YORKTON - In Canada it has always been about winning when it comes to international hockey. It is bring home the gold, or a cloud of failure will hang over your efforts.
So when you flash back to 2002, it was the time of a decades long drought in terms of a gold medal in men’s hockey at the Winter Olympics. It had been a half century since Canada had last captured gold – 1952 in Oslo.
Some of the drought was perhaps self-inflicted as Canada stayed home because it could not play its NHL stars, some was abject failure as was the case in when Canada couldn’t even muster a bronze, losing to Finland 3-2 and finishing fourth even with an NHL-loaded squad.
So the pressure was on as the Canadian team headed to Salt Lake City for another try at recapturing past glories for Canada.
And the team was loaded with talent as Tim Wharnsby pointed out in his book Gold: How Gretzky’s Men Ended Canada’s 50-Year Olympic Hockey Drought from Triumph Books.
“The 23 played a combined 26,710 regular season games in the NHL, as well as another 2,416 in the Stanley Cup playoffs. (Ed) Belfour, (Martin) Brodeur and (Curtis) Joseph combined for 1,629 regular season wins and 356 more in the postseason . . .There were 19 Hockey Hall of Famers – 14 on Canada as well as Chelios, Hull, Leach, Modano and Phil Housley on the American side.”
Still, it didn’t start well, losing to Sweden 5-2, the sort of limping to a 3-2 win over Germany, and a 3-3 tie with the Czech Republic ahead of the medal run.
But, then the magic began, and it is the run to the final, and the long-coveted gold medal which is looked back on now two decades later by author Tim Wharnsby in his fine book.
“I classify this team as the forgotten team,” said Wharnsby in a recent Yorkton This Week interview.
In spite of ending a 50-year drought the victory simply doesn’t hold the same mystic as the iconic Paul Henderson moment in 1972, nor a Sidney Crosby golden goal in 2010 in Vancouver, but Wharnsby said it was a significant win.
“There was 50-years of pent up frustration,” he said, a frustration made perhaps keener by the disappointing performance of Canada’s NHL players in 1998.
“This was a real down period in Canadian hockey,” he said, adding even the junior program, perennially in the mix for gold were in a drought which lasted from 1998 to 2005.
In 2002, the adversity of a slow start, and a country hungry for gold or nothing, certainly put pressure on the team too.
But, the team never succumbed to it.
“This was a unique cast of characters,” said Wharnsby.
While it was led by notable superstars such as Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic, it also included some unlikely heroes; Eric Lindros and Michael Peca selected in spite of sitting out for long periods ahead of the Games over contract disputes, and Theoren Fleury back after an issue with drugs.
“There was more (to the story) than we witnessed in games,” said Wharnsby.
A big part of the story was the vast amount of leadership in the dressing room, so much so that head coach, the late Pat Quinn, often left motivation to his players.
“He (Quinn), let the players sort of coach themselves,” said Wharnsby.
Part of Quinn’s motivation to his players came from the Canadian women’s gold medal-winning hockey team.
“Canadian head coach Pat Quinn was particularly moved by what the women accomplished,” writes Wharnsby. “He made his way down to the Canadian women’s bench after the game with tears in his eyes, saying, “They never lost their poise. It was a magnificent victory.”
““It’s one of my favourite moments from that Olympics in Salt Lake City, to see him in tears,” Wickenheiser recalled. “He told me later that the women inspired the men.””
That didn’t mean a gold looked likely, especially after the lacklustre opening round.
“What would make you believe they could put together three awesome games in the medal round?” asked Wharnsby.
But they did make the gold medal game.
“The date of the game was not lost on the Canadian players,” writes Wharnsby. “It was 50 years to the day that Canada had last won gold in the men’s hockey tournament. To ease the tension in the dressing room, Canadian head coach Pat Quinn opted for a straightforward message in his pregame discourse. He told his players to go out and play like women, referring to what the Canadian women’s team had accomplished three days earlier.”
And, it worked.
“The men’s hockey team successfully followed up what the women accomplished three days earlier, pushing Canada into rarified air of a triumph that had never happened before – a double gold in hockey. Finally, Gretzky, Lemieux, and Co. had ended 50 years of frustration for a hockey nation,” wrote the author.
“It was just an incredible experience,” (Theo) Fleury said. “When you grow up playing road hockey in Russell, Manitoba, and it’s minus-50, you dream about playing in the Stanley Cup Final, not playing in the Olympic gold final.”
Wharnsby, in relating one story in his interview admitted to getting goosebumps just talking about the memory, so researching the book was a pure joy for him.
“It was neat seeing what made them tick – what is was like behind the scenes,” he said.
At the time, naturally the country celebrated.
“Canadians from coast to coast were whipped into a frenzy, with impromptu celebrations on streets like Granville in Vancouver, Yonge in Toronto, Ste-Catherine in Montreal, and Portage and Main in Winnipeg,” related the preview of Gold at www.triumphbooks.com
Wharnsby said the book has been well-received as readers relive the gold.
“It’s been very positive. People like the inside stories,” he said, adding people he talks to who have read the book “relay their stories – where they were? What their memories are.”