to its 1-0 lead to win the gold medal. Then came the third period and it was in this last period of regulation play that the game really became emotional and intense.

Paul Kariya (only 19 years old at the time) and Derek Mayer played for Team Canada and both beat Sweden's goaltender Tommy Salo, each with blazing slap shots, to tally goals. Team Canada now held a 2-1 lead with slightly over eight minutes left to play.

Sweden then began to pressure Canada's goalie Corey Hirsch, as it needed to tie the game for the Nordic country to have any possible chance to, later in the evening, win the gold medal. As Team Sweden's pressure on Team Canada, via creating possible scoring opportunities, increased, Team Canada's counter-defensive play became more violent. Then the unthinkable (unthinkable if some of the estimated two billion TV viewers of the game were rooting for Team Canada) happened — Brad Werenka of Team Canada, a bruising defensemen, knocked down Sweden's Mats Naslund quite hard and was called for a penalty.

Now there was only 130 seconds left in regulation play. Magnus Svensson of Sweden, picked up the puck at the blue line in the Canadian zone. Shortly before this, Team Sweden's players began to position themselves in front of Canada's net, hoping to possibly deflect a shot into the Canadian team's goal. The power-play killing unit for Team Canada skated over to the Swedes, naturally, to try and clear the slot.

Svensson fired a slap shot towards the net and Hirsch, who was completely screened by the scrum of players in front of him, barely moved. The puck got past him, tying the game at 2, and there was 1:29 left to play in the third period. Believing that it had the momentum, Team Sweden then went into a offensive crash mode, desperately trying to score a goal to win the game, but failed to do so. For the first time in the history of the modern Winter Olympics, an overtime period would be needed in a gold medal game to determine the winner.

In a February 28, 1994 Washington Post story about the game, Johnette Howard, who covered the match for the newspaper, then described what followed:

"The overtime was much like regulation, with the Swedes running their breathtaking, patterned offense that relies on pinpoint passing and some striking stickhandling and skating, and the Canadians playing their grinding, board-crashing, dump-and-chase game. Both sides had their chances to score — in one sequence, after Forsberg roared in and missed wide right, Kariya took the puck end-to-end and blasted a shot that got by Salo but went just to the left of the net."

The crowd's enthusiasm and noise level actually increased, rather than decreased, as the game progressed. This was one of those rare occasions when an audience at a sporting event quickly intuits, en masse, that they are watching something historic happening. Also, the enthusiasm of CBS-TV play-by-play announcer Mike Emerick — and his partner, color commentator John Davidson — became more noticeable as the game went on.

Neither team scored during the 10-minute long overtime, so a five-round shootout was then used. Canada's Peter Nedved scored first, by swooping in on Salo and sweeping the puck by him. Kariya then put Team Canada up by two, when he sent a lightning-fast wrist shot past Salo. Svensson brought the Swedes within one, as he scored courtesy of a neat deke move. Forsberg, only 20 years old, also scored using a deke move on Salo. The score in the shootout ended in a 2-2 tie and many of the TV viewers of the match, who were unfamiliar with Olympic hockey rules, had to be wondering what was next.

What was next was a sudden-death shootout. Team Sweden got the chance to shoot first and selected Forsberg for the honor. The Swede started at center ice with the puck, cradled it on his stick, deked right, then left, then right again, and then scored on a one-handed, back-handed shot — a remarkable goal.

Now came Canada's turn. With most of Hakon Hall's crowd on it's feet, Kariya started skating with the puck towards Salo from his own team's goal crease. The speedy Kariya zoomed in on Salo and, sometime during the skate up-ice, decided to try to beat Salo with a shot that was to go high and just into the net above the cross-bar.

Salo skated out to challenge Kariya, met him at the top of the goal crease, then flipped to the side to cover as much of the net as possible. Kariya's shot was slapped aside by Salo with his blocker pad and then bedlam ensued. The crowd cheered loudly and all of Team Sweden — it's coaches, players, trainers, etc. — skated towards Salo and mobbed him.

For the first time in it's history, Sweden had won a Olympic gold medal in hockey and the country did something unique to memorialize the event. One year later, Sweden issued a commemorative stamp of the game. On it was an artist's color illustration of the famous " God's eye" (a type of camera shot, taken from a great height, looking strait down on the subject of a photo) picture of Forsberg scoring the winning goal. Never in Sweden's history had it ever put a picture of a hockey player on a stamp and, 10 years after the first release of the " Forsberg stamp," it has yet to again feature a hockey player in such a manner.




 
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