In the post-Mario Lemieux era, the NHL had desperately waited for one of its collection of stars to rise to the level above everyone else. In the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano Japan, goaltender Dominik Hasek established himself as the best player in hockey.
The tournament was considered to be a 4 horse race with Canada and the USA as co-favorites and Sweden and Russia as definite threats. Even a strong Finnish team was expected to finish ahead of the Czech Republic.
But no one counted out the Czech Republic for two reasons: Jaromir Jagr and Dominik Hasek. Jagr, who many expected to establish himself as the best player in hockey this year, scored just one goal in the tournament but was his usual incredible self. But make no mistake - Dominik Hasek almost single-handedly won his country the gold medal, and he did it in legendary fashion.
After going 2-1 in the round robin, the Czechs were forced to take on the defending World Cup champions USA in the first game of the lose-and-you're-out medal round. With a great defensive system in front of him, Hasek stole a victory away from the heavily favored yet disgruntled US team.
However things certainly didn't get any easier for Hasek as the Czechs were then even bigger underdogs in the next game. Canada was the opponent, and the rules were simple - winner plays for gold, loser plays for bronze.
In what easily classifies as one of the greatest international hockey games of all time, Dominik Hasek emerged victorious, not only over Canada but over his arch rival of goaltending supremacy, Patrick Roy.
In the classic goaltending battle, the two teams entered the third period deadlocked at zero. Nearing the half-way mark of the third period Jiri Slegr's point shot managed to elude Patrick Roy, and the Czech's fell into their defensive shell, thinking one goal would be enough - thinking there's no way anyone could score on Hasek that night.
However, in typical Canadian dramatic style, Trevor Linden managed to roof a shot above Dominik Hasek's shoulder with just a minute left to play. It would have been a goal that would rival Paul Henderson's 1972 goal for Canada's greatest international moment if they had gone on to win. Except that goal only tied the game, and Hasek had no intention of letting in another.
The game went into overtime, and the Czechs basically played the trap, trying to force the dreaded Olympic shootout. Unlike in the NHL playoffs, international hockey would have games decided by a breakaway competition instead of endless overtime.
Hasek, considered perhaps to be the greatest breakaway goalie in history, stopped all 5 shooters. Patrick Roy stopped 4 of 5 shots. The unthinkable had happened - Hasek had done it again. Dominik Hasek was playing the role of giant killer in Nagano.
The gold medal game showcased a young Russian squad against the Czech Republic. The Russians had handed the Czechs their only loss, a 2-1 win during the round robin. Again, the Czechs were underdogs, and this time Hasek had to face the hottest shooter in the Olympics - 9 goal scorer Pavel Bure.
The Czechs checked and Hasek was perfect. He posted another shutout, as the Czechs won their first Olympic hockey gold medal, 1-0.
Hasek was simply unbeatable. His performance on the world's biggest stage, and established himself as hockey's new best player.
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