Dwayne Norris had it all figured out.
Coming off his first season of pro hockey with Halifax of the American league, where he’d averaged a point per game, Norris was ready for prime time in 1993-94 … full-time NHL employment.
Problem was, Quebec had a pretty good team back then. The NHL’s Nordiques, still a couple of years from relocation to Colorado, were anchored by a couple of would-be Hall of Famers in Joe Sakic and Mats Sundin, and two No. 1 overall draft picks in Mike Ricci and Owen Nolan.
Jeff Solomon knew this. So, the player agent, who was representing Norris at the time, made the pitch to the Nords: if Norris failed to make the big club, would the organization consider reassigning him to Canada’s national team rather than Halifax?
Hockey Canada certainly was interested, well familiar with Norris following his stints with the under-18 and world junior teams.
It’s been 24 years since Norris, from St. John’s, wore the maple leaf with Canada’s national men’s hockey team at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics, the last non-NHL Canadian team to skate in the Olympic Games until this year’s PyeongChang squad.
Canada won a silver medal that year, capping off an unlikely run for a group which had laboured through a series of exhibition games and amateur tournaments playing .500 hockey before the Games. The Canadians entered Lillehammer ranked seventh or eighth.
Turns out only a shootout goal by Swedish superstar-in-waiting Peter Forsberg — one that would be fashioned into a Swedish stamp years later — kept the Canadians from winning gold.
These days, most remember Norris, the Hockey Newfoundland and Labrador Hall of Famer, as the guy whose goal secured Canada the gold medal at the 1990 World Junior Hockey Championship.
And while that’s certainly a highlight in the hockey memory box, you cannot overlook the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics, where Norris became the first born-and-raised Newfoundlander to win an Olympic medal.
“You know how it is, as time goes by, you get the chance to go back and reflect,” Norris said, “but when you’re playing, you don’t stop in the moment. It’s when you’re done later in life that look at experiences and accomplishments.”
There are a lot of players from that team whom Norris hasn’t seen in years, part of the reason why he and Todd Hlushko are hoping to arrange a reunion this summer with a golf trip.
With the exception of Brian Savage and Norris, who would finish tied for fourth in team scoring in the leadup to the Games, and a few others, Team Canada was very much a meat and potatoes squad.
That began to change prior to Lillehammer, when Canada added top draft pick Paul Kariya and NHLer Petr Nedved, who was coming off a 38-goal season with the Vancouver Canucks.
“When we look back at the group that we had,” said Norris, now living in Michigan and following around his three hockey-playing sons, “and the path that we went through with what looked like a very average team, it’s amazing what you can accomplish when you have guys with a common goal and passion.
“It was a pretty special team.”
Canada opened the tournament with wins over Italy and France, before tying the U.S. 3-3. Two of the Canadian goals in the American game came off Norris’s stick.
After a 3-1 loss to Slovakia, Canada closed out the round-robin with a 3-2 win over the strong Swedes.
In their quarter-final game, Canada matched up against the Czech Republic, and won it on Kariya’s goal in overtime. Norris drew an assist on one of Savage’s two goals.
“The Czech game was one that I specifically remember was a war,” Norris said. “Then we got into the friggin’ Finland game and got behind early, but it turned very quickly.”
The Finns were heavily-favoured in 1994, a team laden with future NHLers, including a young Saku Koivu.
Trailing 2-0, Hlushko scored on a breakaway. Nedved, Czech-born but by now a newly minted Canadian citizen, scored shortly afterwards. Brad Werenka and Jean-Yves Roy tallied three minutes apart early in the third, and Greg Parks made it 5-3.
Game, set and match.
“The Olympics are pretty special,” Norris said, “in that any tournament like that — world juniors, too — it could be a one and done. Have a bad game and you’re out, but have a good game and you can roll. That’s how it was for us.”
The Czech victory set up a rematch with the Swedes for the gold medal. Guaranteed at least a silver, Canadian goaltender Corey Hirsch would later say Canada was now, “playing with house money.”
“At the end of the day, (coach) Tom Renney was the guy driving the bus, but about a month before the Olympics, there was the belief factor and we kind of took over and steered,” Norris said. “Adding guys like Kariya and Nedved and (Chris) Kontos … those guys could be game-changers and they were. They were the difference.”
In the final game, Sweden opened scoring. After Kariya tied it up, Derek Mayer put the Canadians ahead just over halfway through the third period.
It stood 2-1 until Magnus Svensson, who would play a bit later for the Florida Panthers, scored late on the power play.
Overtime solved nothing, and a shootout was ordered.
We know what happened. The shootout went to an extra round before Forsberg scored his epic goal, and Kariya missed on his last attempt.
“When I look at that team,” Norris said, “I look at the chemistry and camaraderie and relationships that were built.
“The thing that drove that team was we had a lot of guys like myself who were trying to prove themselves, guys like Todd Hlushko, Jean-Yves Roy and Greg Parks and Brad Schlegel. We were all prospects in our own way, but we weren’t the big-ticket item, not like Kariya and Nedved. But we got along well, and we all understood the commitment.”
That gold-medal game in Lillehammer was played on Feb. 27. Six days later, in Quebec City, Norris made his NHL debut, dressing for the Nordiques against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Le Colisee, a game that was featured on Hockey Night in Canada.
Norris drew a starting assignment, and lined up against Wendel Clark. Quebec won 4-1, Norris recorded an assist, registered four shots on goal, was named the game’s second star and joined Don Cherry for an interview on Coaches Corner.
He would play another 19 NHL games — all but three with Quebec — have a couple of big years in the AHL before heading overseas for a lengthy career in Germany.
When his playing days were done, Norris remained in Germany as general manager for the Frankfurt Lions for a number of years.
“It’s funny some of the things you remember (in the Olympics). I recall one night — I think it was the day before the semifinal game — I was really restless. So I got up about two in the morning and went down to the cafeteria, which was open 24/7.
“I’m sitting down by myself — who is the hell is out eating at 2 a.m., right? — and then this guy walks over and sits down next to me. I didn’t know who he was. He’s speaking to me in broken English, and long story short, I come to find out this is Alberto Tomba (the great Italian skier, with three Olympic gold medals, and two silvers).
“It’s only afterwards that you sit back and think, ‘Geez, that was Alberto Tomba. That guy was a pretty damn good athlete.’
“There were many parts of the journey itself, and the momentum we built was incredible. We went in with only an outside chance at even getting to the medal round, and as the tournament went on, we found a way to pick up some wins and gain momentum and confidence and, of course, belief.
“It was an unforgettable experience.”
Today, Norris has his career on display in the family’s Michigan home, his WJC and Olympic medals and rings in a special box, and his jerseys from college to the NHL framed and hung on the wall.
It was only two years ago he pulled them from storage, and he’s glad he did. They make for wonderful memories.
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @TelyRobinShort