NAGANO '98

Canada's fire on ice

The country’s athletes taste Olympic glory

February 23 1998
NAGANO '98

Canada's fire on ice

The country’s athletes taste Olympic glory

February 23 1998

Canada's fire on ice

The country’s athletes taste Olympic glory

NAGANO '98

At its heart, stripped of its smothering sponsorship and almost perpetual television coverage, the great festival of winter sport requires just two fundamental elements of nature to run smoothly. Snow and ice. The patois of the Winter Olympics may change with the arrival of new sports, the half-pipe snowboarders’ chatter of “McTwists” blending with alpine skiers’ traditional talk of “tucks.” But the building blocks of any successful Winter Olympics remains constant.

Those athletes who strap on skis must have snow to ski on. Those who skate need ice on which to race, perform a Salchow or deke a defenceman.

Shame, then, about the weather last week in Nagano. Mountains that just last month begged for a coat of snow, disappeared from view on the first morning of the XVIII Winter Games’ competition behind a whiteout. Subsequent days were marred by— alternately—fog, rain, whipping winds, thunder and lightning, and more blowing snow. It took six days for organizers to get the marquee men’s downhill race at Hakuba under way. When they did, the top of the course was so slick that 15 of 43 skiers did not finish the race—DNF in Olympic parlance—and a couple, after wild crashes, were lucky not to have been declared DO A. The rain and fog kept Japanese fans at home, too. “I felt lonely out there in the woods,” said Norway’s great Bjorn Daehlie after winning the 10km cross-country ski race for an astounding sixth career gold medal. “I wondered if this was really the Olympics.” Canadian expectations for medals on the hills and trails also sunk in Nagano’s slush. Mogul skiers Jean-Luc Brassard and Ann-Marie Pelchat hit the hill on the nicest day to race weather wise, twisting skyward against a poster-blue backdrop. But they finished disappointingly out of the medals. Brave Brian Stemmle, still hunting for Olympic gold nine years after a near-fatal crash in Austria, was writing a heroic sports chapter on Hakuba’s dangerous downhill until it ended in tears with a missed gate near the bottom of the hill. The nordic skiers once again gamely brought up the rear of the pack. In the end, Snowboarder Ross Rebagliati’s tragicomic encounter with marijuana smoke and its bizarre aftermath was not the only bust of the week. His gold-to-shame-to-gold-again giant slalom run was all that saved Canada from a completely dismal time on the snow (page 42). It was with relief, then, that Canadians turned their attention to the sports of the Olympics that are run on ice. In the controlled environments of arenas, skating ovals and bobsleigh runs, Canadian athletes excelled. Weather cannot mess with a speed skater’s stride, as Catriona LeMay Doan showed when she combined grace with power and swung her way to gold around the M-Wave oval. Teammate Susan Auch skated in her slipstream to take silver, making it Canada’s greatest day in speed skating ever (page 34). Curlers just had to read the ice as usual, and Canada’s women’s rink struck gold while the men took silver (page 38). There was silver, as well, for a hobbled Elvis Stojko in figure skating (page 36) and gold for Pierre Lueders and Dave MacEachern in bobsleigh. And in spite of disappointment for the men speed skaters, who ended up out of the medals in the 1,000-m race, Canada finished the weekend with nine medals—and the hope that this week would see the country’s Olympic team surpass the national-best 13 Winter medals lugged home from Ullehammer in 1994.

The ice turned these Games around for Canada. And by the beginning of the Games’ second week, the country’s attention turned to where it had been expected to focus all along: hockey, the export on which Canadians refuse to surrender the patent. The women’s inaugural Olympic tournament followed its destiny to the predicted Canada-U.S. final. But somehow lost in the North American media hype over the Canada-U.S. showdown in the men’s tournament were the whispered warnings about the skill and strength of the talented Swede, Russian, Czech and Finnish teams.

Grudge matches have that effect. The Canadian players came to Nagano making it clear they were out to avenge the 1996 World Cup loss to the Americans. ‘We consider it our game,” said Oshawa, Ont., centre Joe Nieuwendyk. “Canadians don’t deal with losing in hockey very well. Emotions will be high when we play the United States. It’s going to be physical and it’s going to be fun.”

But the Canada-U.S. hockey rivalry could end up a mere sideshow in these Games. It took only one period of Olympic hockey before the sight of a puck dancing from Swedish stick to Swedish stick punctured any reverie that this would be a two-team chase for gold. The Swedes took the Americans’ breath away in the first game of the final round, beating them with speed to the outside on the wider international rink and with higher elbows in the corners to win 4-2.

The next night, a disciplined Team Canada beat the Swedes 3-2 in a game that was fast and skilled as well as rough, tantalizing fans with visions of how wonderful the rest of the hockey tournament could be. Early results don’t matter, Swedish centre Peter Forsberg insisted, pointing out that “the real tournament begins in the quarter-finals”—

the three-rounds of sudden-death hockey that will determine gold.

But the Americans were unhappy and embarrassed by their shaky start, struggling, too, against a group of stolid NHL aspirants playing in Belarussian national colors. In chorus, the players complained of troubles adjusting to the wider international ice. “I always felt about 10 feet short of where I wanted to be,” said a disappointed Brett Hull after his feeble first performance. “It’s tough to hit a guy,” added forward Tony Amonte, “when you’ve got to skate 50 feet to do it.” Natural to be confused, perhaps. But the international rink is only 13 feet wider than the indoor ponds where the NHLers earn their livings. And since most of the Europeans play in the NHL, they too had to adjust to the wider rink, as Finnish forward Jari Kurri took care to point out to Canadian coach Marc Crawford.

Speed and hockey sense, not a passport, are what determine who masters the bigger ice. “We’ve worked hard at the team aspects, but ultimately individual talent—even in a tremendous team system— comes to the forefront,” said Wayne Gretzky after Canada dumped Belarus 5-0 in its Olympic debut. Crawford’s system was straightforward. ‘We want to get people to the net, direct shots at the net and maybe get a few past them,” he explained. He also demanded his players buy into a system of short shifts, which required some concessions from a few players like captain Eric Lindros and defenceman Raymond Bourque who thrive on lots of ice time. Like the others wearing the Maple Leaf, Gretzky supported

Crawford’s blueprint, though he reiterated his insistence on the need to give the most creative players some leash. ‘You need a good team system,” he said. “But one key guy can make a team special.”

For Canada, that special guy was supposed to be Paul Kariya, who plays hockey in a stylish, skilled way. But Kariya, a Canadian of Japanese descent, never made it to Japan. A concussion caused by American Gary Suter’s head-high cross-check in an NHL game on Feb. 1 left Kariya woozy and off the squad—bitterly disappointed that he could not chase Olympic gold in his ancestral home. His teammates seemed visibly flummoxed at first by news that Kariya would miss the Games, wondering aloud how they would replace his rare offensive skills. The Japanese mourned Kariya’s loss, too. “That’s who everybody in Japan wanted to see,” said the American team’s Japanese translator. Canadian general manager Bobby Clarke wanted to see Kariya’s assailant in handcuffs. “This is a great player in our game, and another player deliberately tried to hurt him,” an angry Clarke said one morning last week, scuffing the ground in a tunnel under the stands of Nagano’s Big Hat hockey rink. “They’ve got to find a way to let the great players play without fear of getting hurt.” Lost on Clarke, apparently, was the rich irony of his own historical asterisk as the player who deliberately broke Russian superstar Valeri Kharmalov’s ankle in the 1972 Canada-Soviet series with a slash of his stick. And he seemed to be playing into the hands of the U.S. media, which lapped up anything it could find to stoke the cross-border rivalry, harping on the Kariya-Suter affair long after Canadian players said, publicly at least, they had moved on.

Kariya’s absence meant that Team Canada depended more heavily than ever on Lindros, its young captain. Many Canadian hockey fans slagged Lindros for his only-average play in that infamous World Cup loss, and there was grumbling from that self-important Canadian court of public opinion over his selection as Team Canada captain.

On the basis of his play in the first two games, Canadian fans need not worry. lindros was at his crashing, terrifying best. “He was our most physical forward,” said Crawford of Lindros after Game 1, before the captain went out in Game 2 and body-checked four Swedes on one first period shift alone. “His play was exactly what we needed.” If Lindros stays on his game, the Olympics should mark a changing of the guard in Canadian hockey, something teammate Brendan Shanahan called for last week. It was time to stop depending on Gretzky and Co. to win tournaments, he said. “It’s time for the next generation of Canadian hockey players to stand up.”

Across town, Nagano’s cozier Aqua Wing arena hosted the first ge neration of Olympic women hockey players. The Olympic medal competition laid uncomfortably bare just how much women’s hockey remains a North American specialty. Teams like China and Japan fended off Canada by building a wall around their net, aiming solely to keep the score down. Canadian coach Shannon Miller raised a few eyebrows when she insisted on describing how she devised a plan to beat the Japanese “2-3 fore-checking formation”—even though the Japanese were outshot 64-3 and seldom put a skate across the Canadian blue line. Miller also favored the soaring rhetoric of the pre-game speech, exhorting her team “to light their own Olympic flame,” before the opening game against Japan. The Japanese duly fell 13-0. Things really came apart, explained the candid Japanese coach later, when the teams changed ends for the second period and his players had further to skate to get to the bench for line changes.

Japanese fans seemed to like their first taste of top-flight hockey, however. From the screaming chant of: Faceoff! Faceoff! before each period, to a sort of Japanese Regis and Kathie Lee show on the big screen at intermission, the locals clearly enjoyed the game. One day, in the bowels of the M-Wave speed-skating arena, a group of Japanese huddled around a TV set to watch their men’s goalie Dusty Imoo stone the Belarus team with spectacular saves. ‘Would somebody please tell these people that there’s some speed skating about to start in a moment,” said an incredulous Dutch fan.

The Japanese did move inside eventually, joining an M-Wave crowd that included Crown Prince Naruhito and that went collectively wild as a compact .22-calibre bullet named Hiroyasu Shimizu pumped his way to gold in the men’s 500-m race. In doing so, Shimizu spoiled an otherwise glorious Canadian day, where its men placed second, third, fourth and fifth. “Oh, we know all about your speed skaters,” said Rolf van Woerkom later as he raised a glass after the race with dozens of orange-clad Dutch fans at Heineken House. “Canada is becoming famous for speed skating.”

At least the triumphs of the skaters—as well as the curlers, Stojko and Lueders—had people thinking about Canadian performances

There are high hopes for more medals ahead

again, rather than the dope-testing shenanigans that dominated the early days of the Games. Until the traces of marijuana in Rebagliati’s urine were finally ruled irrelevant Canadian Olympic officials worried Nagano might be remembered for nothing but scandal. Accustomed to thinking that drug problems started and stopped with steroids, they sometimes sounded like the befuddled adults of Reefer Madness when protesting they did not understand how marijuana worked (though they knew enough to remind everyone that pot is not a performanceenhancing drug).

Rebagliati’s acquittal changed the mood. He became a talisman for the Canadian team, cheered by other Canadian athletes in the Village, implored to show up at hockey games and at Elvis’s final skate. Soon, some of the expected medals began to trickle in, with high hopes for more ahead: in women’s hockey, from the longand short-track speed skaters.

And, of course, men’s hockey. “There’s not a player who doesn’t still get nervous before a game,” said Gretzky. “We’ll play each game like a Stanley Cup Game 7.” Imagine: a whole tournament of Game 7s, played on a big surface, that huge canvas for the best players in the world to work on. How sweet to be back on the ice.