Any anguish that Gretzky might have felt at being shunned by the COA (very little) was more than compensated for by the response of the Japanese people when he arrived in Nagano. The crush was so great that there were serious fears for his safety.
“I’ve been in a lot of places, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Gretzky after escaping a crowd that even surpassed anything he had encountered in his heyday with the Edmonton Oilers, when he invariably needed a police escort to leave NHL arenas.
As soon as the Canadian team started emerging from the train that had brought them from Tokyo, there was a crush of Japanese fans. But when Gretzky emerged, it was a stampede. Older observers compared it to the scenes out of A Hard Day’s Night when the Beatles had to dodge mobs of screaming, hysterical fans.
Younger observers compared it to scenes they had witnessed of some of the worst sale-day crushes at big department stores.
The crowd surged in on Gretzky, who was surrounded by a phalanx of television cameramen, and it was a miracle that no one was knocked down and trampled. Finally, the police moved in and cleared a path for Gretzky, who made it to the team bus while waving to the crowd and smiling at the screaming girls.
Not long afterward, the Canadian organizers staged a news conference, and once again, their anti-Gretzky attitude came to the fore.
The event was held in an amphitheatre that was packed with media representatives from all over the world. This was their chance to hear directly from the famous hockey icon, and they weren’t going to miss it.
First, the brass sat at a table and answered questions for fifteen minutes. Then three players came out and followed the same format. Gretzky wasn’t one of them.
The world’s media sat patiently through the management’s segment, then listened fairly patiently to Yzerman, Sakic and Lindros.
There were shouts of “Where’s Gretzky?”
That was not a surprise. If Clarke and friends hadn’t realized before they left Canada what an international attraction Gretzky was, they should have managed to figure it out when they saw the mob scene at the train station.
But they wouldn’t put him on the stage that night and give him a microphone, because to do so would suggest that he was at least Lindros’s equal, a view that would run counter to their declaration that Lindros had taken over Canadian hockey’s leadership reins from Gretzky.
Finally, the rest of the team was brought out onto the stage and stood well back from the apron. That was supposed to be the end of the affair, and many disgruntled journalists left. A number of us, knowing that Gretzky would accommodate us if he could, approached the stage, which had been declared strictly off-limits.
Gretzky saw me there, and without a word but with an inquisitive look and a pointed finger, asked if I wanted to come up.
I nodded affirmatively, at which point he went over to whisper in Bob Nicholson’s ear. Nicholson looked over, walked to the front of the stage and said, “Wayne says if you want to come up, he’ll talk to you.”
I went up, a number of people followed, and Gretzky, in a move that no doubt annoyed Clarke – and infuriated the IOC officials – but delighted the media who had stuck around, answered everyone’s questions. As far as I know, it was the only time in Olympic history that the media were allowed up on the stage to do an interview after a formal press conference.
Once the tournament began, Gretzky made his usual contributions. He killed penalties; he worked hard; he sparked the offence. Team Canada breezed through the qualification phase, winning all three games by a cumulative score of 12-3.
The quarter-final game against Kazakhstan posed no problems, either – a comfortable 4-1 victory.
But now there was to be serious competition. In the semi-final game, the Canadians were to face the Czech Republic.
A few days earlier, in a casual chat with the great Russian star Igor Larionov (inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2008), I had suggested that there were four top teams at Nagano – Canada, Russia, the United States and Sweden.
“Don’t forget the Czech Republic, Al,” Larionov said.
The Czech Republic didn’t seem to have an awful lot going for it.
“They’ve got Dominik Hasek,” said Larionov. “Any time you’ve got Hasek, you’ve got a chance.”
It was a prophetic remark, and a warning that was not challenged by the Canadians. In their preparation for the game, they made it clear that, even though they had to be aware of the scoring prowess of Jaromir Jagr, Hasek was their primary concern.