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Czech Republic Beats Russia for Gold

By Rachel Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 23, 1998; Page D1

 The Russians were never able to get through Dominik Hasek (right), and the Czechs finally added a gold medal to their Olympic collection.
(Stanislav Peska/AP)
NAGANO, Feb. 22 (Sunday) — Goaltender Dominik Hasek was only 3 in 1969, when Czechoslovakia secured the biggest victory in the country's history by defeating the Soviet Union in the world championships. Now 33, he has managed to better that legend, giving the Czech Republic its first Olympic gold medal in hockey with a 1-0 victory over Russia.

The 1969 victory was more rife with ideology, coming less than a year after the Soviets rolled tanks into downtown Prague, crushing a budding movement toward democracy. Today's win was more about pride in the Czech Republic, split from Slovakia since 1993, than about defeating the Russians. This was about the accomplishment of a team from a small country, a team with the tournament's best goaltender and one of its better forwards but not much else besides a strong belief in itself.

"My parents still talk about the 1969 game," said defenseman Petr Svoboda, who scored the game's only goal midway through the third period. Jaromir Jagr, the team's most recognized player, had come close earlier but hit a post. "Beating the Russians is still a big thing for that generation."

 Russian Alexei Zhamnov (No. 33) takes a first-period shot as Martin Straka (No. 28) defends. (Kevork Djansezian/AP)

The scene today at Big Hat arena, wild with red, white and blue flags from both countries, was different from the subdued atmosphere that hung through the building less than 24 hours earlier. Then, a mostly Canadian crowd had watched Finland claim the bronze medal in a 3-2 upset of Canada, despite the absence of Finland's top goaltender and superstar forward Teemu Selanne. The result dealt the final blow to North American hockey at this tournament: Neither Canada nor the United States left here with a medal, despite being heavy favorites.

"I know a lot of people through North America are heartbroken," Canada Coach Marc Crawford said. "I think that every one of us is hurting a great deal right now."
 Dominik Hasek (center, left) led the Czech Republic to its first Olympic gold medal in hockey with a 1-0 victory over Russia. (Paul Chiasson/AP)

The Canadians had looked sallow ever since Friday, when the Czechs eliminated them from the semifinals in a dramatic penalty-shot tiebreaker. Hasek, who stopped all five Canadian shooters in that game, was brilliant again today, saving shots from positions that would make a goalie coach cringe. But the moves worked for Hasek, who earned continuous chants of praise from the crowd at Big Hat arena and back in Prague, where several large-screen televisions had been set up in public squares to watch the game. After Friday's victory, those same streets in Prague were flooded with joyous fans, many holding signs that read "Hasek for President." After today, the Czech celebrants may want to add Svoboda to the ticket. The Czechs had several good chances on goaltender Mikhail Shtalenkov, but it was Svoboda who finally broke through on a slap shot from the left point 8 minutes 8 seconds into the third period.

The Russians were never able to get through Hasek, and the Czechs finally added a gold medal to their Olympic collection. When unified with Slovakia, they had won four silver medals and four bronze, but had been thwarted by the Soviet Union each time they threatened to win the Olympic tournament.

The Czech win was not only a major upset in this game, however. It was an upset of the tournament, in which Canada, the United States and Sweden were all expected to medal. Instead, the Americans and the Swedes were knocked out in the quarterfinals; the Canadians fell in the semifinals.

Finland's bronze medal was also something of a surprise, and Selanne, out with a pulled stomach muscle, believed it was a major statement about European hockey. Forced to watch the game in his rust-colored team blazer instead of his blue hockey sweater, Selanne joined his teammates on the ice after the final buzzer, slipping into hugs as he stood in his street shoes.

"I said before I left Anaheim that the tournament was wide open and playing on the bigger ice would be a tough adjustment for Canada and the U.S.," said Selanne, a forward with the NHL's Anaheim Mighty Ducks.

Finland was outshot 34-15, but backup goaltender Ari Sulander, playing in place of a benched Jarmo Myllys, was everywhere for his teammates. Canadian goaltender Patrick Roy, spectacular in Friday's game against the Czechs, was not as sharp as he gave up more goals than in any other game of the tournament. The winner, scored by Ville Peltonen on a power play just 17 seconds into the third period, bounced off Roy before flying into the net.

Roy also gave up goals to NHL forwards Jere Lehtinen and Jari Kurri, who skated around the rink with Finland's flag shortly before the medal ceremony. It was the last international game for Kurri and Canada's Wayne Gretzky, both part of the Edmonton Oilers' dynasty of the 1980s.

Kurri had not come into the Olympics with any particular expectations, however, while Gretzky had been hoping desperately for a gold medal. He has never before competed in the Olympics and was hoping to bring the gold back to a hockey- worshiping nation that has not seen it since the Oslo Games of 1952.

"People love hockey so much in Canada; it's a way of life and it's always going to be that way," Gretzky said. "In the U.S., once you lose a hockey game, you just turn on a baseball game or a basketball game."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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