I was a kid when it was announced that the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona would feature NBA players in the basketball tournament. A few months later, the USA roster was pieced together out of the best the world had to offer. Twelve players, eleven of whom were regarded as future first-ballot Hall of Famers, and one (Christian Laettner) who was one of the most decorated college players in history. And it was a relatively young team, with only Magic Johnson (32) and Larry Bird (35) past age 30.
Once the team took the court, the only question was how large the margin of victory would be. The scores of their six games at the Tournament of the Americans were, in order, 136-57, 105-61, 112-52, 128-87, 119-81, and 127-80. And in the eight Olympic games, the scores were 116-48, 103-70, 111-68, 127-83, 122-81, 115-77, 127-76, and 117-85.
The overwhelming popularity of both the tournament and the team gave additional momentum to the push for NHL players to represent their home countries in the Winter Olympics. The 1994 Olympics were already committed under the existing format, but it was later decided that the 1998 games in Nagano, Japan, would have NHL players.
Panic Wears A Maple Leaf
With everyone eagerly counting down the months until Nagano, the power brokers of hockey resurrected the old Canada Cup tournament and re-branded it. In 1996, the world’s top eight hockey countries assembled teams which would compete in the first World Cup of Hockey. Any one of five teams (Canada, US, Russia, Sweden, and Finland) were expected to win the tournament, leaving the other three (Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Germany) as the likely bottom-feeders.
Canada was the heavy favorite, as they were at any time that a best-on-best tournament was put together. The US roster was assembled mostly out of the best available American players; an American B-team would have been almost non-competitive. Canada, meanwhile, didn’t seem to need any of Patrick Roy or Ray Bourque or Mario Lemieux; they were going to show up without three all-time greats, win, and that would be that.
In the preliminary round, a few things changed. First was the dismal showing of the Czechs, who in three games lost by a 3-0 shutout and then by 7-3 and 7-1 blowouts. Second was that Canada ended up having to play in a knockout game, thanks to a 5-3 loss to the American squad in the preliminary round. In the playoff round, Canada needed overtime to defeat Sweden and advance to the best-of-three final. The US squad, on the other hand, dismantled Russia by a 5-2 score. It would be a US-Canada final.
In Game 1, Canada won 4-3 in an overtime thriller. The US trailed 3-2 late, but Joel Otto won two vital offensive zone faceoffs – the second one with less than ten seconds remaining – which led to the tying goal. Steve Yzerman scored the winning goal for Canada on a play which was offside by at least two feet…or two skates.
(Steve Yzerman carries the puck into the zone seconds before scoring the winning goal in Game 1, while Rod Brind’Amour is…well, the official said it wasn’t offside)
The US stormed back to take Game 2 by a 5-2 score to force a winner-take-all Game 3.
As expected, Game 3 was a brutally hard-fought affair, and Canada led 2-1 with less than four minutes to go. And less than four minutes later, the US had taken the game and the tournament with a 5-2 victory. Half of that time was occupied clinging to a narrow 3-2 lead.
What the World Cup triumph showed was that it was possible to assemble parts and specific roles, even out of a surplus of players, and beat the best team in the world. And Hockey Canada took notes, looking ahead to the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano.
An Audition In Finland
In preparation for the 1997 IIHF World Championships, this blurb could be found:
The world championship is a chance to show they can perform on the larger international ice surface, which will be used at the Winter Olympics.
It’s no secret that Canada will have a different team at the Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, compared with the one which lost to the United States in the World Cup final last September.
In Finland, Team Canada will be coached by Andy Murray, who is an assistant coach with the Olympic team, and he will be keeping a keen eye on his players to see who steps up to meet the challenge presented at the worlds.
A strong world championship could translate into more scrutiny next fall when the braintrust behind the Olympic team begins to scout players for Nagano.
Meanwhile, three other players were named to the roster yesterday – centre Anson Carter of the Boston Bruins, right winger Shean Donovan of the Sharks and defenceman Rob Zamuner of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Adams, Alan. “Nolan joins Canuck roster – Oates, Burke status for world tourney in limbo.” Toronto Star, SPORTS, 16 Apr. 1997, p. D10
In that tournament, the US was looking to go unbeaten in the preliminary round, but were derailed by Canada in a 5-1 game. The scoring was opened barely a minute into the game by Rob Zamuner, who by now was being (accurately) recognized as a forward and not a defenseman. Zamuner finished the tournament with four goals and two assists, in addition to suffocating defensive play, en route to a gold medal for Canada.
Of course, the IIHF World Championships usually have rosters which include homegrown players drawn from domestic leagues, and a handful of NHL players from non-playoff teams. The tournament takes place while the Stanley Cup playoffs are being conducted, and it takes a backseat in North America to, well, nearly everything else.
But for many North American players, their only exposure to the international rink size (200′ x 100′) would be in such tournaments. The additional room for skaters, and the different angles for goalies, were a bit different compared to the NHL rink size (200′ x 85′). The Nagano Olympics would be played on the larger rink, and the 1997 World Championships were a perfect test to see who would be able to adapt quickly to the big ice.
In history, it’s been said that for major international powers, war is fought according to the lessons learned in the last war, and far too much time, effort, and bloodshed is spent trying to fight a war according to situations that may not even be remotely comparable. We see this in hockey as well, where the rivalry between the US and Canada sees each team swing back and forth according to the lessons of the most recent best-on-best tournament. The US roster in 1996 was simply their best available players, several of whom had vastly different skill sets than their Canadian counterparts.
In response to the American triumph in 1996, Canada would be looking to build a roster that could shut down the US in Nagano – even if they would end up playing Sweden or Finland or Russia in the medal round.
Projecting and Picking the Canadian Dream Team
The roster for Canada would be announced at the end of November. In a brief column that cut right to the heart of the matter, Bill Beacon wrote:
Canada’s loss to the United States at the first World Cup of Hockey in September 1996, was blamed on having too many older players and too many centres playing out of position on the wings.
The problem is that Canada’s most skilled players, except for Kariya, tend to be centres.
Left wing: Kariya, despite not playing yet this season, and Shanahan make it a strong position. Montreal’s Shayne Corson has made a powerful bid for a job with a remarkable start to the season. Scorer Rod Brind’Amour, gritty Adam Graves, and checker Rob Zamuner must be considered.
Beacon, Bill. “Messier key question in Olympic team debate.” Kingston Whig-Standard, Sports, 28 Nov. 1997, p. 26.
Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun put together his projected roster, with forward groups that looked like this:
CENTRES: Joe Sakic, Eric Lindros, Wayne Gretzky, Keith Primeau, Joe Nieuwendyk.
LEFT WINGERS: Shayne Corson, Brendan Shanahan, Rod Brind’Amour, Steve Yzerman, Jeff Friesen , Ryan Smyth
RIGHT WINGERS: Paul Kariya, Trevor Linden, Claude Lemieux, Rob Zamuner, Theo Fleury, Mark Recchi , Mike Keane
This simply seemed to underscore the fact that, yes, most of Canada’s top forwards were centers, particularly with centers Brind’Amour and Yzerman being projected as wings for the Olympics. Notice too that none of Adam Oates, Ron Francis, or Mark Messier are on this projected roster, while Zamuner and Mike Keane are. Jeff Friesen, 22 years old and in the midst of a breakthrough in the NHL, is listed. Ryan Smyth was 21 and had scored 39 goals during the previous NHL season.
The 1997-98 season began, the Lightning stumbled out of the gate, and coach Terry Crisp was fired. In mid-November, Zamuner scored five goals in two games after moving from left wing to center. As Canada’s Olympic team was going to be named within the ensuing couple of weeks, the timing could not have been better.
The Firestorm Begins
To spare everyone the fine details, Zamuner was picked to the team, Messier wasn’t, and the backlash was immediate and volcanic. The narrative that developed immediately was “Messier snubbed, and who the hell is Rob Zamuner?” It still exists to this day, as this column from 2015 demonstrates:
It was supposedly the late Herb Brooks who had the famous line about not bringing an All-Star Team to the 1980 Olympics. “I am not looking for the best players,” said Kurt Russell, who played the U.S. hockey team’s head coach in the movie Miracle. “I am looking for the right ones.”
For the longest time, that was how Canada also used to assemble its international teams.
Skilled scorers could be found on the top-two lines. But from Rob Zamuner winning a roster spot over Mark Messier at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano to Kris Draper being chosen ahead of Sidney Crosby at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, bottom six jobs often went to role players because the thinking was you could not ask a star player to get his hands dirty and block shots.
That thinking probably cost Canada a couple of Olympic medals and was part of the reason why the country’s top teenagers endured a five-year drought at the world junior championships. It was only after a disappointing fourth-place finish in 2014 in Malmo, Sweden, where Canada lost to Finland in the semifinal and then to Russia in the bronze medal game, that the top-six and bottom-six formula was scrapped.
Traikos, Michael. “No shortage of talent Move to larger ice puts emphasis on skill over size at world juniors.” Peterborough Examiner, News, 2 Dec. 2015, p. D3
Was Zamuner chosen over Mark Messier? If so, why? And what impact did it have?
These are three questions that, in my opinion, have never been adequately answered in the nearly 22 years since the Nagano Olympics were played.
In any case, let’s begin. From immediately after the roster was chosen:
Picking the unknown Zamuner over future hall of famer Mark Messier does raise a question. After all, Messier and international hockey are like hockey tape and hockey sticks.
(Team Canada GM Bobby) Clarke said it came down to numbers and role players.
“There is no better checker or penalty killer in the league than Rob Zamuner, in our opinion,” said Clarke, whose assistants are Bob Gainey and Pierre Gauthier. “And Zamuner can score as well and Brind’Amour can do that type of work.
“We were very careful we got players who can do the type of roles that hockey teams need if you are going to win it. Certain players are better at certain things and do better jobs and we tried to cover everything and take into consideration we might get injuries. We might have to change roles here.
Adams, Alan. “Canada’s Olympic side has all the ingredients.” Toronto Star, SPORTS, 30 Nov. 1997
And assistant GM Bob Gainey did have his say as well.
Rather than going with the 23 best Canadian players, the management team of GM Bob Clarke, Gauthier, fellow assistant Bob Gainey and head coach Marc Crawford and his staff selected the players they felt were best suited to fill the roles they defined within the team during meetings last summer.
Perhaps the player who best defines their thinking is Rob Zamuner, the 28-year-old forward for the Tampa Bay Lightning. He had his best offensive year last season, a modest 17 goals and 50 points, but he is a good two-way player with excellent speed who can also kill penalties.
“He’s the type of player who’s important to a team,” said Gainey.
“He’s shown continual progression. He’s a very competent two-way player weighted towards defence. He’s a good back-up faceoff guy who has a bit of a touch around the offensive net.
“There’s a place on this team for this type of player.”
If there was a criticism of Team Canada following the 1996 World Cup loss to the Americans, it was that it lacked somewhat in the area of defence among its forwards.
Team Canada failed to protect a lead late in the World Cup final and the presence of a player like Zamuner should be a help in that circumstance.
Stevenson, Chris. “CANADA’S TEAM! BUILDING A TRUE TEAM CLARKE AND CO. HAVE CREATED A SQUAD WITH BALANCE AND SOME KEY ROLE PLAYERS.” Ottawa Sun, Sports, 30 Nov. 1997, p. 26
Remember what I said about fighting a new war according to the lessons learned in the last one?
There’s a story that, during training camp for Team USA in that World Cup, head coach Ron Wilson asked each player individually, “If we have a 3-2 lead on Canada in the final game with five minutes to go, what do you do?” He repeated this question multiple times as the tournament approached. And as the 2-1 Canada lead in Game 3 quickly gave way to a 3-2 USA lead with under three minutes to go, every player on that team knew what they would and should do in that situation – they’d thought about it on multiple occasions, and undoubtedly visualized exactly what would need to be done and how it would be done.
It was definitely payback time when selectors named the Canadian men’s hockey team for the Nagano Olympics in February.
Rewarded for their stellar efforts at the last world championship tournament were St. Louis defenceman Chris Pronger, Carolina centre Keith Primeau, Los Angeles defender Rob Blake and Tampa Bay winger Rob Zamuner.
Zamuner? The guy who’s never scored as many as 20 goals in any of his six NHL seasons?
He’s one of those many no-name skaters who goes about the business of being a solid forward who gets the job done with little fanfare. The 28-year-old forward from Oakville played junior hockey in Guelph, had a cup of coffee with the New York Rangers and settled into his career in Tampa after signing with the Lightning as a free agent in 1992.
Canadian Olympic coach Marc Crawford likely will use the 6-foot-2 Zamuner on a checking line with 6-foot-5 Primeau and 6-foot-4 Trevor Linden, matching them against the opposition’s top unit.
Zamuner proved his worth during the world tournament in Finland last spring when he quietly went about his job. Senators general manager Pierre Gauthier saw Zamuner was mobile enough to be effective on the larger ice surface that will be used in the Olympics.
“ZAMUNER A SLEEPER PICK.” Ottawa Sun, Sports, 2 Dec. 1997, p. 38
And from Roy MacGregor:
Zamuner, and Keith Primeau and Joe Nieuwendyk, both of whom play Messier’s centre position, and another centre, Trevor Linden, who only two months ago chose to step aside as the captain of the Vancouver Canucks so that the obvious team leader, Messier, could wear his rightful “C.”
There is much to be read into this. First, to identify Zamuner: a 28-year-old left-winger with the Tampa Bay Lightning who has had one of hockey’s quietest careers, last year his best of six with 17 goals. This season, his best so far, he has 11 points on nine goals and two assists. Messier, now playing strongly again, has 19 points on nine goals and 10 assists for the revitalized Canucks.
Zamuner, however, is a superb checker and a fine skater who had a terrific world championship last spring, when the Canadians took gold in Finland. He really replaces more-expected names such as (Claude) Lemieux or Mike Peca or Mike Keane than he does Messier, but, because he is so completely unknown, he will take the rap for all the potential mistakes the four-man selection committee may or may not have made.
There are other curiosities: no Mark Recchi, the Montreal scoring machine, no Scott Niedermayer, the speedy New Jersey defenceman, no Jeff Friesen, the swift San Jose Shark, no Steve Duchesne, the quick, top scoring St. Louis defenceman.
Why? There are several answers to this. The first is that Canadian general manager Bob Clarke and his assistants (Ottawa’s Pierre Gauthier, Dallas’ Bob Gainey, Hockey Canada’s Bob Nicholson) have very deliberately designed a team to play the Americans, first and foremost.
MacGregor, Roy. “Broad Street goes to Japan: Canada’s Olympic team built with U.S. in mind.” Hamilton Spectator, Sports, 1 Dec. 1997, p S12
I’ll give these guys credit. At least they’re trying to dig into the issue further, rather than mindlessly regurgitating stupid things in print. That said, several other reporters did do exactly that, but I’m simply choosing not to reprint it. One reporter (who is still active) referred to Zamuner and Keith Primeau as “relative mongrels” compared to Penguins center Ron Francis, who was passed over for selection as well.
Pop quiz: Name every NHL forward in history who has ever had a 50+ point season despite having zero power play goals and zero power play assists.
- Gaeten Duchesne (1986-87), 17 goals, 35 assists, 52 points – 1 shorthanded goal, 2 shorthanded assists
- Alex Burrows (2008-09), 28 goals, 23 assists, 51 points – 4 SHG, 1 SHA
- Gregg Sheppard (1972-73), 24 goals, 26 assists, 50 points – 2 SHG, 3 SHA
- Guy Carbonneau (1984-85), 23 goals, 34 assists, 57 points – 4 SHG, 1 SHA
- Derek Sanderson (1971-72), 25 goals, 33 assists, 58 points – 7 SHG, 5 SHA
- Bob Errey (1988-89), 26 goals, 32 assists, 58 points – 3 SHG, 6 SHA
- Ed Westfall (1970-71), 25 goals, 34 assists, 59 points – 7 SHG, 10 SHA
- Jim Peplinski (1985-86), 24 goals, 35 assists, 59 points – 1 SHG, 0 SHA
- Jim Peplinski (1986-87), 18 goals, 32 assists, 50 points – 2 SHG, 1 SHA
- Jim Peplinski (1987-88), 20 goals, 31 assists, 51 points – 2 SHG, 1 SHA
- Rob Zamuner (1996-97), 17 goals, 33 assists, 50 points – 4 SHG, 4 SHA
Every single one of those players, except for Zamuner, was on a playoff team that year. Zamuner was 4th on his team in goals, 4th in assists, 2nd among forwards in +/-, tied for 3rd in even-strength goals, 1st in even-strength assists, and 1st in both shorthanded scoring categories. All told, Zamuner was in on 50 of his team’s 217 goals (23.04%). Take out Tampa Bay’s 47 power play goals, and he was in on 50 of 170 Lightning goals – 29.41%. That was in the season prior. (In the year of the Olympics, 1997-98, Zamuner led the Lightning in goals when the Nagano team was announced. No other player above could say the same.)
Peplinski’s highest share was in 1986-87, where he was in on 15.72% of Flames’ goals. Westfall was in on 14.79%, Errey 16.71%, Sanderson 17.58%, Carbonneau 18.45%, Duchesne 18.25%, Burrows 20.73%, and Sheppard 15.15%.
Two important notes on this chart: Peplinski was named to the 1988 Canadian Olympic team, as any pro team (NHL included) could technically allow a player to participate – this was simply never done by NHL teams mid-season until then. And Sanderson, widely regarded as one of the great defensive forwards of all-time, would have been part of the 1972 Summit Series team if he hadn’t signed with the WHA after that season.
I have skipped over enormous amounts of the story in the meantime, because it’s frankly laboring the point and it’s also kind of annoying. For over two full months, from the very end of November until the beginning of February, the only times that “Rob Zamuner” and “Nagano” can be found in the same article are usually either in the form of letters to the editor (which don’t bear repeating here) or in the ramblings of a few people in the hockey media (a couple of which are unkind enough to the point that I – the same person who referred to the 1992-93 Senators as “a Biblical covenant curse in the form of a hockey team” – find them too mean-spirited to reprint.)
Here’s what it comes down to: the hockey insiders saw little wrong with Zamuner’s selection, a loud part of the media and fans did. All would be forgotten if Canada won the gold in Nagano, and if they didn’t, well, it would all be Zamuner’s fault.
Once in Japan, Zamuner and Joe Sakic apparently flipped a coin to see who would room with Brendan Shanahan. Zamuner won and was put into a single room, while Shanahan and Sakic – in the midst of the legendary Wings-Avalanche rivalry – were now sharing a bedroom in the Olympic Village.
Canada would play against Belarus on February 13, against Sweden on February 14, and the big game against the US on February 15. The preliminary round was largely pointless, since every team who was playing in it would qualify for the tournament quarterfinals no matter what happened.
One more factor to consider was the lingering effects of a concussion that Canadian wing Paul Kariya was still suffering from, which shuffled lines. The original plan had a first line of Wayne Gretzky centering Kariya and Steve Yzerman, and a checking line of Keith Primeau between Zamuner and Trevor Linden. But with Kariya out and Mark Recchi in, the top line now saw Primeau move to the wing and a revamped line of Zamuner between Joe Nieuwendyk and Theo Fleury.
Wait, what? With Kariya out, who replaced him? That’s right: Mark Recchi. Not Mark Messier – Mark Recchi. The first question of “why was Rob Zamuner chosen over Mark Messier?” is therefore not even a valid one – Messier was not chosen even after a selected player was unable to play, and someone else went over him as well.
No matter; Canada thumped Belarus 5-0.
In the second game, Canada defeated defending gold medalist Sweden 3-2 on a goal and two assists by Nieuwendyk, whose line (with Zamuner) drew praise from coach Marc Crawford.
The third game against the US was the big one. Besides the fact that Kariya’s concussion had been caused on a high hit by US defenseman Gary Suter, besides the fact that there was a lot of trash talk taking place in the days leading up to the game, besides the fact that the US team appeared to be in disarray, what it was really about was exorcising the demons of the 1996 World Cup.
In the first period, Joe Sakic took a penalty. Then Zamuner did, setting up a 5-on-3 for the US without Canada’s top defensive forward available. Patrick Roy stood tall, and then, fourteen seconds after the second penalty ended, Sakic found Gretzky, who found Zamuner in the perfect spot to tap Gretzky’s pass past US goalie Mike Richter for a 1-0 lead. Canada won the game 4-1, finishing the preliminary round with a 3-0-0 record.
And from the unexpected man of the hour?
“I’ve said since the beginning that I’m not here to replace Mark Messier, that this was not a competition between me and Mark Messier,” (Zamuner) said yesterday, while watching the gold medal women’s hockey game between Canadian and the U.S., along with all of his teammates.
“We’re totally different players, with totally different styles and totally different roles. I’m not trying to set myself up in his role. And I don’t know if Canadian hockey fans resent me being here instead of Mark, but I certainly hope not. It’s hard for me to know how Canadians feel about it. There wasn’t much of a reaction back home. But Tampa isn’t exactly a hockey hotbed.”
If there had been any lingering bitterness about the 28-year-old Zamuner’s inclusion on the squad, that sentiment probably dissipated as the Canucks headed into the medal round of the Olympic tournament.
Zamuner, quite unexpectedly, scored Team Canada’s first goal last game out, in their 4-1 victory over Team U.S.A., and had several other nifty opportunities while playing on a so-called checking line with Joe Nieuwendyk and Theoren Fleury. On the goal, though, Zamuner was set up on a lovely pass from Wayne Gretzky, with a second assist to Joe Sakic.
DiManno, Rosie. “‘Plodder’ Zamuner a big star for a day.” Toronto Star, SPORTS, 18 Feb. 1998, p. D7
Canada easily moved past an overwhelmed Kazakhstan team in the quarterfinals by a 5-0 score. Awaiting them in the semifinals was the Czech Republic, who had eliminated the US 4-1. The Czechs were also looking for a measure of revenge after their embarrassing performance in the 1996 World Cup, and defeating the champions of that tournament put them on the way.
The Canadians must face Hasek next. The role players general manager Bob Clarke added to fine-tune the World Cup team have been spectacular so far – Wayne Gretzky and Al MacInnis for the power play, Rob Zamuner for penalty-killing, and Keith Primeau for punch up front.
Fitzpatrick, Frank. “AN EARLY SAYONARA FRUSTRATES U.S. SIX – “WE DESERVE TO BE OUT OF IT,” SAID KEITH TKACHUK, AN ALTERNATE CAPTAIN. “WE DIDN’T PLAY WELL.” .” Philadelphia Inquirer, SPORTS, 19 Feb. 1998, p. D01
We know how this story ends. Canada and Czech Republic were tied 1-1 after regulation, and then after overtime, and then Robert Reichel’s shootout goal sent the Czechs to the gold medal game and Canada to face off against Finland for the bronze. The Czechs defeated Russia 1-0 for the gold, and Canada lost 3-2 in the bronze medal game and came away with no hardware at all.
How was it in the moment?
Eric Lindros turned out to be a fabulous leader by example. He was the big horse no opponent could contain. His want-to was palpable, his deportment impeccable, and the Mark Messier issue died without a ripple.
The team concept worked. The line combinations worked. Keith Primeau and Trevor Linden and Rob Zamuner – all the players so many of us questioned at the time of team selection – more than justified their presence here.
Cole, Cam. “Cam Cole.” Sault Star, Sports, 21 Feb. 1998, p. D1 / FRONT
How was Zamuner actually used against the Czech Republic?
Coach Marc Crawford had mused publicly about using Steve Yzerman against Jagr, perhaps thinking brains could nullify beauty. But in the end he opted, for the most part, for the quickness of Rob Zamuner.
Zamuner, on left wing with Theo Fleury and Joe Nieuwendyk, was an effective combination throughout the tournament. It was Crawford’s unsung hero line, working silently behind the combos centred by Wayne Gretzky, Eric Lindros and Joe Sakic.
It’s unlikely that Zamuner has faced many situations packed with more pressure. When GM Bob Clarke named Zamuner – and not Mark Messier – to Canada’s lineup in early December, an outcry erupted across the country.
Compared to the rest of the lineup, Zamuner’s had been a nondescript NHL career – a cup of coffee with the New York Rangers followed by five years with in Tampa Bay. In his best season he had 17 goals and 50 points, chump change for the likes of Sakic, Lindros and Gretzky.
But Clarke liked what he saw of Zamuner in the World Championship last April, where he contributed to Canada’s gold medal. He has speed and smarts, and adapted well to the large ice service.
He demonstrated those attributed again last night. Zamuner wasn’t the only Canadian delegated to keep an eye on Jagr, but he had the lion’s share of the duty. No one player can contain Jagr and when coverage did break down, Roy stood as the final last line of defence.
O’Leary, Jim. “WHAT HAPPENED? GOALTENDING NOT THE PROBLEM IN UNTHINKABLE LOSS TO CZECHS.” Edmonton Sun, Sports, 20 Feb. 1998, p. SP03
There was controversy when the team was named in December. Some wondered why the likes of Rob Zamuner, Keith Primeau and Trevor Linden were on the team while Mark Messier was not.
But once in Nagano, it was clear the selectors – NHL general managers Bob Clarke, Pierre Gauthier and Bob Gainey – had made excellent choices.
Beacon, Bill. “CANADA NEEDED A HERO IN THE CRUNCH, NO SINGLE GREAT SCORER COULD BE FOUND.” London Free Press, Sports, 21 Feb. 1998, p. B3
What did Zamuner do during the game against the Czechs? He was assigned to cover all-world wing Jaromir Jagr, and held Jagr to one single shot. He was on the ice for Jiri Slegr’s goal which made it 1-0, but had Slegr’s defensive partner Richard Smehlik pretty well smothered.
There was some controversy related to the Slegr goal, in that Zamuner (who was on the ice) wasn’t in the picture at all. It was reported that Theo Fleury had suggested a play in which Zamuner would zip down the ice after the faceoff, and a Canadian player would hit him with a pass for a breakaway. It made no difference – Fleury lost the draw, the puck went right back to Slegr, and three seconds later it was in the back of the Canadian net. The only two players who touched the puck on the play were Pavel Patera (who won the faceoff) and Slegr. It wouldn’t have mattered if Zamuner was in the other faceoff circle, on the bench, or marooned on Ceti Alpha V.
Interestingly, no one is suggesting anymore that what Clarke should have done was choose Messier and pass on Lightning forward Rob Zamuner.
The once obscure Zamuner, one of the league’s most underrated players, was the target of all of Canada’s critics in the aftermath of the team’s selection. But while Canada was proving again that it is no longer among the world’s elite teams, Zamuner was proving he is definitely among the world’s elite players.
For the tournament, Zamuner scored just one goal. But it was the first in a big game against the United States and it was only one less than Lindros and Canada’s other goal-scoring leaders had.
Zamuner also finished with a positive plus-minus and he was one of the primary reasons Canada didn’t get blown out by the Czechs in the semifinals.
Zamuner, who makes his living as a penalty killer and checker, shadowed Jaromir Jagr virtually the entire game and held the elusive Jagr to one shot.
“Rob Zamuner is never going to have to answer those questions again about why he was on that team,” Lightning coach Jacques Demers said. “Robby played very well in the Olympics. Very well. He can come home here and say, “See, that’s why they picked me.’ He was never out of place there.”
Cummings, Roy. “Trio represents Lightning well at Olympics.” The Tampa Tribune, Sports, 25 Feb. 1998, p. 7
Of course, that was from the experts. What did the fans think?
The armchair Olympic coaches have spoken. When the Sun asked our readers to rate the Olympic men’s hockey team, we were inundated with 136 responses in just 36 hours.
Tampa Bay forward Rob Zamuner won the voter’s doghouse award, with 37 voters saying he should have stayed home. Eric Desjardins got the thumbs down from 36 voters.
Gibb, Mike. “FANS SAY GREAT ONE DESERVED A CHANCE.” Ottawa Sun, Sports, 28 Feb. 1998, p. 49
In 2017, Mike Brophy did a write-up for the CBC as a retrospective of sorts. The part that is relevant to this write-up here:
The forwards were Gretzky, Eric Lindros, Theo Fleury, Joe Nieuwendyk, Brendan Shanahan, Rod Brind’Amour, Shayne Corson, Trevor Linden, Keith Primeau, Mark Recchi, Steve Yzerman, Joe Sakic and Rob Zamuner.
That final pick proved to be the most controversial.
Zamuner, a dependable but relatively obscure defensive forward with the Tampa Bay Lightning, for all intents and purposes beat out Mark Messier — one of the top scorers of all time and a six-time Stanley Cup champion who is considered one of the greatest leaders in sports history.
“Zamuner had played for Canada at the world championship the year before and had played well, helping Canada win the gold medal,” Crawford explains.
The move speaks to management’s strategy of constructing a team that would be successful in the NHL. That meant a place for role players like Zamuner who would be happy doing the grunt work.
The problem, of course, was that this team was not playing in the NHL, where rinks measure 200 feet by 85 feet. International-sized rinks are 200 x 100, putting a greater emphasis on skill.
Clarke admits he didn’t take this into proper account.
“We tried to build a team in the sense of including guys who were regular penalty-killers and guys who could shut down opposition players,” the GM says. “I think what we learned from that tournament is better players will adapt. You put them in a role they might not be used to and they’ll adapt because they want to play.”
“’98 problems: How it all went wrong for Canada’s Olympic hockey team in Nagano”. CBC. https://www.cbc.ca/sportslongform/entry/1998-olympic-hockey
Of course, there are a couple things wrong with this. First is that, as already established, Zamuner didn’t “for all intents and purposes beat out Mark Messier”. Second is that Zamuner had clearly established himself on the big rink in the aforementioned World Championships. And third is that Zamuner excelled at his job in a way that a more offensively-skilled player in an unfamiliar role may not have. How many “skilled forwards” could have blanketed Jaromir Jagr in his prime on the big ice? Had Canada gotten through, could any of them effectively shadowed Pavel Bure (who had scored nine goals in five games to that point)?
Zamuner did, and he could have.
So What Is This Really All About?
What it ultimately comes down to is another flawed narrative, which is that the Czech Republic were overwhelmed and played back on their heels against vastly superior Canada, and goalie Dominik Hasek simply took over. It’s a half-truth, at best – Canada was largely outplayed throughout all of regulation, and then poured on a furious rally late in regulation in the overtime period which Hasek stifled (except for Trevor Linden’s tying goal late in the third period). Canada was outshot in the first period, outshot in the second period, outshot in the third period. Even with Canada completely dominating late and all through overtime, they were still outshot 29-25.
This wasn’t Canada-Latvia from 2014, where the shots on goal favored Canada 57-16 and only a heroic effort from goalie Kristers Gudlevskis kept the score to 2-1. Yes, Hasek was tremendous. Patrick Roy was tremendous. Both were beaten by relatively weak goals, and both came up with a number of spectacular saves. But the image of Hasek keeping the Czechs tied through overtime, and then stopping everything in the shootout, has given way to a false memory that projects through the rest of that game.
What this comes back to is expectations. Expectations of Canada coming into Nagano was that they had an even better team than the 1996 World Cup squad, and that, although they might be challenged by the US, the gold medal was there for the taking in the same vein as the 1992 USA Dream Team in basketball. And expectations of the Czech Republic coming in were that they were little improved from their 1996 World Cup team, which had been humiliated right out of the tournament in three games after being outscored 17-3. In Nagano, the Czechs beat an offensively overwhelming Russia 1-0 for the gold medal, holding them to just 20 shots on goal in the process.
Had expectations been more like in the 2002 Salt Lake City games, with a consensus of Canada being a legit contender but by no means the overwhelming favorite, perhaps all of this would be remembered a bit differently.
Speaking of 2002…
And as the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City neared, a different type of revisionism began.
In Nagano, veterans such as Shanahan, Scott Stevens and Ray Bourque, all impact players in the NHL, were non-factors on the big ice. Grinders Shayne Corson and Rob Zamuner were invisible. Gretzky, a sentimental choice and 14 months from retirement, was limited to four assists.
McKay, Neil. “Gretzky must assemble squad with youth, speed.” Toronto Star, SPORTS, 11 Mar. 2001, p. E03
“Invisible” now means “scores a huge goal against the US and shows tremendous defensive play from start to finish”.
Canada has been big on so-called “ghost rosters” in past international competitions but finding players to fill certain slots (wingers who can provide energy, playmaking centres, defencemen who can make the good headman pass up the ice) didn’t really work in Nagano.
They wanted a penalty-killing forward so they took Rob Zamuner, who’s a nice fellow but was in over his head in Japan.
Matheson, Jim. “Olympic-size questions face Canada.” Kingston Whig-Standard, Sports, 7 Feb. 2001, p. 19
But on the other hand…
Don Cherry was among the critics who roasted the selection committee but the choice of Zamuner was a sensible one. He had proven himself to be a versatile, dependable defensive player and while the Canadian team had plenty of scoring, they didn’t have a player who could specialize in that skill and neutralize the opposition’s top right winger. The fact that Canada had trouble finding the net wasn’t Zamuner’s fault.
Ulmer, Mike. “OLYMPIC CASE FOR SEN.” Toronto Sun, Sports, 14 Apr. 2001, p. SC4
As a result, someone like Rob Zamuner — who did a very good job at what he was supposed to do — will not be a part of the team.
Zamuner was there to be a checker and in that regard, he performed well. But he also failed miserably on some great scoring chances.
Strachan, Al. “OUR GOLDEN FORMULA CANADIAN HOCKEY HIERARCHY LEARNS FROM NAGANO MISTAKES.” Winnipeg Sun, Sports, 13 Dec. 2001, p. 60
Here’s an odd one, referring to Islanders’ center Mike Peca.
Peca, considered one of the best defensive centres in the NHL, would fit in perfectly on the third/checking line for Team Canada. Peca is not just a defensive forward (much like Rob Zamuner was when he was selected to Team Canada in Nagano), he can also put the puck in the net and could prove to be one of the most valuable assets on the team.
Charuk, Dan. “Jarome Iginla tops list of Olympic hopefuls.” The Post (Ontario), Sports, 20 Nov. 2001, p. B1
Well, there’s a problem there in that Zamuner wasn’t “just a defensive forward”.
It’s weird. Although I dug through more articles than I care to count for the 2002 Olympic team, I couldn’t find anything that prompted the level of backlash as the Zamuner selection did. Eric Brewer made it while Scott Stevens didn’t, and it was a surprise but hardly a major incident. Mike Peca was selected, and it was praised as savvy for putting in a defensive forward who might contribute a little offense but who would really be counted on to negate opposing forwards.
The widespread praise for the Peca selection before the tournament, compared to the almost universal backlash against the Zamuner one before the tournament, is baffling to me. In both cases, the actual outcome of the tournament was unknown since it hadn’t been played yet – why was one so heavily criticized?
Math + Historical Argument + Controversy = Fun
Just for the sake of argument, since I like arguing, and for the sake of math since I like messing around with numbers…
In 1996-97, the year before the Nagano Olympics, Zamuner was in on 50 Lightning goals without a single power play point to his name. Tampa Bay scored 217 goals that season, 47 of them on the power play. So Zamuner, who was apparently “just a defensive forward”, was a direct part of 23.04% of the Lightning’s overall goals and 29.41% of their even-strength and shorthanded goals over that season.
In 2000-01, the season before the Salt Lake City Olympics, Mike Peca was in on 0 goals because he held out the entire year in a contract dispute. But that’s neither here nor there, so we’ll go back further.
To that point, Peca had seasons of 11-20-31 (1995-96), 20-29-49 (1996-97), 18-22-40 (1997-98), 27-29-56 (1998-99), and 20-21-41 (1999-00). Take out the power play points, since there would be little chance of Peca drawing power play time with the 2002 Olympic team and it puts him on more equal footing with Zamuner…7-16-23 (1995-96), 15-25-40 (1996-97), 12-15-27 (1997-98), 17-20-37 (1998-99), and 18-16-34 (1999-00). By percentage of team ES and SH goals, that’s 13.45%, 20.62%, 16.88%, 23.42%, and 19.32%. All of this falls well short of the 29.41% that Zamuner was part of in 1996-97. And in 2001-02, when Peca was selected to the Olympic squad, his stat line for the year was 25-35-60 (22-28-50 without power play points). That’s 25.1% of overall goals, and 27.77% when power play scoring is taken out on both sides of the ledger.
If Peca was in on 19.32% of the 1999-00 Sabres’ ES and SH goals and 27.77% of the 2001-02 Islanders’ ES and SH goals, and Zamuner was in on 29.41% of the 1996-97 Lightning’s ES and SH goals, how on earth is one regarded as a solid two-way player and the other one dismissed as “just a defensive forward”? Zamuner was leading the 1997-98 Lightning in goals and points when the Olympic team was announced – is that the normal litmus test of “just a defensive forward”?
Understand that this is not a slight against Mike Peca in any way, shape, or form. He was in fact a terrific two-way player in his prime, was a top defensive center, and had top-five placing in Selke voting in seven consecutive seasons – all of which were deserved.
But it impossible to argue against this: Peca benefited immensely in the public spotlight by playing his prime years in the Stanley Cup playoffs every year, he benefited immensely from playing in Buffalo to build a reputation early in his career, and he was an integral part of Buffalo’s resurgence into a contender.
Zamuner was 0/3 in these areas. He was on a team which was mostly awful – two years after making the playoffs for the first time, the Lightning sunk into consecutive seasons of 44 and 47 points. He was in what was generally dismissed as a “non-hockey market”. And the Lightning had no identity: they were owned by an unknown foreign syndicate, they were constantly making trades which GM Phil Esposito blamed on budget cuts ordered from above, and there was no image that “Tampa Bay Lightning” conjured up.
As Lightning head coach Jacques Demers said shortly before the Olympics began:
“He doesn’t have the stats like 35 or 40 goals (Zamuner sports a team-leading 13 goals and 18 points),” Demers said. “But when you’re up 3-2, and you have a major penalty to kill off, that’s his role. He’s a great pro.
“Nobody knows him playing in Tampa Bay. But if he was in Toronto, and you saw him on Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday, you’d say, ‘Hey, he’s a pretty good player.’ ”
Zwolinski, Mark. “Bolts grinder Zamuner suffers for selection to national squad.” Toronto Star, SPORTS, 25 Jan. 1998
Buffalo in the last half of the 1990s acquired a reputation as a team that could suffocate their opponents defensively, and would counterpunch only if absolutely necessary. They were 13th in goals scored in 1996-97, and 6th in goals against. They were 17th in goals in 1997-98, and 3rd in goals against. They were 17th in goals in 1998-99, and 2nd in goals against. They were 20th in goals in 1999-00, and 8th in goals against. That is an identity. Dressing 40+ players in a season like a first-year expansion team, and posting barely 40 points in 82 games like the Lightning did, is not.
What continued to hamper Zamuner after Nagano is that, shortly after being named Lightning captain in 1998-99, he suffered a serious groin injury that knocked him from the lineup for an extended period of time. It ended up being a recurring injury, and would cut his career short. In the last six years that he played in the NHL after Nagano, Zamuner missed 120 games.
And one more from before the 2004 World Cup of Hockey:
John Madden’s name has come up as a defensive specialist, harkening back to the ridiculous notion that allowed Rob Zamuner to wear the Maple Leaf in Nagano.
Francis, Eric. “TOO MANY MEN WHO’LL PLAY FOR CANADA AT THE 2004 WORLD CUP OF HOCKEY? SUN SCRIBES HAVE THEIR SAY….” Calgary Sun, Sports, 9 Nov. 2003, p. S14
John Madden’s career high in points ended up being 43, and in the just-finished year in question (2002-03) he had put up a line of 19-22-41, with two power play goals and two power play assists. Madden was in on 41 of the Devils’ 216 goals (18.98%), and 37 of the Devils 180 ES and SH goals (20.56%). Yup, that’s still way less than Zamuner’s 29.41%. Hell, it’s short of Zamuner’s 23.04% share of all Lightning goals that year, of which there were all 47 power play goals that he had nothing to do with.
Kris Draper was named to Team Canada for the 2006 Olympics in Torino, which similarly generated little actual backlash. So just for fun, let’s take a look at the “defensive forwards” Zamuner, Madden, and Draper during the run up to the Olympics, and “two-way forward” Peca in both the years before and a couple years after. (Seasons with over 20% of overall goal shares, or 25% of ES/SH goal shares, are bolded).
How about that.
See, here’s the weird thing. Zamuner did his job in the 1998 Olympics: he showed up, he played suffocating defense, and he wasn’t a total zero offensively – he scored a huge goal against the US, and his linemate Joe Nieuwendyk was tied as Canada’s leading scorer for the tournament. In six games, Canada allowed a total of nine goals and scored nineteen. The problem was that, outside of the two games against completely overmatched opponents (Belarus and Kazakhstan), they managed a 10-8 goal differential in four games.
If someone had solved Hasek in overtime, or in the shootout, Canada likely defeats Russia to win the gold and none of this matters. The worst-case scenario would be a silver medal. It didn’t happen.
To blame Rob Zamuner for that, and to continue using him as either a punchline or a punching bag over two decades later, is ridiculous.