Hockey 101: Olympic History


Milestones in Olympic hockey

Hockey has been played in every Olympic Winter Games – and even one “Summer Games.” The sport debuted at the 1920 Antwerp Olympic Games, held from August 14 to September 12, before making its cold-weather debut four years later at the inaugural Olympic Winter Games in Chamonix. The 1920 tournament also served as the International Ice Hockey Federation’s (IIHF) first world championship event. According to the Hockey Hall of Fame, IIHF President Max Sillig suited up for his country, playing for the Swiss team in Antwerp. It was the first and only time a sitting IIHF President participated in a world championship.

Traditional hockey power Canada leads the men’s Olympic hockey gold medal standings with nine wins. The Soviet Union (including the 1992 Unified Team) has won eight Olympic hockey gold medals. Rounding out the other gold medalists, the United States and Sweden have two apiece, with the Czech Republic and Great Britain each winning once. 

Canada, with 14, has won more men’s hockey medals than any other nation. The Canadians won six of the first seven Olympic tournaments. Prior to winning silver at the 1992 Albertville Olympics, the Canadians had not won an Olympic hockey medal since a bronze in 1968. Canada would win their first gold medal since 1952 at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. Eight years later, the Canadian’s won their eighth Olympic gold medal in Vancouver when Sidney Crosby put the puck in the net in overtime against the U.S., with the ninth coming in Sochi against Sweden.

In addition to winning both domestic gold medals in Squaw Valley and Lake Placid, the United States men hold the record for most Olympic silver medals at eight: 1920, 1924, 1932, 1952, 1956, 1972, 2002 and 2010.

Getting the pros and women on Olympic ice

Following the 1968 Olympics, Canadian and Swedish hockey federations became incensed by what they felt were unfair amateur restrictions. They were especially upset that the Soviets and Czechoslovakians were able to skirt the rules by offering financial support to their athletes through jobs that required minimal effort, allowing them to train full time. Canada boycotted the Olympic hockey tournament in ’72 and ’76, with Sweden joining them on the sidelines in ’76. The boycott failed to succeed in liberalizing International Olympic Committee (IOC) eligibility rules, but the IIHF allowed pros to play in the 1977 World Championship.

The IOC tried to move toward open competition at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, but eligibility rules, described as confusing by some and discriminatory by others, derailed full inclusion of professional talent. Some European league hockey players – whose teams were members of the Federation Internationale de Hockey sur Glace (former name of the IIHF) – received waivers from the Federation to appear in the Olympics. The same waivers were not given to athletes who played, briefly, in the NHL. By 1987, hockey’s governing body and the IOC voted to completely open the Olympic ice hockey competition, meaning players such as Wayne Gretzky were eligible to play in Calgary, but NHL clubs blocked their star players from leaving midseason to play in the Olympics. Everything was sorted by 1998, and 121 NHL players participated in the Nagano Olympics. 

Nagano was also historic for its addition of the first women’s Olympic hockey tournament, where the United States won gold by beating fellow hockey superpower Canada in the final. Gretchen Ulion, Shelley Looney and Sandra Whyte scored a goal apiece to lead the U.S. to a 3-1 gold medal game victory. In every subsequent Olympic Winter Games, Canada has finished with the gold medal in women’s hockey, three wins coming in games against the United States and one against Sweden.

Hockey at the Olympic Games

1920 Antwerp

Ice hockey made its Olympic debut at, of all places, the 1920 Antwerp Olympic Games. Games were played with seven players on the ice per team, unlike the usual six.  Canada and the U.S. dominated their opponents, outscoring the competition 81-3. The U.S. attack was silenced in the gold medal game, losing 2-0 to the Canadians.

1924 Chamonix

As they did four years earlier, Canada won Olympic hockey gold by subjecting opponents to a style of play far superior to what they had ever seen. Canada allowed two goals in four games, while scoring 104. The U.S. was also able to abuse opponents’ nets en route to the gold medal game, but Canada would prevail 6-1 in the final to repeat as Olympic champions.

1928 St. Moritz 

Hoping to avoid teams being embarrassed at the hands of the Canadians for a third straight Olympics, hockey officials decided to institute an unorthodox format for the tournament in St. Moritz. The change in format came only after hockey leadership witnessed the Canadians in a practice. Canada was advanced directly to the final round while the other ten teams would be divided into three pools. The winners of the pools then joined Canada in a final three-game round robin to determine the medal winners. Canada’s performance justified the officials’ decision. They won all three games outscoring their opponents by a margin of 38-0, winning Olympic gold medal #3.

1932 Lake Placid

The United States, Canada, Germany and Poland were the only competing hockey nations to attend the 1932 Lake Placid Olympic Winter Games, just three years removed from the Great Crash of 1929, which lead to the Great Depression. Another change in competition format was instituted, in which teams played one another twice. Canada was playing for its fourth straight gold medal when they met the U.S. in their second meeting of the tournament. Needing either a win or tie for gold, down 2-1 with under a minute remaining in the game, Canada’s Romeo Rivers scored the equalizer. The game ended in a tie after three scoreless overtimes, and Canada won their fourth Olympic hockey gold medal.

1936 Garmisch-Partenkirchen

Similar to 1932, a round-robin format was used at the 1936 Garmisch-Partenkirchen Olympic Winter Games. Canada’s Olympic hockey gold streak would come to an end in Germany. Great Britain delivered the upset, a country which some hockey historians think hockey may have roots earlier than those in Canada. A closer look at the GB roster revealed nine of their players were indeed Brit-born, but had moved to Canada with their families as kids and grew up playing hockey.

1948 St. Moritz 

A hockey controversy during the 1948 St. Moritz Olympics was sparked when two separate U.S. hockey teams arrived in Switzerland. One team built by the American Hockey Association (AHA) and the other by the American Olympic Committee (AOC) both laid claim to the U.S. spot in the tournament. 

The IOC voted prior to the opening of the Olympics to have both U.S. squads kicked out. However, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), with the support of the Swiss Organizing Committee, decided to let the AHA team play. Despite playing, the U.S. AHA team would not be listed in the final standings. 

The U.S. team from the AHA played well, but not well enough to win a medal, had they not been preemptively disqualified. Canada won gold, Czechoslovakia won silver and Switzerland got the bronze.   

1952 Oslo

In Oslo, Canada won their sixth Olympic hockey gold medal – 50 years would pass before they would win another. Canada sent a team to Oslo which was deemed 100% amateur. They played together and many worked together in Edmonton for an intermediate senior-A hockey team, the Edmonton Mercurys, named after a car dealer in town, Waterloo Mercury. The “Mercs” had won gold at the 1950 World Championships, so it was decided they were the best to represent the maple leaf at the Olympic Winter Games in Oslo.

The Canadians won their first seven games easily3, outscoring their opponents 88-5. In the gold medal final they would tie the team from the United States, 3-3 to clinch gold. During Canada’s spectacular Olympic run, they had won 37 games, lost one, and tied three. In those 41 games, Canada racked up 403 goals while only letting in 34.

1956 Cortina D’Ampezzo

The Soviet Union made its Olympic Winter Games debut in Cortina D’Ampezzo, Italy, and with their arrival in hockey, a changing of the guard on Olympic ice would take place. With the exceptions of 1960 and 1980, the Soviet Union would rule Olympic hockey for nearly four decades. The United States would win its second-straight silver with Canada being demoted to bronze in Cortina D’Ampezzo.

1960 Squaw Valley

Though later overshadowed by their countrymen’s miraculous victory in 1980, the first gold-medal miracle by a United States men’s hockey team took place at the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympic Winter Games, sometimes referred to as the “First Miracle.” Never before had the United States won an Olympic hockey gold, and though the Americans had taken the silver at five Olympics, including 1952 and 1956, the squad at Squaw Valley was not expected to finish any higher than fifth. 

The United States, Canada, Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Sweden and Germany advanced to the six-team round robin championship. The U.S. won all five games to clinch the top Olympic podium spot for the first time in history.

Another Olympic first in Squaw Valley – the Zamboni ice resurfacing machine made its Olympic debut.

1964 Innsbruck

After losing to the U.S. in Squaw Valley, the Soviet Union resumed its winning ways in Austria, posting a perfect 7-0 record. Despite the Soviets’ record, competition was formidable. Had Canada been able to defeat the U.S.S.R. in their final meeting, the Canadians would have finished first instead of fourth, but they fell short, losing 3-2. Just three players returned to the Olympic Winter Games from the 1960 gold-medal-winning U.S. team. A young Herb Brooks, who would go on to coach the “Miracle on Ice” 1980 team, played on his first Olympic team in Innsbruck. The U.S. finished without a medal in fifth.

1968 Grenoble

The outcome of the tournament in France was not seen as a foregone conclusion like previous Olympics. This was a tournament the U.S.S.R. could have easily let slip away. They had lost 5-4 to Czechoslovakia early on, which meant the outcomes of two games would decide the gold medal winner – Czechoslovakia vs. Sweden and Soviet Union vs. Canada. A Czechoslovakian win coupled with a Soviet loss would give the gold to Czechoslovakia. But the Czechoslovakians were flat in their game against Sweden, and could only salvage a 2-2 tie, eliminating their chance for gold. Therefore, the winner of the Soviet Union vs. Canada game would win the gold medal. The Soviets scored first and then scored often, rolling to a 5-0 victory. The U.S. finished sixth.

1972 Sapporo

The Soviet Union would win their third-straight Olympic gold medal in Sapporo, doing so by never playing one of the world’s best teams. In 1969, Canada decided to boycott all international amateur hockey competitions as a protest against the Soviet’s “professional amateurs” and those of other communist nations. 

With one of their biggest rivals out of the picture, the Soviets cruised to their fourth gold medal in five Olympic Winter Games. The U.S. got silver and Czechoslovakia took bronze.

Sweden decided to join Canada in boycotting the Olympic hockey competition four years later in Innsbruck, with both teams returning to the Olympics in hockey at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics.

1976 Innsbruck

Again, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia were in the mix to win the gold medal. Unlike the drubbings from previous Olympics, the Czechoslovakians kept the game against the Soviets close, and were even leading 3-2 during the final period. Within a 24 second span late in the game, the Soviets scored two unanswered goals and secured their fourth consecutive Olympic gold. The Czechoslovaks received silver and West Germany took bronze. It was the first Olympic hockey medal for any German team since their bronze win at the 1932 Lake Placid Olympics. 

1980 Lake Placid

Before the 1980 Olympic hockey tournament, the 20 faces that made up the U.S. team were fairly unknown to the majority of Americans. Sure, certain circles of U.S. hockey communities knew Jim Craig, Mike Eruzione, Jack O’Callahan and Mark Johnson; but otherwise, they were unknowns. And it seemed they were destined to remain that way after the Soviet Olympic team embarrassed Team USA, 10-3, at Madison Square Garden just days before the 1980 Lake Placid Olympic Winter Games would open.

Two-time Olympian, Herb Brooks, former coach at the University of Minnesota, and firm believer in the European style of hockey, coached the U.S. team.

Though many miraculous plays led to a bunch of U.S. college kids winning the Olympic gold medal, it was the first game of the medal round which would immortalize the team. The U.S. played the Soviet Union at 5pm, Friday, February 22, 1980. In the pre-Internet era, with no widespread threat of spoilers, the game was taped and later aired for United States audiences at 8 p.m. in primetime. 

Over 60 minutes of hockey, the Soviets would come to realize they had underestimated the U.S. team. Unable to put the Americans away, a seismic shift in the game came early when the U.S. scored their second game-tying goal with 0:01 left on the clock at the end of the first period. The goal, scored by Mark Johnson, lead to the benching of the Soviet’s top goalie, Vladislav Tretiak. Two unanswered goals, less than two minutes apart, in the third period paved the way for the monumental upset. Team USA had their miracle by the score of 4-3.

There remained the final game with Finland, and the Americans needed a win to clinch the gold. A loss would mean no medal at all for the U.S. They trailed twice, 1-0 and 2-1, but three straight third period goals for the U.S. by Phil Verchota, Rob McClanahan and Mark Johnson put the Finns away for good.

1984 Sarajevo

The miraculous images of 1980 drifted away in Yugoslavia, replaced with Soviet-dominated normalcy. The U.S.S.R. overwhelmed its opponents en route to a 7-0 record. The gold medal game between the Soviets and their rivals from Czechoslovakia ended with a 2-0 shutout for the Red Army. The U.S., meanwhile, finished seventh.

1988 Calgary

Heading into the Games, some members of the press predicted the end of Soviet ice hockey dominance. “They’re not the same,” some wrote “the Soviets are on their way out.” Reality set in when the Soviets cruised to the gold medal. The lone blemish on the U.S.S.R. record was an inconsequential 2-1 loss to Finland. The U.S. finished seventh for the second consecutive Olympics.

1992 Albertville

The Red Army’s reign over Olympic ice hockey ended in France – sort of. The U.S.S.R. disbanded in 1991 but athletes from the former Soviet Union competed for the Unified Team. Different name, same outcome. The team of ex-Soviets won the gold medal, dismantled the U.S. team 5-2 in the semifinals, and scored two third period goals in the final to beat Czechoslovakia 4-2. It was the last time a Soviet/Unified/Russian team would win Olympic hockey gold.

1994 Lillehammer

Hinted at by media prior to the 1988 Calgary Olympics, the collapse of the Russian ice hockey dynasty finally took place in Norway. Players for the Soviet Olympic teams were commissioned officers in the army, with the duty to dominate the ice. The established sports institutions of the U.S.S.R. could not survive Russia’s restructured political system. Russia won its first game against Norway, but lost their second contest when Finland delivered the worst defeat for a Soviet/Russian/Unified team in their 70-game Olympic history – and their first shutout. The Finns romped to a 5-0 victory.

In Lillehammer, the gold medal would be decided by a shootout for the first time at an Olympics. Canada and Sweden were tied after regulation, and remained tied after a 10-minute sudden death period. The shootout went into extras after neither side could score the deciding goal after five shots apiece. Peter Forsberg scored on Sweden’s second chance in extras, forcing Canada’s hand. Paul Kariya, the shifty Canadian center, skated in on Swedish goalie Tommy Salo and wristed the puck toward the top half of the net. Salo, down on the ice, kicked up his leg and knocked the puck away giving Sweden their first Olympic hockey gold medal.

1998 Nagano

In Japan, women’s hockey made its Olympic debut and men’s hockey saw the inclusion of a large pool of NHL players for the first time in Olympic history. The Czech Republic, which received fine offensive play from Jaromir Jagr and stellar goaltending from Dominik Hasek, defeated Russia, 1-0, in the men’s gold medal game – it was the Czech’s first Olympic hockey gold. 

Meanwhile, rivals Canada and the United States played for the women’s inaugural Olympic gold medal. After a scoreless first period, the U.S. netted the game’s first goal when forward Gretchen Ulion converted early in the second period. Forward Shelley Looney then made it 2-0 midway through the third period, and the U.S. never relinquished the lead en route to a 3-1 victory. Finland won the first women’s bronze medal.

2002 Salt Lake City

In Salt Lake City, Canada’s men and women left with gold. For the Canadian men, it was the first Olympic gold medal in 50 years, while the women got their gold in the second Olympic installment for women’s hockey. The United States fell to Canada in the men’s gold medal game, losing 5-2. The defeat ended a 24-game Olympic unbeaten streak by the U.S. dating back to 1932. 

“Miracle on Ice” head coach Herb Brooks returned to the bench to lead Team USA in Salt Lake, but the hockey legend enjoying the gold medal game the most was Team Canada’s executive director Wayne Gretzky. TV cameras caught The Great One’s elation following two third period goals scored for Canada by Jarome Iginla and Joe Sakic which put the gold medal out of reach for the U.S. In the bronze medal game, Russia soundly defeated the surprise contender of the tournament, Belarus, 7-2. 

In the gold medal game of the women’s ice hockey tournament, Canada exacted their retribution against the U.S., with a 3-2 win. After losing eight consecutive games to the United States leading up to the 2002 Olympics and taking silver in Nagano, the Canadians had one remaining goal – Olympic gold. Canada won all five games it played at the 2002 Olympics, while the United States went 4-1.

2006 Torino

The 2006 Olympic Winter Games saw Sweden return to the top in men’s ice hockey. Behind the leadership of veterans Nicklas Lidstrom and Mats Sundin and the goaltending of rising star Henrik Lundqvist, the Swedes captured their second Olympic gold medal. Sweden beat Finland, 3-2, in an unlikely match-up in the gold medal game. The Czech Republic won bronze in a 3-0 shutout of the Russians.

Uncharacteristically, Canada and the United States both lost in the quarterfinals. Russia beat Canada 2-0, while Finland ended Team USA’s quest for a medal in a tight match, 4-3 after the final horn.

In the women’s tournament, an upset prevented a gold medal rematch between the United States and Canada. Instead, Sweden would play Canada for gold after beating the U.S., 3-2, in a semifinal shootout victory. The Swedes had trouble keeping up with Canada, losing 4-1 in the gold medal game, while the United States salvaged bronze with a 4-0 victory over Finland.

2010 Vancouver

The Olympic Winter Games returned to the hotbed of hockey for the first time since 1988. After finishing with silver at the 2009 World Championships behind Russia, the team which beat the Canadians in the quarterfinals at the 2006 Torino Olympic Winter Games, Canada revamped its roster ahead of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. It paid off when they won gold on home ice.

The gold medal game between the United States and Canada went into overtime after first-time Olympian, Zach Parise, scored the equalizer for the U.S. Seven and a half minutes into the extra frame, Canada’s Jarome Iginla won the puck along the boards in the U.S. zone as Sidney Crosby broke for the net calling for the puck. Iginla put it on his stick, and Crosby slapped it through the legs of U.S. goalie Ryan Miller to score the golden goal for Canada.

Fans flooded the streets of Vancouver celebrating Canada’s return to Olympic hockey glory. Finland rounded out the medal winners, beating Slovakia 5-3 for bronze. 

Prior to the Canadian men’s team winning gold, the Canadian women also claimed the top Olympic prize in Vancouver. After two first period goals by Marie-Philip Poulin, it was all defense as Canada got the shutout victory for gold against Team USA. Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados was perfect in goal, saving all 28 shots she faced from the U.S. It was the Canadian women’s third-straight Olympic hockey gold medal.

2014 Sochi

In Sochi, Sweden played its way back to the gold medal game to face Canada. Canada was looking to repeat their performance from 2010, while Sweden hoped to create some hockey magic on par with their gold medal accomplishment at the 2006 Torino Olympics. The Canadian defense muzzled the Swedish shooters, allowing just 24 shots on goal, none of which got past goalie Carey Price, leading to a 3-0 gold-medal-shutout win.

It was the second consecutive Olympic hockey gold medal for the Canadian men. Finland would win their fourth Olympic bronze in six Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, embarrassing the U.S. team in a 5-0 thrashing.

The U.S. women’s team carried a 2-0 lead late into the third period against Canada in the gold medal game. Flashes of hope hit Canada after they pulled within one on a goal by Brianne Jenner that ricocheted off the leg of U.S. defender Kacey Bellamy before finding the net.

In the final two minutes of regulation Canada pulled goalie Shannon Szabados. With six Canadian skaters on the attack in the U.S. zone, U.S. forward Kelli Stack intercepted the puck and flicked it toward the open net on a clearing attempt. The puck clinked the left post, and popped out into the blue goal crease, to the disappointment of USA hockey fans everywhere. With the door left open, Canada’s Marie-Philip Poulin scored the game-tying goal with 55 seconds left in regulation, forcing overtime.

In sudden death, with a 4-on-3 advantage, Poulin scored her second goal of the game to win gold for Canada. It was the first time the women’s Olympic hockey gold medal had been won in overtime. Switzerland would beat Sweden for the bronze.

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