My one and only live Olympic experience

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I’ve been an Olympics junkie all my waking life. I first fell in during the ’64 Winter Olympics (I would have been 8), rooting on Vic Emery’s Canadian four-man bobsled to its shock Gold medal in Innsbruck, still the only medal Canada has ever won in the discipline. From then till now I’ve been an addict, 25 Olympics and counting, give or take the boycotted Moscow Olympics which I could only follow in the newspaper – the "lockout season" of the movement, if you will.

Every Olympic Games has had brilliant performances and terrific human interest stories, heartbreak and overjoy, and a moment or several of outstanding sportsmanship if not outright heroism. (My all-time Olympic hero is yachtsman Larry Lemieux, a native of Edmonton, Alberta of all places, who gave up a near-certain medal and abandoned the course to rescue two fellow competitors from Singapore who had capsized in dangerously-choppy waters.)

All of those moments but one were brought through the magic of television, originally weekend afternoons, then nightly recaps, all the way to today’s three Canadian channels pretty much 24/7.  

So of course this article is about the "but one", which turned out to be an almost surreal experience, one of my favourite personal adventures in a lifetime of actively following sport. The day I made a road trip to the Winter Olympics, and attended a couple of hockey games. Simultaneously.

I hadn’t planned on attending any of the 1988 Winter Games despite their proximity in our sister city of Calgary. My wife was pregnant when tickets went on sale, and my son just two months old during the Games themselves. I was a homebody, happy to watch the Games on the tube, up half the night some nights, putting in my 9 to 5, going to Oilers games and otherwise not going very far. Certainly nowhere near as far as Calgary.

Then came the phone call. On the first Monday of the Calgary Games, a bud phoned me up at work and said "Hey Bruce, I’m thinking of making a day trip down to Calgary to take in a hockey game. Czechoslovakia-USA, that’s going to be a pretty good game, it’s the preliminary round and Canada’s not playing so it won’t cost us a fortune, my brother-in-law went down last night and says we can scalp our way in no problem. I wanna see the Saddledome and I wanna see the Olympics! Wanna come?"

When he put it like that, suddenly it seemed possible. I asked my boss, himself a hockey fan, if I could take the afternoon off, then ran it up the flagpole at home. Leave at 1, go to the game, home by 1, 12 hours tops, I’ll even leave you the car.  Of course my dear wife said "yes" (that time, or I wouldn’t be writing this!)

So off we went down Highway 2 in my pal’s old beater, the weather perfect, the open road stretched in front of us, the Olympic city just three hours ahead. We arrived in good time and staked out the scalpers pre-game. Turned out that lots of them had tickets for the nearly-simultaneous game in the Corral, a classic preliminary-round mismatch between the powerhouse USSR and minnow Austria. (Note the start times on the ticket stubs pictured up top)

We were interested in neither mismatch nor Corral, though the thought of seeing the likely gold medallists gave me momentary pause. But we pressed on ahead, talked turkey with a couple of turkeys, and found ourselves a pair of $20 tickets (for $25 apiece) for the feature game. We wound our way in with the throng and climbed and climbed up to Row 54, somewhere near centre ice. The drooping roof of the "saddle" was right in front of us, so we couldn’t see the far side of the arena at all except for the first few rows beyond the far boards. I found the roof disorienting and gave me vertigo; I wonder if the regulars who sit there get over that eventually.

Way down below us the game unfolded in miniature. We were both rooting for the Czechoslovaks for various reasons, but the damn Yankees were having the better of it by far. We got an early eyeful of young American phenom Brian Leetch scooting about the ice, all over the puck, moving it and jumping into the play when not actually leading the rush. Leetch was the most prominent of a solid group of future NHLers that I was seeing for the first time: Kevin Stevens, Scott Young, Tony Granato, Craig Janney, Stephen Leach, Eric Weinrich, and one Peter Laviolette Jr. Mike Richter was between the pipes. Not that I knew him from Adam at the time, but it was unlucky that the greatest future star on either team, Dominik Hašek, sat on the Czechoslovakian bench -- and it seemed their whole team had joined him there. The Yanks jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the opening minutes and pressed their advantage; the Czecholslovaks were skating in sand. Vladimír Růžička (coach of the current Czech Republic squad), Jiří Hrdina, Oiler draft pick Miloslav Hořava, all of them had a brutal period.

The first period was winding down, score still 3-0, my friend and I both complaining about the quality of the game, when I had a crazy idea. That USSR-Austria game had started just 15 minutes before this one, and it was right across the street, it's not every night you can go to a live game and have an option to "change the channel" ... so when the first period ended we climbed back down from Row 54 and headed right out to the boulevard. Well wouldn’t you know but there was exactly one guy sitting all by himself outside the Corral and he had exactly two tickets left and wanted to go home, so he sold them to us $10 for the pair and in we went.

We couldn’t have asked for better seats, or anything more dramatically different than what we had just experienced. Row 1, behind the net, virtually right next to the goal judge. Moreover, the seats were at the lobby end of the Corral, we went into the arena very low in the correct end and found our seats (or were they benches?) literally within seconds. The section was very wide - I have never sat in a "Seat 85" before or since! - and the low viewing angle really accentuated one of the Corral's more unusual features, the extremely high boards which made the arena seem much smaller than it actually was. Still, it was a bandbox, no two ways about it, especially when compared to the modern building we had also just inspected for the first time. 

The game had moved well ahead of its counterpart at this point and was midway in the second period. We soon found out why: there were very few whistles and the Soviets had almost total domination of the puck. Moreover, they led 7-1, so the game was decided and they were just playing keepaway by that point. But oh what a team they had! The Green Unit was in full flower: Slava Fetisov at his most dominant, his "silent partner" Alexei Kasatonov, and the KLM Line of Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov, and Sergei Makarov. Backing them up a whole boatload of excellent hockey players with names like Bykov (coach of the current Russian squad), Gusarov, Svetlov, Khomutov, Lomakin, Kamensky, Byakin and Kravchuk. One shining star of the next generation had made it through to the big team, 18-year-old Alexander Mogilny, and I thoroughly enjoyed my first chance to see him in the flesh. I’d seen most of the older fellows from time to time in the ’81 or ’84 Canada Cups or various exhibition tours which were in vogue back in the day. Still, it was a special treat to see them play in the tournament that meant the most to them.

The Austrians had but one player of interest, Robin Sadler, the former Oil King hot shot blueliner who had walked away from the game as a young Habs prospect but rediscovered himself over in Europe. Like Patrick Thoresen in the game last night, he was one player who could at least speak the language of hockey that the Soviets were all fluent in, but there were nowhere near enough of his teammates who were in the conversation. The Austrians were totally over their heads; by the humane tournament format of the day the Soviets had no need to run up the score so just kept the puck on a string. It was impressive and boring all at once. The time melted off the clock and the second intermission was at hand.

So of course we made our way back to the Saddledome and picked up the other game. Rather than climb all those stairs we found a good spot to stand in the end zone behind the lower bowl. By this point the Czechoslovaks had gotten themselves back into it, I believe it was 4-1 and they scored to make it 4-2. It was a slower affair by far, more whistles, more scrums, more competitive.

Come the intermission though and we again made the short trek across the street. We were laughing our fool heads off, watching two live hockey games simultaneously for the only time in our lives. We ducked back into our Row 1 seats for the last half of the third and watched the Soviets hold, hold, hold the puck. They generated one lovely goal on about a 17-way passing play when the scorer had no choice but to put ‘er home, but if I recall correctly they only took 3 shots on the Austrian net in the third period. Yet as I watched them from ice level I became more and more convinced that I was seeing the gold medallists, that the Big Red Machine was playing a level of hockey entirely superior to the two decent clubs across the street and likely any other challengers. The only team around that could give them a game, my Oilers, were in a different league.

The game wound up and for a fourth time we made our way across the bridge (?) between the two buildings. The third was just nicely underway in the ‘dome, so we found a couple of vacant seats in the lower bowl and watched the game’s denouement. It couldn’t have worked out much better. Czechoslovakia had come alive and were really taking it to the Americans, tied it up, fell behind once again, tied it a second time at 5-5 before scoring a late game winner and an even later empty netter to seal a come-from-behind 7-5 win. For all that we had missed a couple of chunks of the game, we had seen the parts that mattered; in the other game, we had seen the parts that didn’t, but still felt greatly enriched by the experience. In all, we had probably seen about 75-80 minutes of action for our thirty bucks, and didn't blow any more on beer given we effectively had no intermissions!

With both games over, we headed down to Canada Olympic Plaza to see a couple of medal ceremonies and to enjoy the ambience of the Games. That was great; it didn't matter if the medallists were some European biathletes and cross-country skiers I didn't know from Eve, they were Olympic Champions, this was their big moment, and the pomp and ceremony seemed somehow appropriate to the bigness of the big occasion. 

Soon enough, though, it was time to hit the road. The ride home was an adventure of a different sort; lousy weather and a radiator which was overheating, causing us to pull over every 30 or 40 minutes to let it cool off. It must have been 4 or 5 a.m. by the time we finally made it in. My bride was none too thrilled but accepted the truth for what it was. This story was far too bizarre to have to make any of it up.

At bottom is a scanned photo of me "watching the Olympics" with my two-month-old the next evening, both of us sound asleep on the couch. It had been an exhausting 36 hours, but what an unforgettable experience it had been. 

* * * 

Historical note: The Soviets would indeed cruise to the Gold Medal in Calgary, winning their first 8 games of the double round robin to sew up the title, outscoring their opposition by a combined 47-13. This would prove to be the last Olympic appearance of the Big Red Machine in all its power; Alex Mogilny would defect the next year and the Iron Curtain came crashing down before the next Olympics. Czechoslovakia would split into two separate countries, and the flow of players from eastern European nations into the NHL went from a trickle to a torrent seemingly overnight. An important era of international hockey had come to a close.

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