Canada's Paul Kariya propped his head in his left hand, leaned on the boards and stared who knows where. He most certainly was not looking at the Swedes in the corner of the H‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√Ñ¢kon Hall rink, whooping and hugging on Sunday in celebration of their country's first Olympic hockey gold medal. Kariya had seen enough of the Swedish players already; more than once he dreamed that he had been playing against them. In his dreams, though, Kariya always beat them—with a goal in overtime.
This was harsh reality. "I thought we kept playing overtime until it was settled," said Kariya, who hadn't been fully aware of Olympic procedures for breaking ties. "Then on the bench they told me we were going to a shoot-out. I thought, Wow, what's going on here?"
What was going on here was the most exciting hockey game in Olympic history. After the two teams had battled to a 2-2 standoff in regulation, then played a scoreless 10-minute overtime, Olympic rules called for a shoot-out: a series of penalty shots, one-on-one, shooter versus goalie. And when it was over, after Sweden had out-dueled Canada in a gold medal climax that quickened the pulse and blew the mind, what was the reaction to this thrilling drama? The response ranged from "brutal" to "terrible." And those were the Swedes talking.
"I hate the shoot-out," said Sweden's Mats Naslund, who with teammates H‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√Ñ¢kan Loob and Tomas Jonsson became the first players to complete the historic hat trick of winning a Stanley Cup, a world championship and an Olympic gold medal. "Too much luck involved."
Not surprisingly, the Canadians were even less enamored of the concept. "It's like throwing a football through a ring," said Fabian Joseph, Canada's captain. "That's no way to end a game."
Choose your analogy: awarding the Masters green jacket after a sudden-death putting contest, deciding the Final Four with alternating free throws, playing Home Run Derby instead of extra innings in the World Series. The hockey shoot-out, say its detractors, is an artifice, a made-for-TV device only marginally related to the game, especially to a game like Sweden-Canada, which was played with grit and courage and virtually no open ice. Then all of a sudden the shooters are given half a rink to decide the outcome.
Nevertheless, the International Olympic Committee adopted the rule before the 1992 Games. And if you're going to have a shootout, it might as well come down to a couple of stars, which is what happened on Sunday when the outcome ultimately hinged on a one-on-one duel between Kariya and Sweden's Peter Forsberg, probably the two best players in the world who are not yet in the NHL.
Forsberg will be in the NHL soon, joining the Quebec Nordiques later this month after his Swedish club team, MoDo, is finished with its playoffs. The 20-year-old center, who signed a four-year, $6.5 million contract with Quebec last October, will be expected to reverse the Nordiques' current slide toward oblivion.
Kariya, 19, is keeping his options open. He was the fourth player taken in the 1993 draft, chosen by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, whose overlords at the Walt Disney Co. ought to tap their Aladdin video receipts and sign Kariya right now because he is so skilled, so nice, so cute, so downright Disney, it simply must be done. On the day before the gold medal game, three women from the Canadian figure skating team stopped by practice to watch him skate.
But Kariya already has registered for two spring semester courses at the University of Maine, which he led to the NCAA championship last year while also winning the Hobey Baker Award as the U.S.'s best college player. The courses he'll be taking? Human sexuality and Canadian studies. Had he lifted the puck higher on his last attempt in the shoot-out against Sweden and had gold-starved Canada gone on to win its first Olympic hockey championship in 42 years, Kariya surely would have become part of the latter curriculum someday.
As it happened, though, this shoot-out will be remembered favorably only in Sweden's history books. Each coach picked five players; the teams would alternately shoot penalty shots at the opposing goalie; whichever team had the most goals after five shots would be the winner. If the teams were still tied after five shots each, they would continue to alternate shooters until a winner emerged.
Canada won the coin toss and elected to shoot first. Petr Nedved, a Vancouver Canuck holdout who scored 38 goals for the NHL team last season, started the shoot-out by whipping the puck high past the left glove hand of Swedish goaltender Tommy Salo. After a miss by Sweden, Kariya copied Nedved's move and buried his shot behind Salo.
On Canada's first two shots, Salo had played deep in his crease rather than coming out to cut down the angle. Dwayne Norris, Canada's third shooter, favors the same snap shot to the glove side that paid off for Nedved and Kariya, but in this mental chess game, Norris switched to Plan B—a backhand flip to the stick side.
"We felt we should change things up," Canadian coach Tom Renney said afterward. "If Norris scores high on the other side, then we really have Salo thinking."
Maybe Canada was overthinking. Norris never got the puck airborne, and the fourth and fifth Canadian shooters didn't test Salo's glove either. Meanwhile, Sweden scored on its second (Magnus Svensson) and fourth (Forsberg) shots against goalie Corey Hirsch. At the end of the five-shot round, the shoot-out was even.
With tension mounting, Svensson and Nedved each missed with their teams' sixth shot. Forsberg and Kariya were next.
For his attempt, Forsberg reached into his memory. When he was 15, Forsberg had watched the 1989 world championships in Stockholm on TV. He saw a move that day he would never forget, executed by Sweden's Kent Nilsson on a breakaway against John Vanbiesbrouck of the U.S. "I liked it right away," Forsberg recalled. "The goalie ended up in the stands."
Forsberg, a lefthanded shot, decided to try to re-create Nilsson's magic. He swooped to the left on his forehand, pulling Hirsch with him. Forsberg then downshifted and was almost at the goal line when he finally drew the puck to his backhand. Hirsch dropped to his knees and stretched out his glove, close enough to the dribbling puck that it seemed as if he could have stopped it with his breath. Forsberg, with only his right hand on the stick, then reached back and tapped in a backhander like a man taking a two-foot gimme.
Said Forsberg later, "I think I've tried that move three times before."
How many did you make?
Now it was left, do or die, to Kariya, who decided to go back to Plan A—firing high to the glove hand. Kariya, however, didn't shoot high enough and Salo stacked his pads. The puck bounced away, and the Swedes exploded in celebration.
For such a touted talent, Forsberg had made little impression at the Games until he broke out with three assists in a 4-3 semifinal victory against Russia. "For the first time," Naslund said of his teammate, "he proved to me that he's not only a promising player but he's ready to play in big games."
But while Forsberg proved his mettle in the shoot-out, what did the shoot-out prove to the hockey world? Nordique president Marcel Aubut, who was in Lillehammer to watch his Swedish investment, is a staunch advocate of the shoot-out for NHL games—in the regular season only. "What happened here," said Aubut, "is going to encourage opposition to the shoot-out. People are afraid the Stanley Cup will be decided that way, even though I tell them, no, not in the playoffs."
No matter how you package it, the shoot-out may be a hard sell in Canada for some time to come.