COVER

A SHAKEUP IN OLYMPIC HOCKEY

BRUCE WALLACE February 29 1988
COVER

A SHAKEUP IN OLYMPIC HOCKEY

BRUCE WALLACE February 29 1988

A SHAKEUP IN OLYMPIC HOCKEY

COVER

Within hours of the opening of the XV Olympic Winter Games it was apparent that some pages of the carefully scripted hockey tournament were either missing or had been rewritten. In an attempt to prolong the drama until the Games’ closing days—and to involve the U.S. team in the suspense—the ABC TV network

convinced Games organizers to include six teams, rather than the traditional four, in the final medal round. But even before the tens of thousands of spectators could make their way out of McMahon Stadium after the opening ceremonies, a rugged West German team recorded the Games’ first surprise— a 2-1 victory over the powerful Czechoslovakians. That result —and the game’s close-checking, defensive style—set the pattern for 10 days of pre-medal-round hockey. What were to be mundane curtain raisers—polite but short cameo appearances for weaker teams—turned into thrillers, produc-

ing one of the most competitive Olympic hockey tournaments ever.

There were the occasional lopsided games for which Olympic hockey is renowned. But as the preliminary round unfolded, upsets and near upsets became the norm. The strong Finnish team dazzled spectators at practice sessions with slick passing and skating. And before their first match, the Finns relaxed with a pickup soccer game un-

der the stands at the Olympic Saddledome hockey arena. But within hours they slumped in their dressing room, not quite believing that they had lost to Switzerland 2-1. Then came Poland, entering the tournament with a 261-19 goal-against/for record in 19 Olympic matches with Canada—the 1987 Izvestia tournament champions. The Poles held Canada to a solitary goal, even though they lost 1-0. Next, the Poles tied the world champion Swedes 1-1.

Even the gold medal favorite, the Soviet Union, seemed reluctant to live up to its billing. In the opening games, the expected offensive brilliance came only

in flashes, while the team lapsed into lengthy and uncharacteristic stretches of apparent disinterest. Said Canadian head coach Dave King last week: “It scares you, because the Soviets can always break loose in a big way. But there is no question that right now they are not at the top of their game.”

Missed: But King and Team Canada had little time to weigh the possibilities of a desired medal-round encounter

with the Soviets. The team’s warm-up opponents in the opening rounds provided more than enough problems. Team Canada players controlled the puck well and forechecked ferociously, but they displayed a glaring inability to put the puck in the net. They finally broke their scoring doldrums against France in a 9-5 victory. But earlier against Poland in a St. Valentine’s Day opener, while the Canadians managed to score their lone goal just over four minutes into the game, 28 other shots were blocked.

During that game the usually stoic King became upset with his players

after Polish forward Krystian Sikorski almost tied the score when his long slap shot rattled off the crossbar in the third period. Two days later, after a trying 4-2 win over the determined Swiss team in the second game, no one associated with Team Canada could forget the mounting number of missed scoring chances. True to their defensive style, the Swiss did not get a shot on goal until 14 minutes into the game, choosing instead to rely on goalie Richard Bucher to keep the score close. The Canadians helped Bucher, slapping the majority of their 45 shots at his pads. It was not until the third period that the Canadians scored three times to secure the win and allowed their fans to finally unfurl and wave the flag.

Feuded: But the team’s lack of finesse cost Canada dearly in its next game on Feb. 18. In the first period the Finns built a 3-0 lead and then checked the Canadian forwards into submission. And goalie Jarmo Myllys’s sprawling style turned away all but one of 39 Canadian shots to claim a 3-1 victory. “The frustration at not scoring is a natural reaction,” said King. “Somewhere along the line I would hope to see a few soft ones go in for us.”

In stark contrast, scoring came more easily to the Americans who, because of the demands of ABC TV, got to play their first five matches in prime time in eastern time zones. They banged in 10 goals in their opening win against an overwhelmed Austrian team, which scored six times on its own. And later, although they lost both games, the U.S. team scored five goals against the Czechs and the Soviets. While the Americans’ firewagon style excited the Saddledome crowds, the losses intensified the spotlight on coach Dave Peterson. He feuded openly throughout the week with members of the highly charged U.S. media corps eager for a repeat of the American team’s gold medal in the 1980 Lake Placid Games.

Comeback: Unlike the freewheeling Americans, the other nations cast as underdogs relied heavily on strong goaltending and conservative offence against the stronger teams. By clogging the front of the net with defenders and frequently icing the puck, less-talented teams—like Austria, Norway and Poland—were able to stymie their opponents. In addition, several middle hockey powers from Europe performed well largely because of the efforts of expatri-

ate Canadians (page 24). Overall, the goalies shone, but the low-scoring games underlined the paucity of outstanding offensive players in the Calgary Games. Said former NHL goaltender Ken Dryden: “In such an open tournament, where there are not an awful lot of good goal scorers, the lesser goalies are going to look okay, and the good goalies are going to look great.”

But several lesser-known goalies did

usurp the starring roles. Czechoslovakian star Dominik Hasek, hampered by sore stomach muscles, faced three shots in the first six minutes against the Americans. All three went in and Hasek was replaced by backup Jaromir Sindel, who then led his team to a comeback victory. Meanwhile, some of the strongest performances came from Finland’s Myllys, Winnipeg-born goalie Karl Friesen, now playing for West Germany, and Switzerland’s Bucher. The 32-year-old Bucher was a disciple of former NHL All-Star great Jacques Plante, who coached him in Switzerland. An accountant by profession and

a showman by nature, Bucher celebrated big saves by raising his goal stick, although Swiss observers said his behavior was restrained compared to his antics in Swiss league play.

The most puzzling team was the Soviet squad. In their first game, which they won 5-0, the Soviets did not score until the second period against a vastly overmatched Norwegian team. Later in the week, after cruising to a 6-2 lead over the Americans, the Soviets allowed the U.S. team to stage a dramatic comeback in the final period that narrowed the score to 6-5. But on occasion, the Soviets demonstrated their old mastery of their adopted sport and toyed with opponents. “They are so fast and so strong that it is scary to play them,” said Austrian goalie Brian Stankiewicz, who watched from the bench as his teammates fell to the Soviets 8-1. “They could have scored 20 goals against us if they had wanted to.” Watershed: That desire was rarely evident last week in the Soviet play. Indeed, the Soviet national team has not won a major international championship in the past 22 months. As a result, the Soviet team — and indeed the entire Soviet hockey program—is enduring unparalleled criticism from a usually supportive source—the Soviet media. In the open spirit of glasnost, the Soviet media have targeted coach Viktor Tikhonov as the main cause of the team’s weakness. “Tikhonov does not trust many of the newer players on the team, and as a result the whole team does not have confidence in the coach,” said TASS hockey-writer Viatcheslav Troushkov. “Since Vladislav Tretiak retired, the psychological climate on the team has not been

good.”

The problems of the Soviets and the Canadians, the upsets and the unlikely goaltending heroes heightened the growing excitement over the tournament, which will end on the final Sunday afternoon of the Games. The 1988 Games may be remembered as a watershed for several developing hockey countries. And as Team Canada braced for an uphill struggle this week, it was clear that the script had been discarded—and the new version was still being written.

BRUCE WALLACE in Calgary