One of my most memorable experiences in my hockey career was the Nagano Olympics of 1998. I was so proud to be named as the coach of Team Canada especially because it was the first Olympics where the best players in the world would be involved playing for their respective countries.
There were meetings upon meetings where planning, selections, logistics and more planning were discussed. Some required traveling, many were conference calls and Team Canada truly did try to prepare as best as they could. In reality, nothing could have prepared the organizers for the hysteria of professional hockey players being at the Olympic Games for the first time, especially a certain Canadian named Wayne Gretzky.
The scene at the Nagano train station when Team Canada arrived was one I will never forget.
It was exciting with thousands of people turning out to greet the team and catch a glimpse of Wayne Gretzky. It was frightening to witness thousands of star crazed hockey fans rush towards the players. Wayne was totally mobbed and to this day I don’t know how he escaped unscathed. His celebrity was the largest of any competitor in those Games and our Team Canada press conferences always had hundreds of journalists and countless cameras in attendance.
It was great experiencing the Olympic Village and living with the other athletes and coaches, but the schedule was so overwhelming with six games in nine days that I really didn’t have time to experience anything else.
The hockey was great and ultra competitive; Jaromir Jagr brought this point home to me on the first day of the tournament. I had coached him in three previous All Star games and was use to chatting with him but when I tried to strike up a casual conversation with him, he flat out told me, coach this is very different, at the Olympics, we don’t chit chat with the opponent. I should have taken more from that brief exchange. In the end the approach the Czechs took was the right one as they ended up winning the gold medal.
Many of the lessons from that first Olympic Hockey tournament were banked and used when the Salt Lake City games came around four years later.
Team Canada officials were better prepared for the media crush of the games, the families were better taken care of and the focus was as it should be, totally on helping the players achieve the ultimate goal.
They captured their first Gold Medal in fifty years in 2002 and even though they didn’t need to, coaches Pat Quinn and Wayne Flemming went out of their way to thank the previous coaching staff for all of our help in preparing them from our lessons learned.