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NHL stars, Czech Republic's play made for memorable tournament

The craziness began long before the full contingent of NHL players arrived.

Then, once the big names showed up, things really got wacky - almost on a daily basis.In the first Olympic hockey tournament open to the world's best players, amateur and professional, very little went as expected.

And that's not a bad thing, either.

Because everyone who thought that Canada and the United States would dominate play at Nagano learned there are no favorites when national pride is at stake.

Of course, great goaltending doesn't hurt, either.

"We do not even know what bonus there will be for winning the gold medal. We are so proud to represent our country that we haven't talked about money," said goalie Dominik Hasek, whose 20-save performance Sunday in a 1-0 victory over Russia gave the Czech Republic its first hockey gold medal.

After the emotional medal ceremony, virtually every one of the Czechs talked about the significance of the victory.

Defenseman Petr Svoboda, who scored the game's lone goal with 11:52 left, said, "We were told how many people at home were watching and supporting us. I'm sure it helped a lot."

The Americans, in contrast, apparently cared only about themselves and ended up embarrassing themselves on and off the ice. Some of the players were seen drinking beer into the early hours of the morning, and they didn't get physical in Nagano until after they were eliminated with a 1-3 record.

Hours after a 4-1 loss to Hasek and the Czechs, a couple of U.S. players vented their frustration on some helpless furniture with the aid of some fire extinguishers, causing an estimated $3,000 in damage to their rooms at the athletes village.

It was truly an Olympic memory, but not exactly what the U.S. players had in mind when they arrived amid great expectations.

By the time all 35 games had been played, the Americans had established themselves as sore losers and the Czechs had emerged as surprise winners.

When historians look back at this first-of-its-kind Olympic tournament, they will note that:

- Sudafed didn't turn out to be a factor . . . and neither did the highly regarded U.S. team.

- Germany and Slovakia, favored to join the other six "dream teams" after the preliminary round, didn't get their NHL help in Japan quickly enough. So Belarus and Kazakhstan advanced instead.

- Finland opened the tournament with two straight losses, then ended up eliminating defending champion Sweden en route to winning the bronze.

Most of all, the tournament will be remembered for the play of Hasek and the Czechs.

"The difference in the game has just one name - it's Hasek," Russia defenseman Sergei Gonchar said after the finale. "It's impossible to fake him out. Not even Pavel Bure could do it, and who else can do it when Pavel can't?"

Bure had scored five goals two days earlier in Russia's 7-4 semifinal win over Finland, but he was rendered useless by the Czechs - and Hasek.

Hasek allowed only six goals in six games. He wasn't tested severely in the final, but the Buffalo Sabres' goalie was at his very best in the semifinal round when he stopped five straight NHL stars in the shootout to lift the Czechs past Canada 2-1.

A day later, the international career of NHL great Wayne Gretzky came to an end in Canada's flat performance against Finland, a 3-2 loss in the bronze-medal game.

The question now is: Will the NHL forever be a part of the winter Olympics? Or will amateurs again rule the ice in the next century?

"It has been a very good experience for all of us," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. "I can't say now if the NHL will be back in 2002 or not. I can just say that I do have positive feelings about the tournament here."