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For Caps' Gonchar, a Silver Lining

By Rachel Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 22, 1998; Page C8

 Sergei Gonchar (far left) waits to receive his silver medal after his Russian hockey team was defeated by the Czech Republic, 1-0, Sunday.
(John McDowell/The Washington Post)
NAGANO, Feb. 22 — For a few minutes this afternoon, Sergei Gonchar stood at center ice, leaning on his left skate with his hands clasped behind his back. He watched as first they gave out the gold medals, the ones that were not for him. Then came the silvers, placed around the necks of his Russian teammates, one by one. Finally, they came to him, and as he bowed his head to receive his prize, his hands, clenched so tightly, came undone.

Later, in the dressing room, he even let himself look at the medal before taking it off. The score was set — the Czech Republic had defeated Russia, 1-0, in the Olympic gold medal game — but the pain that stabbed his heart when he heard that final buzzer was subsiding. He looked at it again. Silver. Silver is not so bad.

"There were a lot of guys from the [Russian] federation in the locker room, saying we did everything we could, and that helped," Gonchar, 23, said. "The atmosphere and how I felt in the final — it's a different feeling than anything I've had before. I'll remember all 60 minutes of the game and those moments after. It's probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing."

Gonchar will return to his usual defenseman's role on the Washington Capitals this week. He did not win the gold, but of the six Capitals who participated in the Olympics (five players and Coach Ron Wilson), he is the only one with a medal. Not a small feat, considering that just three weeks ago he had been planning to spend the NHL's Olympic break in Florida visiting friends. But then came the call from the Russian federation, asking if he would take the place of an injured teammate.

He said yes. And now he has a silver medal. He plans to keep the medal in Washington until the next time he returns to Russia, where it will stay. He may even bring it to the Capitals' locker room once, just to show his teammates and his coach, who had been joking with the Olympic bound-players before the break.

"Coach Wilson was telling us all how he was going to come back and show us the gold medal he won," Gonchar said. "Now, I can show him mine."

Wilson coached a U.S. team that struggled here, going 1-3 with a quarterfinal elimination by the Czechs. The Czechs also defeated Canada before their win over Russia, making their path to the gold medal one of the most hard-fought in recent tournament history. Factor in that they had just 11 NHL players, the fewest of the semifinal teams, and victory seemed impossible.

But there it was this afternoon, after defenseman Petr Svoboda scored midway through the third period, and Dominik Hasek turned in yet another brilliant goaltending performance. Yet neither felt responsible for the medal. It was the work of the entire team, and actually the entire country, they said.

"When the game ended, I just threw my stick and I think I hurt one of my teammates, I was so happy," said Hasek, who allowed just two goals in the tournament's three medal-round games. "When I saw the flag go up, I saw my whole career flash before my eyes, from the first time my parents took me to a hockey game until now."

Having won four silver and four bronze medals when united with Slovakia as Czechoslovakia before 1993, the Czech Republic and its people had been starving for this first gold medal. That the win came over the Russians, remnants of the Soviet Union that had dominated the country for years, made it more special. About 70,000 people flooded the streets of Prague for this game, the same streets the Soviet tanks rolled across in 1968, crushing the country's budding move toward independence.

Pittsburgh Penguins forward Jaromir Jagr still wears No. 68 in honor of his grandfather, who had his land taken in that occupation. But while the Czech players were well aware of the historical significance of defeating Russia, they said today's game was not so much about their opponent as their own victory.

The team's non-NHL players flew directly to Prague after the game to attend a country-wide party that had been planned for them, win or lose. The Russians had no such festivities planned, but were also being celebrated at home. After a disastrous World Cup two years ago, Russia had been hoping to re-assert itself here.

"For us, the biggest thing was to show that Russian hockey was not dead, that we still have good players," Gonchar said. "Before I left, I was watching ESPN, and they said we would be the biggest disappointment of the tournament."

Gonchar began smiling, amused at the memory. Silver. No, silver was not a disappointment at all.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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