Saturday, February 21, 1997
No greatness from Gretzky

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Wayne Gretkzy agonizes after Canada's semifinal loss to the Czech Republic.
(AP photo)
| ZOOM |
NAGANO, Japan - It was like pinch-hitting for Babe Ruth in the bottom of the ninth.

olympic logo
Special Enquirer coverage
It was like sending in a substitute for Michael Jordan as the game went into overtime. It was like switching horses and leaving Secretariat in the stable.

This was how it felt Friday when Canada lost an Olympic hockey shootout with Wayne Gretzky on the bench.

The Czech Republic won this spectacular semifinal 2-1, and might still have prevailed had Gretzky emerged from a time machine at the peak of his powers. Czech goalie Dominik Hasek might have stopped The Great One just as he did all of Canada's near-greats and non-greats. Gretzky is less than he once was, and he has never been particularly brilliant on breakaways.

But you still want to see it. If you follow sports at any level, you live for moments like these. You want to see the greatest player in the history of his game get a shot at saving his national team on the biggest stage in sports. You want that moment. You want that memory.

Marc Crawford just wasn't going to let it happen.

After 60 minutes of stalemate, and a scoreless 10-minute overtime period, the head coach of Team Canada selected five players to participate in a one-on-one shootout against Hasek. Crawford's lineup card was Theoren Fleury, Ray Bourque, Joe Nieuwendyk, Eric Lindros and Brendan Shanahan.

None of them could push the puck past Hasek. Because Canadian goalie Patrick Roy was beaten once, by Robert Reichel, that was that.

No second-guessing

I don't presume to know as much about hockey as Marc Crawford. Or, for that matter, Cindy Crawford. Several seasoned hockey writers, called in for consultation, had no problem with Crawford's call. But you want to think Gretzky would have found a way, even at 37 years old. You want to think that a man who has scored 875 goals in the National Hockey League would be able to score one more. At the least, you want him to have that chance.

''All of the decisions made by the coaching staff had been right,'' Gretzky said, with a past-tense waffle worthy of the White House. ''I would have liked to have been one of the shooters, but I'm not going to question the decision. We have a lot of great scorers.''

Crawford thought himself sufficiently deep in scorers that he used neither Gretzky nor the prolific Steve Yzerman in the shootout. He passed up Al MacInnis, possibly the fastest shot in the game. He went with his hunches, and his hunches went 0-for-5.

''Yes, we did consider using Wayne,'' Crawford said. ''We have so many great shooters and scorers on our team, you can't go wrong with any of them.''

Shootout surprise

Bourque, however, was baffled. He is a defenseman, for one thing, and has scored only nine goals in 56 games during the current NHL season. Bourque is 1-for-2 in career penalty shots, and his last attempt took place almost four years ago.

''I've never been in a situation like this when it came down to the shootout,'' he said. ''Yes, I was a little surprised to be selected to shoot. But I was called and I did my best and wasn't able to score.''

No athlete can expect to hold center stage indefinitely, particularly once his production declines. Gretzky continues to be among the NHL's leading scorers, but his point total is increasingly attributable to assists. He has 43 assists and only 13 goals this season in 57 games for the New York Rangers.

Crawford had to take this into consideration Friday, and play the percentage he thought had the best chance for success. The coach of a Canadian hockey team answers to the whole country, not only to its favorite son. Coaches earn their money by making the tough calls.

''It's hard to say what's right,'' said Slavomir Lener, coach of the Czech Republic. ''Everyone is a general after the battle.''

Columnist Tim Sullivan is covering the XVIII Winter Olympic Games for the Enquirer.

Special Enquirer Olympics coverage