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Hasek Leads Czechs to Shootout Upset of Canada

By Rachel Alexander
Washington Staff Writer
Web Posted: Friday, February 20, 1998; 12:18 p.m. EST



 A dejected Canada squad watches the Czech Republic celebrate their 2-1 upset win in the semifinals.
(Hans Deryk/AP)

NAGANO, Feb. 20 — It was during the nerve-wracking, stomach-turning, heart-pumping penalty shot segment of the Czech Republic's semifinal game against Canada this afternoon that Czech Coach Slavomir Lener noticed something. His players, standing in front of their bench, had linked their arms around each others' shoulders, taking each breath as one.

"That was better than any two points [for the win], to see those guys as a team," said Lener, whose squad stunned the favored Canadians, 2-1, by scoring on one penalty shot.

"You can't get any better reward than that as a coach. Nothing that's shown on T.V., no medals — it's this feeling you have for just those few seconds when you know you belong with the team and you are a part of it. There is no bigger reward."

Lener will get to test that theory Sunday (Saturday night EST), when the Czech Republic plays Russia in the Olympic gold medal game. Canada, the favorite to win the tournament, will instead face Finland in the bronze medal game Saturday.

Finland's 7-4 loss to Russia in the other semifinal this evening was no particular surprise, but Canada's loss today shocked an entire country that had bundled its national pride with its gold medal hopes. The last time Canada won the gold was in Oslo in 1952, leaving the country starving in the sport it calls its own. These Olympics were considered the best chance for redemption for Canada, which was able to field an all-star, all-NHL team for the first time.

But the Czechs, participating in only their second Winter Olympics since separating from Slovakia, were also looking to use this tournament to boost their national identity. No matter what happens on Sunday, wins over two hockey superpowers in back-to-back games — including a 4-1 victory against the United States to get to the semifinals — have earned them an enormous dose of respect.

"I only wish I could be in Prague" right now, said Martin Rucinsky, who plays for the Montreal Canadians. "It's a great moment for Czech hockey. Everybody expected us to be out of it in the quarterfinals."

Unlike some of the other smaller countries participating in the Olympics, the Czech Republic could have invited more than the 12 NHL players on its roster, but instead decided to stick with the nucleus of the team that has competed in recent world championships. Coaches then filled in the gaps with NHL players such as New York Islanders forward Robert Reichel, the only player to score in the penalty shot competition.

"They play together as a team," Lener said. "We did not want to disrupt that."

Every team needs a star, however, and the Czech squad's is Buffalo Sabres goaltender Dominik Hasek (24 saves), who had yet another brilliant outing. Canada goaltender Patrick Roy (27 saves) was also spectacular, but when the game remained tied at 1-1 after 60 minutes of regulation play and a 10-minute overtime, it was Hasek who shone in the penalty shot tiebreaker.

Displaying the elastic-man, flip-flop style that won him NHL most valuable player honors last season, Hasek stopped each of the five Canadian snipers, a group that did not include Wayne Gretzky, passed over by Coach Marc Crawford. Roy stopped Pittsburgh Penguins forward Jaromir Jagr, who hit a post, but he could not stop Reichel, the team's first shooter. After Brendan Shanahan, Canada's last shooter, failed in a deke attempt, the Czech players stormed the ice, throwing up their equipment. They pounced on Hasek, who later said facing the penalty shots was the "most intense pressure of my life."

It was a full two minutes later, when many hugs, face rubs and high-fives had already been exchanged, that the Czechs decided they should probably stop sitting on their most valuable player, although Hasek was happily enduring the attention. Meanwhile, on the other side of the rink, Shanahan skated back toward the Canadian net, doubled over in disappointment, as his teammates slowly left the bench. In the end, only Gretzky was left sitting alone, with tears on his cheeks as he watched his hopes for Olympic gold slip out the rinkside door.

Despite all the Stanley Cups, trophies and other medals Gretzky has won, he has never claimed an Olympic medal.

"It's devastating, the worst feeling I've ever had in hockey," Gretzky said, his eyes glassy. He said this was his last international competition.

"I knew when I lost my first Stanley Cup, I'd get another chance. When we lost [here], that was it for me. So I'm very disappointed. I love to play hockey. I love to represent Canada."

Many expected Canada and Russia to meet in the gold medal game, a re-match of the famed 1972 Summit Series. While Canada faltered, Russia did its part, powered by a five-goal performance from captain Pavel Bure. After the game, Finland's Saku Koivu praised Bure but noted several of his team's defensive errors that led to Bure's offensive outburst. Bure has nine goals in the tournament.

"The goalie didn't have a good night, but neither did the team," Koivu said. "We made too many defensive mistakes."

Finland, which had upset Sweden in the quarterfinals, kept the score close through the second period and tied the game at 4-4 in the first six minutes of the third. But the rest of the game belonged to Russia, with Bure scoring twice in the final five minutes. Finland's Teemu Selanne (one goal) recorded 13 shots but limped off the ice toward the end of the game with a sore knee.

© Copyright 1998 Washington Post Company

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