TORONTO (CP) - Wayne Gretzky calls it the most surprising loss in his international playing career.
Few will ever forget The Great One sitting on the bench, watching Team Canada lose a shootout to the Czech Republic in a stunning semifinal defeat at
the 1998 Nagano Winter Games. Like this year's World Cup team, Canada had gone into the Olympic semifinals that year sporting a perfect 4-0-0 record.
"The team was flawless," recalls Gretzky, now Team Canada's executive director. "At that time, as a player, I was thinking it was going to be
impossible for this team to lose. The system it was playing and the preparation from the coaching staff had for the team, the way our goaltender
(Patrick Roy) was playing, you didn't think you were going to get beat.
"That was the biggest surprising loss I've been involved with. It was difficult to swallow because at that point the team was tremendous."
Canada has played the Czechs since then, skating to a 2-2 round-robin tie in Salt Lake City, but Saturday's World Cup semifinal 6:30 p.m. EDT is the
first knockout game between the two in a best-on-best tournament since '98, not counting the yearly battles at the IIHF men's world championship.
The '98 loss still stings despite Canada's Olympic victory in 2002.
First, because it was Gretzky's last game in a Canadian jersey. And second, because no matter what happened in Salt Lake, it was the Czechs and not
Canada that won the first Olympic gold medal up for grabs with NHL players stocking the rosters.
Canada's failure in Nagano triggered a national outcry and ultimately the Open Ice Summit in the summer of '98, examining what was wrong with the
Olympic gold in 2002 and back-to-back IIHF world titles in 2003 and 2004 have restored Canada's place atop the hockey world, but Saturday's World Cup
semifinal sets up eerily like the '98 Olympic semifinal.