It’s been 20 years when the Winter Olympics opened its gates and welcomed the NHL’s elite players to compete for Olympic gold in Nagano, Japan in 1998 however, today, in Pyeonchang, South Korea no NHL players are competing and one is left with a sense of psychic emptiness because of that absence. One would have thought that the NHL would commemorated this august anniversary by allowing its best and brightest to go for the gold? Nagano 1998 was supposed to be a showcase for Team Canada and Team USA. The Great One Wayne Gretzky was finally going to get a chance to win the Gold Medal for Team Canada after playing on four Stanley Cup winners. Americans superstars like Brett Hull and Chris Chelios were going to get their chances as well. And yet what makes Olympic history so unique and compelling is that its greatest moments have come when the favored teams or athletes did not win; when the probable heroes were pushed aside by the improbable heroes.
The documentary The Nagano Tapes (which premieres worldwide on February 28 on the Olympic Channel at www.olympicchannel.com and its mobile apps) directed by Ondrej Hudecek and released by Five Rings films, is a chronicle of a team of improbable heroes: the Czech Republic’s Men’s ice hockey team and its remarkable quest to win the Olympic Gold Medal in the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympiad. But even more The Nagano Tapes is also a story about a nation which had endured decades of communist oppression at the hands of the former Soviet Union. Oppressive conditions which led, at first, its young stars like Petr Svoboda to defect to the West to seek better opportunities and then, when the Iron Curtain collapsed in 1989 and the Velvet Revolution began in Prague the floodgates opened and future hockey hall-of-famers like Jaromir Jagr and Dominik Hasek were part of the Europeanization of NHL hockey during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Each of these men coped with continental separation from home and family, language barriers, and xenophobia from the NHL’s Old Guard (Hudecek uses clips of Don Cherry’s snarling soundbites against the Europeans very effectively).
The professionalization of Olympic Hockey was the NHL’s attempt at copying the Dream Team concept when NBA players competed in the 1992 and 1996 Summer Olympics with great athletic and financial success. Nagano 1998 was supposed to be a marketing bonanza where the dream match-up of Team Canada vying with Team USA was supposed to take place. And yet that is not the way it happened.
The Czech Republic team was the stealth team coached by the late Ivan Hlinka (who died in 2004) that skated below radar, defied all expectations, and brought joy and victory to a country that had known political oppression and economic depression for most of its existence. Ondrej Hudecek encapsulates Hlinka’s ghost-like presence through the words of the players and Hlinka’s lovely widow. Interestingly, unlike Herb Brooks who coached Team USA to Olympic Gold in 1980 by being a rigorous disciplinarian, Hlinka achieved victory by doing the complete opposite: no curfews or morning practices, leading the team with casual humor. Unlike Team Canada or Team USA, Team Czech Republic was not totally composed of NHL players. Only half the team played in the NHL while the remainder came from local teams in Czech Republic, mostly from Hlinka’s Litvinov team.
The Nagano Tapes is filmed in spare, utilitarian terms. It’s not like the usual ESPN 30 for 30 or NBC Sports documentary using glitz and fancy packaging. The Nagano Tapes have a grim, proletarian simplicity to them; much like it was when the Czech Republic was under Soviet domination. And it is that grim proletarian toughness that explains why the Czech Republic team did win the gold medal. The players led and inspired by Petr Svoboda, Jaromir Jagr, and Dominik Hasek played the greatest hockey of their lives, overcoming a loss to Team Russia in the round robin and then beating Team USA and Team Canada in the quarter and semifinal rounds to face the Russians for the gold medal. Along the way we recall the familiar tales of Team USA trashing its dorm rooms; of Team Canada Marc Crawford trying to explain why he didn’t use the Great One in the shoot-out round; how Team Canada had never competed in a shoot-out before and how that lack of experience (unlike the Czech Republic team) made the difference in the semifinal game (Theo Fleury’s commentary about Team Canada’s performance during the game’s is cogent and biting and well worth listening to). Indeed the discussion about the shoot-out in the semifinal game is the greatest moment in The Nagano Tapes.
Director Ondrej Hudecek adds subtle charms to the narrative like allowing viewers to hear the blatant rooting for the Czech team by the local broadcasters in the Czech Republic. You see clips of how this former oppressed nation took its national team to its collective bosom. But the real meat is watching the Dominator: Dominik Hasek defy space and time and gravity with his acrobatic saves. Time and again, he made the goal medal victory possible. One senses a Celestial Hand moving the Czech players into the right positions at the right times. When Petr Svoboda scored the game-winning goal in the Gold Medal game against Russia it is like a divine affirmation that, yes, justice does still exist.
If you are a super nationalist American or Canadian you will probably find little pleasure from The Nagano Tapes but if you can transcend petty nationalism and think beyond the boundaries that confines the human heart and enshrouds the soul then you will find The Nagano Tapes a gritty tale of courage and perseverance in the face of adversity.
As Petr Svoboda sums up, “Would it have been better the U.S. and Canada to play from the aspect of hockey? Yes. But isn’t it something when the underdog gets it reward as well?”