On February 22, 1998, an all-star Czech ice hockey team beat Russia in the finals of the Nagano Winter Games to secure its first gold medal in 78 years of Olympic hockey.
For the first time in its history, the National Hockey League (NHL) allowed their players to take part in the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, a momentous decision that freed several Czech players to play for their national team in Japan, two years after being crowned world champions in Austria.
Czechs sail to golden victory in thrilling 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics
Some ten NHLers would be used in the Czech team. Among them national legend Jaromír Jágr, goaltender Dominik Hašek, Martin Ručinský, and defenseman Petr Svoboda would lead their team from victory to victory.
Team Czech Republic emerged second from the Group D in the competition’s first round, with easy victories against Finland and Kazakhstan but losing 1-2 to Russia. Stunning the whole world of ice hockey, the Czechs would go on to get rid of the tournament’s two heavy favourites, the USA (4-1 in the quarterfinal) and Canada (2-1 in a tense penalty-shot tiebreaker during the semifinal).
Less than ten years after the fall of communism in former Czechoslovakia and five after the 1993 breakup of the country, Jágr and his teammates came face to face with Russia in the final. An incredible performance by goalkeeper Dominik Hašek coupled with Petr Svoboda’s lone goal midway through the third period (in his first appearance with the national team at a senior level) handed the Czechs a historic victory, becaming only the 7th country to win an Olympic gold medal in ice hockey.
With a whole nation behind them, the 1998 Olympic win became an iconic moment of national pride in 1990’s Czech Republic and remains engraved in the memory of those who followed their team all the way to the top.
Back home, crowds erupted in joy on Prague’s Old Town Square, where a giant TV screen had been set up. “When I saw the [Czech] flag go up, I saw my whole career flash before my eyes from the first time my parents took me to a hockey game until now,” later reacted Hašek.
“The greatest hockey tournament of all time?”
The following day, a victorious parade with the team drew hundreds of thousands of people in the streets of Prague to celebrate the victory. In the minds of many older Czechs, the memory of Czechoslovakia’s victory against the Soviet Union at the 1969 World Championship, less than a year after the crushing of the Prague Spring, was not too far away.
“My parents still talk about 1969” said hero of the moment Petr Svoboda, whose surname symbolically means “freedom”. “Beating the Russians is still a big thing for that generation.”
In 2018, the 73-minute documentary The Nagano Tapes produced by Frank Marshall and directed by Czech filmmaker Ondřej Hudeček recounted the thrilling win of the Czech team twenty years before. It premiered ahead of the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang for Czech Olympic athletes.
“Most people remember where they were at the time of Nagano,” Hudeček said. “We are better able to recall moments that were highly emotional for us. I was ten and was at my grandparents on the Sunday morning. I woke up a bit late for the match and missed a few minutes. I was annoyed.”
As Czechoslovakia, the ice hockey team had already won four silver and four bronze Olympic medals, but had always missed out on the gold.
The victory at Nagano heralded the beginning of a golden age of Czech hockey, who went on to win three straight gold medals at the world championships from 1999 to 2001 but failing to deliver a home win at the 2004 tournament, held in Prague and Ostrava. They won another gold at the 2005 and 2010 World Championships, and secured the bronze medal at the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics (once again against Russia).
“The 1998 tournament was a tournament of Dream Teams,” Greg Groggel, director of original programming for the Olympic channel, explained. “I ask hockey people, was that the greatest hockey tournament of all time?”
For the Czechs at least, not a doubt about it.