When the “Tournament of the Champions” began at the 1998 Olympic games in Nagano, Japan, Team Canada and Team USA were the heavy favourites to capture Gold medals for their countries.
It was the first time in the history of the Olympics, the NHL had shut down during the games, to allow countries the opportunity to construct the best possible rosters with the widely available talent.
1998 Olympic Men’s Hockey
Although the NHL allowed the players to participate in the games, their respective clubs would not release the players in time to play in the preliminary round, which limited some of the countries abilities to put competitive teams on the ice. The quarterfinals of the tournament also faced criticism, as teams qualified for their positions before the final group stage.
One of the dark horses of the tournament was the Team Czech Republic. The Czech’s roster was comprised of several hockey legends, including Petr Svoboda, Dominik Hasek, Roman Hamrlik, Robert Reichel and team captain Vladimir Ruzicka.
The squad also featured five members of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang, Jiri Slegr, Martin Straka, and Josef Beranek donned their country’s colours and put the cohesion they developed in Pittsburgh on full display during the tournament, leading the team to a 5-1-0 record, and earning the Czechs their first Gold Medal in Ice Hockey. The team also became the seventh country to win the tournament in the 19 Olympic Games that were previously held.
Here is a look at the Czech Republic’s games and which Penguins earned points during the contests.
Game 1 – Aqua Wing Arena – February 13, 1998 – Team Finland 0, Team Czech Republic 3
Jagr – 1 Assist, Lang – 1 Assist
Game 2 – The Big Hat – February 15, 1998 – Team Czech Republic 8, Team Kazakhstan 2
Beranek – 1 Goal, Jagr 2 Assists, Straka – 1 Goal, 1 Assist, Lang – 1 Assist
Game 3 – The Big Hat – February 16, 1998 – Team Russia 2, Team Czech Republic 1
No points registered by Penguins players
The Medal Round
Quarter Finals – Game 4 – The Big Hat – February 18, 1998 – Team Czech Republic 4, Team USA 1
Jagr – 1 Goal, 1 Assist, Straka – 1 Assist, Lang – 1 Assist
Team USA did not respond well to their defeat at the hands of the Czech Republic team. An unknown number of players trashed their rooms at their hotel the morning after the loss. Included on the list of items that were destroyed or damaged were ten chairs, three fire extinguishers, one door, and several walls. Floors and beds also sustained varying degrees of damage. USA captain Chris Chelios wrote a cheque for $3000 to cover the damages, even though he was not present at the time it happened. The Nagano games also marked the first time NHL players stayed in the Olympic Village and not at separate off-site hotels.
Semi-Finals – Game 5- The Big Hat – February 20, 1998 – Team Czech Republic 2, Team Canada 1 (SO)
Slegr – 1 Goal
Team Canada had been mired with heavy scrutiny since the Canadian squad was announced, most notably for their omission of Mark Messier and inclusion of Rob Zamuner, the comedy of errors culminated during the shoot-out, when the coaching staff elected to have Ray Bourque shoot in place of Wayne Gretzky.
Gold-Medal Game – Game 6 – The Big Hat – February 22, 1998 – Team Czech Republic 1, Team Russia 0,
No Penguins roster member posted any points in this game, but Dominik Hasek played some serious lights-out hockey in the return match versus Russia, making 20-stops for his second shutout of the tournament, finishing with a record of 5-1-0, only allowing six goals on 155 shots.
Beranek finished with 1 assist, Jagr finished with one goal and five points, Lang finished with three Assists, Slegr finished with one goal, Straka finished with one goal and three points.
It is safe to assume, without the contributions of the Penguins on Team Czech Republic the story of the 1998 Olympics may have had a different ending. It would have been nice to see Penguins players translate their international success to Stanley Cup title, but the Montreal Canadiens had other plans in the Conference Quarter-Finals, disposing of Pittsburgh in six games. At least Jaromir Jagr was able to capture his second Art Ross Trophy, to put on his mantle with his gold-medal by scoring 35 goals and 102 points.