There was a moment between the second and third periods of last Friday’s world hockey championship gold-medal game that said it all. The two teams, Canada and Czechoslovakia, were in their respective dressing rooms. The home-town team in the Prague Sportovni Hala was ahead 3-2 on a spectacular short-handed goal by left winger Jiri Sejba, his third of the game. The official Canadian game plan dangled on a string from an unused hanger in the dressing room stall beside Mario Lemieux, the sullen 19-year-old puck magician from Quebec. If Canada were going to recover and win, everyone in the room knew that it would probably be accomplished by Lemieux, the star rookie of the Pittsburg Penguins and the heart of a suddenly remarkable Team Canada. High in the rafters of the arena, someone put an English-language tape onto the public address system, in small tribute to the 50 or so Canadians scattered through the crowd of more than 14,000. Ironically, the selection was an
old Everley Brothers tune. As the chorus of Let It Be Me filtered down into the dressing rooms, both Lemieux and Sejba knew that it would only be one of them.
In the end, it was Sejba and Czechoslovakia, 5-3 on a fourth goal that was arguably offside and a fifth into an empty Canadian net. As the final horn heralded the Czechs as the 1985 world champions, Sejba, about to be named the player of the game, hurled his stick into the crowd. Lemieux, about to be named the all-star centre of the second team of the eightnation tournament, silently took off his sweater and handed it to a Czech player, who seemed more delighted with the gift than with the gold medal itself.
Head down, Lemieux skated toward the Canadian bench, where Toronto Maple Leaf captain Rick Vaive, who had
scored the second goal and missed on what would have been a critical fourth, tried to put the outcome in perspective. Said Vaive: “We got a silver medal, and that’s second best in the world.”
Indeed it was. Canada’s remarkable showing in the all-but-forgotten tournament caught the nation virtually by surprise. The collection of National Hockey League players from the few teams that do not make the league’s playoffs and additions from teams quickly eliminated were given little chance of winning a bronze medal, let alone playing for the gold. But reflecting a dramatic renaissance of the Canadian game — highlighted by victories in the 1984 Canada Cup, two of the last three world junior championships and the 1983 invitational Spengler Cup—the current Team Canada advanced to the medal round and defeat-
ed the favored Soviet Union 3-1 last week to set up the finale. Pat Riggin, the Washington Capitals goalie who was outstanding in Prague, said of his teammates: “We’re the lunch-bucket gang—22 guys who probably have never won anything since peewee hockey, and most of us will never win anything again.”
The 22 players—including a few stars like Lemieux and Detroit’s Steve Yzerman but basically made up of such unknowns as Doug Lidster, Steven Konroyd, Larry Murphy and Stan Smyl—were proud to be called “Team Forgotten.” And until their stunning upset of the defending champion Soviets, they were. But now they are likely to be remembered as the first Canadian team to win a silver medal at the world championships since the Galt Terriers in 1962. The Trail Smoke Eaters of British Columbia, in 1961 in Geneva, was the last team to win the gold.
But the 1985 team was full of surprises, not the least of which was the moody Lemieux himself. Alan Eagleson, the executive director of the NHL Players’ Association who served as team manager, said that the two most successful negotiations of his long career were “first, getting Mario to come over here and, second, getting him to stay.” Lemieux’s patriotism had been questioned since 1983 when the then highly rated junior refused to take part in an international tournament because an injury might jeopardize his professional prospects. After a sensational professional debut this season Lemieux was still wary of joining Team Canada, but he finally relented. Then, after only three days in Europe, Lemieux announced that he was going to return to Canada. Team officials announced that he was injured but they said privately that he was homesick.
Eagleson and coach Doug Carpenter then took a calculated psychological gamble. They first told Lemieux that he was a “poison” to the team and should leave. Then they told him that, unfortunately, he could not because all the flights out were booked. Days later, following a first-round 4-2 loss to the United States, Lemieux suddenly grabbed Eagleson by the arm and announced that he had elected to stay. And that made a major difference to the team’s fortunes. Lemieux led Canadian scorers with four goals and six assists. Sitting alone in the dressing room after the final game, Lemieux reflected: “Now it feels pretty good. Of course I would come here again.”
Indeed, the Canadian performance in Prague did as much for Canadian international hockey as it did for Lemieux, Riggin and their previously unheralded teammates. On May Day, as the Socialist nations of the world celebrated their
labors, Team Canada defeated the Soviets to the deafening cheers of “Go Canada Go!” from their Czech hosts. And for each of Canada’s games a seat behind the team’s bench was reserved for Pavel Sykora, the 78-year-old Prague rink attendant assaulted last November by a Canadian junior player, Alain Chatlain, who had been drinking heavily. In an unpublicized gesture Eagleson sent Sykora, blinded in one eye in the attack, a Team Canada jacket and free tickets. Unfortunately, Sykora was ill and unable to attend.
In the end, it was more than kind gestures and goals for and against. Canada’s true rivals in international play—the Czechs and Soviets—learned that a year’s preparation can be matched in weeks by a group of opponents suddenly thrown together. And there was clearly a newfound pride acquired by the players under the deft leadership of Carpenter, the 42-year-old coach of the NHL’s New Jersey Devils. It was his encouragement of the young men to believe in themselves and his disciplined game plans that led to the Soviets’ worst world championship finish since 1977 and a bronze medal and Canada’s best in 23 years. Said Eagleson, uncharacteristically lost for hyperbole: “It wasn’t as great as it might have been. But what the hell, it was all right.”0
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