THE WINTER GAMES

Olympic Mystique

A HISTORIC PERFORMANCE BY THE CANADIAN HOCKEY TEAM

ANDREW PHILLIPS March 2 1992
THE WINTER GAMES

Olympic Mystique

A HISTORIC PERFORMANCE BY THE CANADIAN HOCKEY TEAM

ANDREW PHILLIPS March 2 1992

Olympic Mystique

THE WINTER GAMES

A HISTORIC PERFORMANCE BY THE CANADIAN HOCKEY TEAM

The shots bounced off Sean Burke’s chest, his pads, his stick. They winged off Canadian defencemen and ricocheted off the post. Again and again the Unified Team attacked, perhaps not the Big Red Machine of old but still a quick, disciplined, relentless band that, for two tense, scoreless periods of the Olympic gold-medal game last Sunday, was stymied by Burke’s spectacular goaltending. Finally, with one minute gone in the third period, the Unified’s Viacheslav Butsaev fired one past Burke and into the net. Fifteen minutes later his team scored again. And although Chris Lindberg countered for Canada, the former Soviets struck once more. Down 3-1, the Canadians continued to hustle, but they simply could not generate enough offence and, in the end, they settled for the country’s first Olympic silver medal in 32 years—and the first medal of any kind in 24.

It was not quite the miracle on ice that the Canadians had hoped to fashion. But it was a strong, scrappy showing for a team whose core was largely a band of unheralded players from the minor leagues, university squads and the Canadian national team. “I thought it was a great effort,” Canadian coach Dave King said afterwards. “The guys played real hard—we ask no more.” For members of the Unified Team—the hastily applied misnomer that only points t up the disintegration of the Soviet Union—it was a kind of last hurrah. The legendary Russian coach, Viktor Tikhanov, still paced up and down in front of the bench. But National Hockey League scouts haunted the arena in Méribel, checking out the newly available talent. And although those players were younger and less experienced than ever before, they were powerful enough to grab the gold.

Tenacious: Still, it was clear that the balance of power in international hockey was shifting. The defending champion Swedes failed to live up to expectations, while the American squad proved more tenacious than many experts had predicted—until they were defeated by the former Soviet team, 5-2, in the semifinals. The Americans finished fourth after losing to Czechoslovakia in the bronze-medal game.

The Canadian team, whose coach King was also behind the bench in 1984 and 1988, was different as well. Although most of its players were not Canada’s finest, many—including for-

ward Fabian Joseph and former NHL defenceman Curt Giles—rose to the occasion. King also had an outstanding goalie in Burke, who joined the national team last September after asking to be traded from the NHL’s New Jersey Devils. And King added the most controversial player in the game today: 18-year-old junior superstar Eric Lindros. With those assets, King relaxed his normally tight defensive system and let the team play a more offensive style. “Our team this

time is different,” he said. “It’s higher risk, it’s more exciting.”

Lindros arrived for the Games showing signs of strain. Aside from the political furor surrounding his refusal to join the Quebec Nord iques of the NHL, over the past six months he had played for the Canada Cup team, the national junior team and the Oshawa Generals before joining the Olympic squad. “I’ve been on skates since Aug. 3,” he said. “I’ve been flying all over the world—my travel ppints are unbelievable.” Off the ice, Lindros did attempt to enjoy himself: he found time to date a Canadian figure skater, and he went out to dinner with his parents, Carl and Bonnie Lindros, often eating most of his mother’s meal after devouring his own.

“He’s having a ball but he’s lost 10 lb.,” said Bonnie Lindros. “He can’t seem to get enough to eat.”

On the ice, Lindros stood out—if only because of his six-foot, five-inch, 225-lb. frame inside the No. 88 jersey. His statistics were impressive, but not as dominating as his reputation: he had five goals and six assists. It was the team’s second-best offensive record, behind centre Joe Juneau, a Boston Bruins draft pick from Quebec City who had six goals and nine assists—making him the top scorer in the entire tournament. But it was Lindros who came up big on Tuesday night in Canada’s unexpected struggle against Germany. The score was still tied at 3-3 after the 10-minute overtime period. And the nerve-jangling shootout that followed was dead-even after 10 shots until Lindros, who had chipped his first shot over the German goal, flipped in his second. When Burke stopped the Germans’ next shot,

barely—the puck rolled excruciatingly towards the net, stopping just short of crossing the line—the Canadians had survived.

Key: In fact, despite all the attention on Lindros, it was Burke’s goaltending that proved to be the key to the Canadian team’s success. He gave them a chance to win— despite some shaky defence and sometimes punchless offence. In the tournament’s first game, Burke held off an assault by a surprising French team and let the Canadians escape with a 3-2 win. In their opening-round meeting, the Unified Team outshot Canada by an over-

whelming 52-19—but Burke held the Unified Team to a one-goal victory. And although he allowed two soft early goals against the Germans, he recovered and gave his teammates confidence in the dramatic shootout. Said King: “One of the first things I heard on the bench was [team captain] Brad Schlegel saying, ‘We got Burkie, guys, there’s no problem.’ ”

As the final game drew closer, about 30,000 messages of support poured into the players’ residence in the village of La Tania. Publicly at least, King said he had not reminded his team of what a medal would mean for Canadian hockey. But the significance was not lost on the players themselves. Dave Hannan, a centre with the Toronto Maple Leafs who joined the Olympic team only in midJanuary, made it clear that he, at least, felt the weight of the moment. “With the telegrams coming in from Canada, you know you’re playing on behalf of your country,” he said. “There’s a mystique about the Olympics.” Unfortunately for Canada, there was also a mystique about the former Soviet team, and it left the Canadians with a hard-earned silver.

ANDREW PHILLIPS