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How Hasek led the Czech Republic to glory: A look back at the Nagano Olympics

Twenty years later, Dominik Hasek still can’t believe he carried his country to the top of the hockey world in the first Winter Games to feature NHL stars.

Twenty years after one of the most memorable performances in Olympic hockey history, Dominik Hasek spends his days in his homeland doing a lot of hunting and golfing. He has also developed a beverage called Smarty Premium Drink, which, when you think about the way Hasek approached the game, probably should be the Czech Republic’s version of Red Bull. Instead, Smarty Premium Drink is a relaxing herbal beverage culled from spring water in Moravia. “It is for everyone who loves nature,” insists Hasek on a promotional video in which he’s wearing a black fedora. “Not just for hunters, fishermen and beekeepers.”

Well, OK. Not surprisingly, Hasek manages to keep busy, not quite as busy as he was in the goal crease during his remarkable NHL and international career, but he still speaks in that hyper-staccato manner that seemed almost as haphazard and unpredictable as the way he played. Reflecting upon the 1998 Nagano Olympics, where he delivered a performance every bit as memorable for an underdog team as Jack McCartan did for Team USA in 1960 and Jim Craig duplicated for the Americans 20 years later, Hasek sometimes still can’t believe what he and his teammates were able to accomplish in the first best-on-best Olympics. “It was something I always dreamed of winning, my whole career I dreamed about it,” said Hasek in a telephone interview from Prague. “And my vision came true. It was more than a dream for me. So many great players never got to do this. I dreamed about doing it, and when it happened, it was more than a dream.”

Perhaps it’s only fitting that Hasek, who broke the mold with a reckless abandon never seen before or since, holds one hockey distinction that nobody else in the history of the game shares, or perhaps will ever share. The only player who has ever been the top goalie in the Olympics, the World Championship, the World Junior Championship and the NHL – as his six Vezina Trophies attest – is Hasek. (Only Carey Price, who’s yet to be named top goalie in a World Championship, comes close.) They were all remarkable feats for a goaltender who had to be convinced by Mike Keenan to keep slugging away in North America. By the time the Czechs came to Nagano in 1998, Hasek was at the apex of his game. He had already won three Vezinas, he was the defending Hart Trophy winner and at 33 was in the midst of a season that would see him named league MVP again.

But the Czechs? Seriously? Going into that tournament, all the focus was on Canada and the U.S., for which a gold-medal showdown seemed almost a foregone conclusion. The Canadians, eager to avenge their loss to the U.S. in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, had a murderer’s row lineup consisting of 13 future Hall of Famers. The Americans had five Hall of Famers on the roster, including some of the most talented players in the world.

The Czechs, though, who had won the World Championship in 1996 and finished third in 1997, were a relatively young and unknown bunch, but they had the best goalie in the world with them and were not carrying the burden of expectation the way Canada and the U.S. were. “I think that the way they treated our team and the way they looked at us, it was definitely an advantage,” Hasek said. “There was only two big stars on this team, Jaromir Jagr and me. The rest of the players, the world didn’t know them much yet. They knew, but they didn’t know these guys could be such great players.”

 THE DOMINATOR Hasek and the Czechs lost 2-1 to the Russians in the round robin, but captured gold in a rematch.B Bennett/Getty Images

THE DOMINATOR Hasek and the Czechs lost 2-1 to the Russians in the round robin, but captured gold in a rematch.B Bennett/Getty Images

And having Ivan Hlinka behind the bench was a huge factor for the Czechs. In Hlinka, they had a coach who had been one of the greatest players in the country’s history, with tons of experience in international tournaments. He was a coach who garnered respect from his players because they knew he had seen everything and was accomplished. His defensive system limited opportunities and gave the Czechs the chance to compete in every game.

So by the time they arrived in Nagano, free to fly under the radar, the Czechs and Hasek were feeling good about their chances to sneak in and perhaps grab a medal. Their first test came against the Finns, a team that was equally unheralded. It was an easy game for Hasek. He faced only 17 shots and registered a shutout. But more than anything, that game set the template for the Czechs, and the snowball started rolling. Their confidence swelled with their performance and Hasek was able to sense during and after that game that there might be something special about this group of players. “I was a little nervous because I didn’t know what to expect from our team,” Hasek said. “Some of the guys I met for the first time there. But I started to think at this time that maybe this team can do something big. I could feel it on the ice, the way we played. I could just feel it.”

After a predictable 8-2 blowout of Kazakhstan, the Czechs faced the Russians in the last game of group play with first place on the line. The difference between winning and losing was enormous. The winner would face Belarus in the quarterfinal, while the loser would have a much more difficult path to the gold medal. Leading 1-0 going into the third period, the Czechs gave up two goals in 10 seconds and lost 2-1. Because of that win, the Russians drew Belarus in the quarterfinal and Finland in the semifinal, while the Czechs drew the powerful Americans in the quarterfinal. As it turned out, the U.S. team hugely underachieved to that point, going just 1-2-0 in group play, but now that the games were of the win-or-go-home variety and everyone was starting again with a blank slate, it was expected the Americans would start playing their ‘A’ game.

The quarterfinal game against the U.S. was, from Hasek’s standpoint, an incredible and intriguing study in contrasts. “The first period was, I think, our worst period in the whole tournament,” Hasek said. “We played terrible hockey. We came to the locker room and we were down only 1-0 and we felt terrible. Our captain, Vladimir Ruzicka, told us, ‘We cannot worry about their team. We have to skate, we have to pass and we cannot be afraid.’ He said, ‘We are good hockey players. We can be as good as they are.’ We came on the ice in the second period and it was Jaromir Jagr’s game. I think that after we scored our first goal in that game, we were the best team in the Olympics.”

With the chance to play for a medal, the Czechs sent the Americans home, but not before the guys from the U.S. took their frustrations out on the furniture in their rooms in the athletes’ village. After the 4-1 win, the Czechs moved on to a date with Canada in a game that looked to be almost as much as a mismatch as when the powerful Soviets faced the U.S. in 1980. Hasek was coming off a brilliant game against the Americans in which he stopped 38 of 39 shots and was riding a .955 save percentage entering the semifinal. The Canadian team played a slow, tentative game that fell right into the Czechs’ hands. Whereas the game against the U.S. was a wide-open affair, the game against Canada was more like a chess match. Trevor Linden finally beat Hasek to tie the score 1-1 with 1:03 remaining in regulation, which set up the most dramatic shootout in international hockey history.

Quite simply, Hasek crushed the spirits of both the Canadian team and the entire country of Canada with his performance in the shootout. Canada’s shooters seemed confused and tentative, not sure what approach to take and completely in the dark about how Hasek would react. Hasek’s unorthodox approach, coupled with the success he was having in the NHL, was in the heads of the Canadian shooters as they approached. And other than the fourth shot when Eric Lindros hit the post, Canada didn’t come close to solving Hasek.

With members of the Czech team standing arm-in-arm on their bench, Theoren Fleury was the first shooter for Canada and the first in the shootout. Hasek came out to meet Fleury, giving no ground and staring him down. “I got it with the right shoulder.” Then Robert Reichel scored on Patrick Roy, which gave Hasek all the cushion he needed. Realizing that he could still make a mistake and his team would be tied in the shootout emboldened Hasek to be aggressive against the Canadian shooters.

Next was Ray Bourque, a curious choice who missed the net completely. Then came Joe Nieuwendyk, a left shot who tried a backhand deke that didn’t even come close to fooling Hasek, who followed it all the way. With Canadian captain Eric Lindros coming in with speed, he also went to his backhand on the other side of the cage and hit the post past a sprawling Hasek. It has long been debated whether Hasek got a piece of Lindros’ backhand on the play. “Maybe yes, maybe no,” Hasek said. “Who knows?”

 DREAM SEQUENCE Hasek allowed just six goals in six games against the world’s best players in Nagano.Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

DREAM SEQUENCE Hasek allowed just six goals in six games against the world’s best players in Nagano.Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

By the time Brendan Shanahan was getting ready to shoot, a Czech victory almost seemed a foregone conclusion. “I didn’t feel this way,” Hasek said. “At the time I didn’t think about it. I was just hoping I could stop the puck. People ask me about this, and I tell them you can’t think about these things. All I could think about was stopping the puck.”

Nobody would have thought that the Russians and the Czechs, whose hockey programs had fallen on lean times, would be the two teams to meet in the final. The Russians seemed to fall into the same trap as Team Canada, not forcing the issue in the final game, a strategy that gave the Czechs a huge advantage by allowing them to play in their comfort zone. With Hasek guarding the net, the Czechs were more than content to play a patient game and attempt to capitalize on one of their limited opportunities. Even Hasek was a little perplexed at the way the Russians played. They took only 20 shots.

But as the Czechs had stressed from the beginning, they weren’t going to worry about how other teams played, and at that point, they had their own problems to worry about. “Actually in the second, we had three or four really good chances, we hit a post, we missed an open net, and we didn’t score,” Hasek said. “I started to get a feeling like, ‘Something is wrong here.’ ” I was feeling like, ‘What’s going on here?’ and I started to be a little bit afraid. But right in the middle, when nobody expected, we scored the goal.”

And even though there was still a lot of hockey left after Petr Svoboda’s goal, the game was essentially over. The Russians didn’t even really press and were smothered by the Czechs. Whenever there was a chance, Hasek was there to make an easy save. “The way we played, we didn’t give them anything,” Hasek said of the 1-0 win. “No one big chance. Unbelievable. I wasn’t very busy. In the second half of the game, they didn’t shoot much.”

Even if he didn’t have to stop many shots, Hasek forced his opponents to play a tentative, careful game, trying to manufacture the perfect scoring opportunity. But Hasek felt very much part of a large, wonderful collective, both with his team and his people. The Czech team returned to Prague after the tournament and received a Beatles-like welcome. “It’s one of those moments where people remember what they were doing, where they were, even where they were sitting, when it happened,” said Hasek, now 53. “And it seems that when we celebrated the 20th anniversary, it seemed just as important as it did when it happened. I think it is one of the biggest things to happen in the history of our country. A week never goes by where somebody doesn’t want to talk to me about it.”

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