NAGANO, Japan — It was a hockey shot like any other hockey shot, yet it was different from anything he had ever tried before. The racing of his heart told him that much.
“Take deep breaths,” his friend Steve Yzerman had told him minutes earlier. Deep breaths. He took deep breaths. Not that it would make much difference. There are rules for the rest of life, and then there are rules for moments such as this, moments when the world lasers down to a single unforgiving act, and everything else melts, lights blur to background, blasting noise fades to static. You are more conscious than you have ever been, you can feel your skin rising into a million bumps, and your vision is so sharp your eyes almost hurt. In these rare moments of steel-cracking pressure, the planet consists of three simple things.
You. Your task. Your heartbeat.
You begin …
“Make a fake, draw him out, then go upstairs . . .” Brendan Shanahan thought as he went alone toward destiny, the puck on his stick, “deep breaths …deep breaths . . .”
Unlike many athletes gathered at these Winter Games, Shanahan, 28, did not need Olympic success to build a future. He came in a multimillionaire, he would leave a multimillionaire. He already was a champion as an NHL hockey player, a job he would resume in a week. His income would not change if he failed at this, Canada’s last chance to tie the Czech Republic in the desperation finish to a desperation game, the semifinal of the men’s Olympic hockey competition.
The winner would advance to play for the gold medal. But with no winner after 60 minutes of regulation play, and 10 minutes more of grueling overtime, the rules demanded the game come to this, five men for one side, five men for the other, each man gets a shot on the goalie, most goals wins.
The Czech team had tried four times, and had put one lonely puck past the great Patrick Roy.
Canada had tried four against the great Dominik Hasek, and had made none. Shanahan was the last hope.
“Make a fake, draw him out, go upstairs …deep breaths . . .”
No contracts would dissolve if he missed. He would not be ignored or forgotten. Compared to skiers, skaters, lugers or bobsledders, Olympians like Shanahan seemed to be working with the softest of safety nets.
And if you believe that, you know nothing about the power of the Games.
Letting down his country
It was a hockey shot like any other hockey shot, but it did not go the way he dreamed. Shanahan faked, Hasek went with him, not fooled, and the available space shrunk like a closing elevator door. Shanahan felt his heart sink even before he flicked the puck off his stick. Hasek, perfectly positioned, blocked its path.
The party was on in Prague. Mighty Canada would be an also-ran.
Now, in the tunnel of the Big Hat arena, Shanahan, the pro, the multimillionaire, was wearing his team jacket and a pin his mother had sent him. He was choking back tears.
“I wanted to stick my head in the sand,” he said, his voice flat, his eyes dead.
But it wasn’t your fault, he was reminded. Four other players — famous NHL players, including Eric Lindros and Ray Bourque — didn’t score either.
“Yeah, but it came down to me,” he said. “The shot before me, if they scored, I wouldn’t even have had the opportunity to shoot. So we were all pulling for Patrick, our whole team had our hopes on him, and he pulled out the save.”
He paused. “And then they open the door and ask me to go out there . . .” He swallowed.
“And I didn’t score …”
“And that’s how I feel…. I let down my team and my country.”
He’d do it all again
Tell me again how Dream Teams aren’t supposed to care about this Olympic stuff. Tell me how it’s all about endorsements. Tell me again how if you lose, you just get drunk and trash your hotel rooms.
Tell me again, and I’ll show you Wayne Gretzky, struggling for words, and Lindros, his eyes glassy, and Shanahan saying, “You take the hopes of all these guys out there with you…. You never know if you’re going to be back here again …”
What happened Friday was heartbreaking for Canada’s hockey fans, but it was reaffirming for those who believe that the Olympics still represent a special kind of competition. In that frozen moment, when the gold-medal chance hung on every shot, there was not a professional on the ice. They were all children, all dreamers, not jaded, not cynical, not rich. They were there for the right reasons, for sport, for competition, to win for their country, to make a memory.
“Hero or goat,” Shanahan said now, clearing his throat, “I’d stand up and ask to take that shot again. I wanted it to be me.”
It was a shot like any other shot, but it will hurt more than any he’s known. It will come back vividly in the unsuspecting moments, in a dream, in a hotel room, maybe when he’s alone in his car. It will hurt, it will rip a part of him he didn’t know he had. And yet when Brendan Shanahan was asked whether he would come back and play in another Olympics, this is what he softly said.
“Sure …in a second.”
The pros were supposed to dilute the Winter Games, cheapen them, maybe destroy them. Somebody forgot the awesome power of putting the world on a single stage. Canada may have lost its chance, but in the broken heart of the last man with the puck, honor was paid, and the Olympics won.
To leave a message for Mitch, call 1-313-223-4581.