Twelve years ago, for the first time in league history, the NHL suspended operations to allow its players to participate in the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan. There was one caveat, however: the preliminary round of the hockey tournament would begin before the NHL’s designated Olympic break, and players could not leave their clubs early to participate in the games.
In 1998, the Olympic ice hockey tournament consisted of 14 teams, with six (United States, Canada, Sweden, Russia, Finland and the Czech Republic) receiving automatic bids into the final round. The eight teams in the preliminary round were split into two pools, with one team emerging from each pool for a berth into the final round.
The head coaches of countries in preliminary play, such as Slovakia and Germany, were forced to make difficult roster decisions, as 20-man rosters for the entire preliminary round had to be designated before play began, according to Olympic rules at the time. The choice came down to leaving roster spots open for incoming NHL stars, an option which would leave teams shorthanded for their opening games in the Olympics, or fill the roster with non-NHL players, hoping teams could advance beyond preliminary round without help from their NHL countrymen.
The Washington Capitals were well represented at the ’98 Games, as five Caps players made the trip together to Japan. Peter Bondra and Richard Zednik were selected to represent Slovakia, Calle Johansson was named captain for Sweden, Olie Kolzig was in net for Germany and Sergei Gonchar was a late addition for Russia, learning of his roster spot after an early morning phone call from his agent the week before the Games.
“I want to hear the anthem after a game,” Kolzig said shortly before leaving for Japan. “You want to feel what it’s like being in the Olympics.”
The five Capitals heading to the Olympics, along with Team USA head coach Ron Wilson, boarded a flight to Japan on Feb. 8, a Sunday morning, after a 4-3 home loss to Tampa Bay the previous night.
“I got my ticket and a lot of information,” Johansson said. “Now I’m looking forward to it.”
Bondra, Zednik and Kolzig had each missed two games by the time they landed in Japan. In fact, while Kolzig was in the air, his team was eliminated from medal contention, falling 8-2 to Belarus.
Kolzig, who had a roster spot waiting for him, played in two games to complete pool play for Germany, including a 2-0 shutout against France and a 4-2 win against Slovakia, which pitted teammates Bondra and Kolzig against each other.
“I’m sure he told all his teammates where to shoot on me, which is why they scored two over my glove,” Kolzig said of Bondra after the game.
Slovakia was still alive by the time Bondra and Zednik arrived on the scene at the Games. Slovakia coach Jan Sterbek decided to leave two roster spots open for Bondra and defenseman Robert Svehla, meaning five Slovakian NHL players – Pavol Demitra, Zigmund Palffy, Miroslav Satan, Josef Stumpel and Zednik – were in street clothes when the team took on Kazakhstan for chance to clinch a berth into the final round.
At 12:16 of the third period, with Slovakia trailing 3-2, Bondra scored to tie the game, setting off a decidedly pro-Slovakian crowd. But Aleksandr Koreshkov scored the game-winning goal with less than two minutes left to help Kazakhstan clinch a berth into the final round.
“I’m sad,” Bondra said. “It’ll be hard to go home. I’m going to think about this for the rest of my life.”
Johansson and Sweden advanced to the medal round before falling in the quarterfinals, 2-1, to Finland, which would go on to earn the bronze medal. Gonchar and Russia advanced to the gold-medal game against the Czech Republic, but had to settle for silver as Dominik Hasek the Czechs took gold with a 1-0 victory.