SOCHI, Russia — The phone rang only a little while after the game ended. Corey Hirsch knew it would.
Canada had just clinched a spot in the gold medal game by beating the Americans. Sweden had the other berth. Twenty years ago, the same two teams met in the same final round.
Hirsch played a role back then that would land him in hockey lore.
“It’s nice to remain relevant in history,” he said Friday night. “Any way you can.”
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Canada and Sweden are overflowing with NHL all-stars now. But back in 1994, there were no NHL players allowed on any Olympic team. Canada hadn’t won hockey gold in 42 years. Sweden had never done it.
Hirsch was, like nearly all of the players in that gold medal game, known only to serious hockey fans. He was 21 and had never played in front of so many people worldwide. “The first time you pull your jersey over your head and look down,” he said, “you realize, ‘I’m really doing this.’ ”
He loved being at the Olympics but he was so naive about the stakes and the stage that he didn’t even bring a camera.
Which is ironic, because many of the same people who didn’t know Hirsch’s name leading into the tournament can easily picture him now.
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The final was a thriller, advancing into overtime tied 2-2 and then going to a shootout. This was long before shootouts happened in the NHL, so the advantage went to the Swedes, who practiced them more often. The Canadians, however, had slick scorers in Paul Kariya and Peter Nedved, and the shootout went back and forth for six rounds. Then the puck was placed at center ice for the seventh. A 20-year-old named Peter Forsberg was next to go. He circled in his own end and picked up speed.
The player they called “Foppa” was destined for greatness. Only months later, he would be headed to the Quebec Nordiques to help build one of the most talented young rosters in recent hockey history, with teammates like Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy, Claude Lemieux, Adam Foote and Adam Deadmarsh. The Quebec franchise would move to Colorado and win a Stanley Cup there. Back in 1994, though, Forsberg was a curiosity: the best amateur no one had ever seen play.
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Hirsch was also on his way to the NHL – a dream he’d had since childhood. He was outstanding in Lillehammer, from beginning to end, but he thought his reputation would be made later on. “When you go as a hockey player,” he said, “we were all looking forward to the NHL. I didn’t realize how big it is at the time.”
Forsberg swooped toward the Canadian goalie and drifted to his shooting hand – his left and Hirsch’s right. Hirsch tracked him all the way and thought, “I got him.”
That was exactly what Forsberg wanted him to think. At the last possible second, Forsberg drew the puck to his off-hand, taking his left glove off the stick and reaching around Hirsch with his right to try to direct the puck into the net. From the ceiling, which is the most famous view of the play, it looked like he was passing it to himself.
It was extremely risky – basically a hot dog move. There was a strong chance Forsberg wouldn’t even get a clean shot on the net, which would have been humiliating for himself and the whole country. By the time the puck made it to his outstretched stick, Forsberg’s right skate was pointing back toward center ice; he had swiveled himself around the goalmouth. On the Canadian broadcast, the announcers watched the play and suggested that in the NHL, Forsberg would get physical retribution for trying something like that.
“No one had really seen that in Olympic competition,” Hirsch said. “Or in any competition. No one had ever seen a move like that.”
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Lost in history is how well Hirsch reacted. He fronted Forsberg the whole way and still kept position enough to reach back and out toward the puck. Hirsch nearly arrived to the trigger point before Forsberg did.
“He made a last effort and ended up scoring,” Hirsch said. “I remember thinking I had him. But the puck goes under my glove. A matter of centimeters. That’s history, that’s sport. Great players make great plays.”
The goal would probably not be as big a deal now if the shootout went to subsequent rounds. But Swedish goalie Tommy Salo stopped Kariya and Sweden had its first-ever hockey gold medal. Forsberg was a national hero.
Hirsch was the one who gave up the most famous goal in Olympic history.
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The goal was a sensation, so much so that making a similar move would thenceforth be known on rinks and ponds as “pulling a Forsberg.” The Swedish government designed a stamp to commemorate the goal, and to this day the signature play is known as “The Stamp Goal.”
Hirsch initially balked at that, arguing the Swedes were using his likeness without his permission. He threatened to sue. With time, however, he’s been far more willing to talk about the goal and even celebrate his place in hockey legend.
“I came out of the Olympics as a household name,” Hirsch said. “Twenty years later, everyone knows who I am.”
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And not in a negative way. The goal is remembered for Forsberg’s brilliance, not for Hirsch’s allowance of it. Hirsch went on to live his NHL dream and he’s still doing so, coaching goalies for the St. Louis Blues. T.J. Oshie, author of the second-most memorable shootout performance in recent Olympic history, is someone that Hirsch sees daily. “He may have the best hands in the NHL,” Hirsch said. “He showed the world.”
Hirsch tweeted after Oshie’s flurry of shootout goals against Russia that maybe people would stop talking about the Stamp Goal. That’s unlikely, and Hirsch doesn’t mind. He knows the calls will still come, and he’ll continue to pick up the phone.
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The one who’s quiet about the goal is Forsberg. Hirsch said the two have never discussed it. “Peter’s a very private man,” Hirsch said. “Other than to say hello, we’ve never really had a conversation. Wish I had a better story for you.”
Hirsch has already told a great story. But the moment that really gets to him is a tale that mostly goes untold. It happened more than a decade after the Stamp Goal, when Hirsch represented Team Canada for the last time in Slovakia in 2005.
“It was a small little men’s tournament,” he said. “It was the fact that I knew I was retiring. Just to look down and see that jersey. It was really emotional. It’s something I’ll never forget.
“When you know it’s the last time, it’s quite an emotional thing.”
Far from being full of regret, Corey Hirsch is 20 years older and he couldn’t be prouder.