It is inconceivable that Canada, a country virtually unbeatable for the first 30 years of IIHF history, all of a sudden could not win a gold medal at the IIHF World Championship. But after the Trail Smoke Eaters won in 1961, year after year passed, and Canada failed to win gold. The 1960s was a time of amateur hockey for Canada, but in 1977 the IIHF allowed all pros to play internationally and Canada was back in international hockey after a six-year absence. Still, Canada failed to win.
In February 1994, however, Canada came close to winning Olympic gold in Lillehammer, falling in a shootout to Sweden. Three months later, for the IIHF World Championship in Milan, Italy, coach George Kingston had assembled a team that even to this very day could probably win gold. The names remain impressive, with Joe Sakic, Paul Kariya, Rod Brind’Amour, Jason Arnott, Rob Blake, Brendan Shanahan, and Luc Robitaille all donning the maple leaf that year.
“We knew we could do something special that year,” says Robitaille, who will return to Team Canada as assistant general manager for the 2008 IIHF World Championship, which will come to Canada for the first time from May 2nd to 18th. “We were comfortable as a group, and we thought we could make some noise.”
The 12 teams played in two groups in Italy that year, and Canada was the only team to finish the round robin with a perfect 5-0-0 record (and a goal differential of +17). This led to a quarterfinal showdown with Jaromir Jagr and the Czech Republic. Martin Straka gave his team an early 1-0 lead, but Shanahan replied a few minutes later for Canada to make it 1-1 after the first period. The teams exchanged goals in the second, and the third was a tense 20 minutes that seemed headed toward overtime until Shayne Corson beat Petr Briza with just 2:34 left in regulation.
After squeezing past the Czechs, the Canadians rolled through Sweden in the semi-final, getting a hat trick from Robitaille, four assists from Steve Thomas and shutout goaltending from Bill Ranford in a 6-0 win. The win put Canada into the gold medal game, where they would face a Finnish team that had romped over Austria and the USA in the playoff round by a combined 18-0.
“There were never really any nerves when it came to the gold medal game,” Robitaille says. “We knew what we were capable of doing.”
Both teams played evenly for the first 40 minutes, but in the third period, Finland held a wide edge in play and shots, and Esa Keskinen scored early to give the Finns a 1-0 lead. As so frequently happens, however, Canada had late-game heroics in its repertoire, and Brind’Amour tied the game on a power-play with less than five minutes to go. Ten minutes of overtime solved nothing, and the game went into a shootout.
In the first five shots, Robitaille and Sakic scored for Canada but Jari Kurri and Mikko Makela responded for the Finns, meaning the game would move to a sudden-victory shootout.
Robitaille was up first for Canada and, despite losing the puck on his approach, was able to beat Jarmo Myllys to put the pressure on the Finns.
“I’m not going to lie, I was nervous,” he says now of standing at centre ice. “But there was some excitement. I really felt it was going to happen for us. After I scored, we were sure Billy was going to stop that last shot.”
Ranford did stop Mika Nieminen, and the celebration was on across Canada for the first time in 33 years.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever jumped so high in my life,” Robitaille says of his reaction after Ranford’s final save. “It was just such a relief, and the celebration was something I will never forget.”
Even to this day, almost 14 years after the victory, Robitaille still has his equipment bag from that world championship, and the gold medal sits in a special box in his Los Angeles home, waiting to be displayed in his new memorabilia room.
“I did a lot of special things during my career,” says the Montreal, QC native, who scored 668 goals over 19 years in the NHL, “but winning a gold medal for my country is up there near the top. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”