Czech hockey team connects to past Olympic glory

VANCOUVER, Canada — The 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team locked up the copyright for “miracle on ice.” Which 18 years later, in Nagano, Japan, left writers scrambling for words to describe the gold-medal run of the Czech Republic.

It was the first year that the Olympics had welcomed professional players into the fray and the nascent Czech Republic, reborn just five years earlier, boasted far fewer NHLers than the pre-tournament favorites Canada, Russia and the United States.

In a performance that can only be described as … well, miraculous, Czech goaltender Dominik Hasek stonewalled the three powers — the U.S. in the quarters, Canada in the semis and Russia in the finals — allowing just two goals in the three games.

Much was made of the political backdrop of America’s “Miracle on Ice” victory over the Soviet Union, which occurred at a time when Cold War tensions were high and, with the U.S. economy in a recession, Americans were said by their own president to be in “a malaise." Still, that couldn’t compare with the tumultuous emotions that the Czech players felt in their final against Russia.

Most had been raised on tales of how, in 1968, tanks rolled into the capital in a Soviet-led invasion to crush the anti-communist, reformist movement that was known as “Prague Spring.” And in 1989 they had poured into the streets with their friends and families to celebrate the Velvet Revolution that felled the communist regime and finally rid the nation of the Soviet yoke.

While Hasek was the Olympic standout, nobody symbolized the Czech spirit more than Jaromir Jagr, the team’s superstar forward and resident free spirit who wore number 68 — with both his NHL Pittsburgh Penguins and the Czechs — as a constant reminder of the outrages of that year. And at six foot, three inches with a giant mop of hair that sprawled down to his shoulders, he may have been the most conspicuous person in Prague when Czechs filled every nook and cranny of Old Town Square to celebrate their hockey heroes.

Now a dozen years later, Jagr, a senior citizen in the game at 38 years old, has returned to the Olympic ice with the Czech team. He is not the dominant player he was back in ’98 when he would lead the NHL in scoring for the first of four straight seasons. But having scrubbed a more refined look and let his hair down again, Jagr looks like a craggier version of his younger self. “I just thought, ‘How could I be closest to the Jagr of 15 years ago?’ Jagr said. “I’m not gonna skate like I did. I’m not gonna score the way I did. But I can grow hair.” Still, he remains a towering emotional presence on the hockey team, connecting it to its previous Olympic glory, and indeed on the entire Czech Olympic team, having been chosen to carry the flag at Opening Ceremonies.

After a 17-year career in which he was named a first-team all-star seven times, won two Stanley Cup championships and scored 646 goals — he left the NHL in 2008 when he couldn’t agree on money with the New York Rangers. But he didn’t retire, surprising everyone by going to his homeland‘s former oppressor. He joined the fledgling Russian Kontinental Hockey League for a reported $10 million a season — and is captain of the team in the Siberian city of Omsk. Now it is the travel not the politics there that is daunting. “There’s more freedom in Russia now, you don’t have to control yourself,” he said.

If he misses the NHL and the New York spotlight, he isn’t going to admit it. “Once you make your decision you don’t look back,” he said after an Olympic practice session. But New York clearly misses him. New York Daily News columnist Filip Bondy wrote that there hasn’t been such a dynamic personality or a playful quote on the Rangers since Jagr left town. It didn’t take his teammates long to find that the old Jagr remained a playful presence, constantly teasing his teammates between drills. “Always smiling, laughing, and tired in the morning,” said his teammate, Martin Havlat.

Jagr has played solid hockey here, scoring three goals in three games. But he made a costly error in the critical game against Russia — against a young superstar, Alexander Ovechkin, who is as physically dominating as Jagr once was. With the score tied 2-2 and Jagr attempting to trigger a breakout at center ice, he held onto the puck too long and took a thundering body check from the Russian. The puck shook loose, the Russians swooped on it and scored the winning goal.

“I should make a different decision,” he said after the loss. “If I knew this would happen, I wouldn’t do it, but you don’t have much time.” But he wasn’t going to give Ovechkin the satisfaction of bemoaning the toll that massive hit took on his aging body. “I don’t care,” he said. “If something hurts, it heals.”

Nothing heals quite like victory. The Czechs are expected to get past Belarus this evening to earn a quarterfinal match-up with Finland tomorrow. And the winner of that contest will likely play the United States for a spot — the underdog’s spot — in the gold-medal game. Perhaps there is another miracle awaiting some team there. The only hockey certainty here is that it is good to have Jagr back where he belongs — at center ice and center stage.