MONTREAL – Being surrounded by the top amateurs on the planet at the 1984 Olympic Winter Games in Sarajevo provided Jean-Jacques Daigneault with a first-class hockey education and memories that will last a lifetime.
Donning the maple leaf on Olympic ice at age 18 – six months after accepting an invitation to join the Canadian National Team program in August 1983 straight out of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League – exposed the Montreal native to a level of competition generally reserved for players many years his senior. Suiting up alongside future NHL rearguards Bruce Driver, Doug Lidster and James Patrick, Daigneault learned the tricks of the trade while helping shut down Soviet snipers like Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov and Vladimir Krutov under the tutelage of head coach Dave King.
“Any time you played against the Russians back then, it was probably like playing against the 1985 Edmonton Oilers. Those guys were highly skilled, quick and strong. They had great chemistry because they had players who played together year-round. I think they only had two weeks off,” recalled Daigneault, whose Canadian contingent dropped a 4-0 decision to the eventual gold medalists in the final round of Olympic competition en route to a fourth-place finish. “They would have been playing together for five or 10 years, sometimes. They were the one team that was probably NHL calibre – and they would have beaten the top five teams in the NHL at that time.”
Three decades later, the Canadiens’ assistant coach, whose NHL career spanned 15 seasons with 10 different teams – including as a member of the Stanley Cup championship squad in Montreal in 1993 – knows his decision to forgo the comforts of home for the international stage was one that paid significant dividends.
“When I joined the Olympic team, we played a lot of exhibition games against AHL teams, IHL teams and NHL teams. I played 10 games against NHL teams when I was 17 years old. We played the Oilers. We played the Flames. For me, at 17 years old, it was an incredible experience,” shared Daigneault, who helped the Canadians down the defending champion Americans 4-2 in the opening game of the 1984 Olympic tournament, as the squad closed preliminary-round play with a 4-1-0 record, two points behind Czechoslovakia.
“We started on a good note. We were well-coached and we had some very good players on our team with Kirk Muller, Pat Flatley and Kevin Dineen. My Olympic year was also my NHL draft year so it was a good springboard for me,” added the 48-year-old father of three, who was selected 10th-overall by the Vancouver Canucks and went on to amass 250 points in 899 career NHL games. “It was a good bridge going from Junior hockey to the NHL because the level of hockey in the program and at the Olympics was really high.”
While the Canadians may not have finished atop the podium in Sarajevo, the veteran rearguard’s Olympic experience extended well-beyond the rink, having taken full advantage of everything village life had to offer during the Games.
“I had a chance to watch speed skating and I saw Gaetan Boucher win his three medals, two golds and one bronze. I was there for his three races outside,” mentioned Daigneault. “Coming back from the Olympics, I obviously have some good memories of the games that I played there and my opponents, but I also have some very good memories of the speed skating and the oval and the atmosphere in the Olympic Village. There was a large cafeteria and we could meet with athletes from different sports and talk hockey with other players. It was good to be a part of, having the opportunity to interact with all of these people who went through so much to get to that level.”
Knowing just how rewarding Olympic participation can be both personally and professionally, Daigneault would offer up some simple words of wisdom for any of his current charges working their way to a podium position in Sochi.
“I would tell them to enjoy every moment. It’s very rare that you get to be chosen to play in the Olympics. I think you have to go there and enjoy every moment because there’s a lot surrounding the Olympics,” offered Daigneault, who admittedly counts himself fortunate that Olympic hockey in the 1980s was reserved for amateur players given he still had a ways to go to hit his NHL stride. “There are a lot of sports you can check out, a lot of people and athletes you can meet. I think that’s the fun part of the Games, too. You’ve got to enjoy everything that surrounds them.”
Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.
Notebook - February 19