The year is 1988. For the first time ever, the Olympic Winter Games come to Canada for the very first time. In a special IOC meeting in Germany on September 30th, 1981, Calgary, Alberta easily eliminated Falun, Sweden and Cortina d'Ampezzo Italy for the right to hold the games.
Canada had been eyeing the Winter Olympics since the mid 1950s. The Rocky Mountain town of Banff was always the Canadian Olympic Association's first choice. They put in serious bids in 1964 and especially 1968, when they were narrowly edged out by Grenoble. After 1968 the COA opted for a bigger center, with nearby Calgary becoming the bargaining position.
NHLers at the Olympics.
On October 20th, 1986, IIHF president Gunther Sabetzki announced that hockey at the Olympics would be open to all professional athletes beginning with the 1988 games in Calgary. While this technically allowed NHL professionals into the Olympics for the first time, there was still the problem of timing. With the games held in the second half of February, playoff stretch drive on the NHL schedule, the NHL was not about to allow Wayne Gretzky or any significant NHL player to participate in the Olympics.
Canada did benefit with help from the professional ranks, though, most notably with the arrival of goaltender Andy Moog. Moog was in the midst of a contract dispute with the three time Stanley Cup champion Oilers and was holding out in the dispute. He joined the team, although Canada already had an excellent (and at the time 100% amateur) goalie in young Sean Burke. The two would split duties.
Another Oiler, Randy Gregg, also played. He had actually taken the entire NHL season off in order to chase Olympic gold in his home province. Gregg had always embraced the international game and the Olympic ideals, and had already represented Canada in 1980.
Last minute loans to the Canadian Olympic team were Tim Watters (Winnipeg Jets), Brian Bradley and Jim Peplinski (Calgary Flames) and Steve Tambellini and Ken Berry (Vancouver Canucks). Watters and Berry were both members of the 1980 Olympic team.
Calgary's Paul Reinhart had also been slated to play on the team, but he was unable to play due to his chronic back injuries. Had he been healthy he would likely have been Canada's top player. As it was Bradley was the best of the pros, teaming nicely with Wally Schreiber and Serge Boisvert to form Canada's best line.
Also playing for Canada were soon to be NHLers were Bob Joyce and Trent Yawney, who immediately joined Boston and Chicago, respectively, after the Olympics. Zarley Zalapski, Marc Habscheid, Claude Vilgrain (who was born in Haiti, by the way!) and Merlin Malinowski were other notables on this team coached by Dave King and assistants Guy Charron and Tom Watt.
Interestingly, Randy Gregg, with the benefit of hindsight, was quite critical of that last minute parachuting in of professionals. He correctly argued that it disrupted team chemistry, or as he put it, the team's "oneness." Canada had an excellent showing at the Isveztia tournament just weeks earlier, but with devoted regulars like Joyce and Serge Roy bumped to the sidelines in favor of marginal NHL talents, Canada had a disappointing 4th place finish on home ice.
The Other Teams
The Soviets won the gold medal, to no one's surprise. This was essentially the same team that had competed unforgetably at the Canada Cup in 1987, taking the Wayne Gretzky-Mario Lemieux led Team Canada to the brink. In addition to the regular cast of characters like Igor Larionov, Vladimir Krutov, Sergei Makarov, Viacheslav Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov, the Soviets also introduced a new youngster to the line named Alexander Mogilny.
Finland won silver, edging out arch rival Sweden. Notable names here included Raimo Helminen, Jyrki Lumme, Teppo Numminen, and Reijo Ruotsalainen for Finland, and Mikael Andersson and Peter Lindmark for Sweden.
By the way, the Swedes pulled off some pretty sneaky mind games on Canada right before the opening game. The Swedes knew that NHL style fiberglass goaltending mask that we all take for granted nowadays was likely illegal in international play, due to size measurements. Sweden waited until the last second, forcing the IIHF into a quick ruling. Burke and Moog were both forced to switch to very unfamiliar and uncomfortable helmet and cage masks.
The Americans were powered by a group of youngsters with an impressive NHL future awaiting them: Tony Granato, Craig Janney, Brian Leetch, Corey Millen, Jeff Norton, Kevin Stevens, Chris Terreri, Eric Weinrich and Scott Young. Todd Okerlund was also part of this team. He is the son of wrestling announcing legend Mean Gene Okerlund.
Dominik Hasek was playing with Czechoslovakia, Phillippe Bozon was skating for France, while ironman Udo Kiessling skated for Germany.
No other teams benefitted from including NHL players, but it should be noted that the weaker nations did benefit from the new rule to include pro players. No fewer than 21 Canadian professional hockey players were playing for other nations. All of these Canadians were minor league or European league stars who had no real chance of making the NHL, but with the aid of dual citizenship they were able to compete in the Olympics for their adopted countries. German goalie Karl Friesen, born in Winnipeg, was the most notable of these players.
The games, played at the new Calgary Saddledome, were played with a complicated formula to determine the gold medal winner. Canada went 3-1-1 in the preliminary round, losing to Finland, tying Sweden and not so convincingly defeating Poland, Switzerland and France.
In the playoff round Canada started the new seedings three points back of the Soviets. The only way to get a medal was to defeat the heavily favored Soviets, which was simply not going to happen. The Russians won 5-0, all but guaranteeing them the gold medals. Interestingly Canada chose to play Sean Burke in net. Burke was strong against the Soviets during the season, especially at the Izvestia, but struggled with a 1-2-1 Olympic record and a 3.02 GAA. Meanwhile the three time Stanley Cup champion Moog watched from the bench. He finished the tournament with a 4-0-0 record and a 2.25 GAA.
Finland was the surprise of the tournament. With the gold medal secured the Soviets were ripe for the picking on the last day of the tournament. Opportunistic Finland surprised the Soviets 2-1 to pick up the silver medal.
Sweden finished with bronze, followed by Canada, West Germany, Czechoslovakia, USA, Switzerland, Austria, Poland, France and Norway.
Highlights of the Games
Outside of hockey, highlights included Alberto Tomba winning two gold medals in Alpine Skiing and the figure skating battles between The Brians (USA's Boitano edged Canada's Orser for the gold) and Katarina Witt and Canada's silver medal sweet heart Elizabeth Manley. Tracy Wilson and Robert McCall combined to take bronze in the ice dance.
Banff's Karen Percy, future wife of Edmonton Oilers great Kevin Lowe, won bronze in the women's downhill and the women's Super G.
Matti Nykänen dominated the ski jumping events, winning three gold medals, although it was England's loveable bifocal wearing Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards who stole everyone's hearts, and became an international celebrity. This was also the first year of the previously unfathomable Jamaican bobsled team.