A Little “What If”: Salo’s Blunder


WARNING: The following article is NSFS – Not Safe for Swedes.

February 20th, 2002


This wasn’t supposed to be happening. Not at this stage, and not against this team.

And yet, here were Sweden, tied late in the third period against Belarus in the Quarter-Finals at the 2002 Winter Olympics. Belarus, to this point, had played six games in the tournament, barely winning in the qualification round, then getting hammered by Finland and the United States in the next group stage. Having played so much in a short period of time, and having played so badly against top teams, there was no reason for Belarus to be competitive against a team like Sweden, who had swept their own group in the First Round; and not only did they sweep the group, but they did so against the defending Olympic champions from the Czech Republic, as well as the star-studded Canadians.

But here they were, with a trip to the Olympic Semi-Finals on the line. And not only were Belarus keeping the game in reach, but they had actually gained the lead for a brief period of time in the third frame thanks to a goal from Andrei Kovalyov. Their lead would only last five minutes, as Sweden’s captain, Mats Sundin, would score to make it 3-3. The “Tre Kronor” looked all the more likely to make the next breakthrough; they were drastically outshooting their ex-Soviet opponents, and it seemed only a matter of time before a Swede put one past the impressive Andrei Mezin. To those watching at the E Center, it appeared the only thing that could tip the result in Belarus’ favour was a freak accident.

And then it came. With just under three minutes remaining, Vladimir Kopat would take a shot from the neutral zone, managing to not only put the shot on goal, but off the mask of Swedish goalie Tommy Salo. The Edmonton Oilers’ starter would be temporarily jarred, losing sight of the puck for a split second… a split second in which that puck would drop into the net. Belarus were up 4-3 in the strangest of circumstances, but they wouldn’t look back. They would complete the shock upset, and advance to the Semi-Final, only to be trounced 7-1 by a Canadian side that could hardly believe their luck. (After all, Canada had lost handily to the Swedes in the first game of the tournament, and would have faced them again in this round, but for the fluke goal.)

For all the effects the shock goal had on Sweden, there was more pain to be had for Salo, who became a subject of ridicule in his home country, and whose family became a target for harassment. Though he recovered to play well down the stretch for the Oilers, he would not play the same way in the next two years. Here was a former NHL starter – not quite a perennial Vezina candidate, but still a reliable #1 goalie – now deteriorating season by season, until he was eventually cast out of the league by the time of the lockout in 2004. He would not be the starter of choice for his country at the next Olympics, as Henrik Lundqvist would take the reins, leading the Swedes to a gold medal in Torino.

But what would change had Tommy Salo made that save? Would Sweden go on to win that game? And if so, how would it change the 2002 Olympics, and even future Winter Games? Would Salo still decline later on in his career, or would he still be an NHL-calibre starter by the time the NHL restarted play in October 2005?


WHAT MUST BE CONSIDERED, AND WHAT MUST CHANGE: Well, obviously, in this new timeline, this goal doesn’t go in. But why?

Well, let’s look at the goal itself. (Again, Swedes, brace yourselves.) Vladimir Kopat is on the offensive side of the red line, just behind one of the neutral zone face-off dots. This isn’t a long-range bouncer like the goals that Jeff Frazee and Vesa Toskala infamously allowed, or a knuckler like Nicklas Lidstrom’s goal on Dan Cloutier later that year, but a hard slapper that just happened to catch Salo in the mask. Tommy is clearly bracing for impact, as by the time the puck hits him, he has raised his glove – either to catch the puck, or just to protect himself. Knowing as little as I do about goaltending, my gut feeling is that if anything, Salo is rather unlucky here.

So, what changes? Well, simply put, it doesn’t bounce the same way. Maybe it jumps up in the air, and Salo holds it for a face-off. Maybe it ricochets hard into the corner, where a Swedish player recovers it. The only thing that changes for sure is that it doesn’t just drop into the net.

To everyone’s shock, not only is Belarus holding their own against Sweden in the 2002 Olympic Quarter-Final, but they actually held the lead at one point before Mats Sundin tied it up again. With less than three minutes left in regulation, Vladimir Kopat tries an audacious effort from outside the offensive zone, which catches Swedish goalie Tommy Salo in the mask; though Salo is clearly stunned by the impact, the puck itself deflects harmlessly away. The crowd is momentarily stunned by what looked precariously close to a shock goal for the underdogs, but in the American broadcast booth, Gary Thorne is not surprised, commenting that if they were this close to victory, “Belarus might as well try anything”.

THE REST OF THE GAME: Well, the rest of the game is going to come with a few assumptions regarding the teams so far. The biggest one is that as it was in the OTL, neither team will score in the last three minutes of the game. This would lead to a ten-minute over-time period, followed by a shootout. As for how that OT period would play out, I’m taking a couple of stats into account.

Firstly, I’m considering the shots on goal up to that point – 47 for Sweden, and 19 for the Belarussians. Assuming that the ten-minute OT goes much like the first three periods of the contest, this shakes out to 8 shots for the Swedes in extra time, compared to only 3 for Belarus. Secondly, I’m considering the shooting percentage for both sides throughout the tournament; including that game in this timeline, Sweden would have a shooting percentage of 12.32%, compared to 10.47% for their opponents. The shooting percentage, when combined with the amount of shots in OT, means that Sweden would score 0.9856 goals, as compared to 0.3141 for Belarus. In short, it may take until the dying seconds of the extra period, but the Swedes could eventually find their game-winner.

And even if they don’t, chances are still very good that this would go to a shoot-out. If it goes that far, Sweden goes in with a massive advantage; not only did Sweden win the 1994 Olympic Gold Medal in just this circumstance, but the man in goal for them in that game was none other than Tommy Salo. Yes, shocks can always happen, but if this game goes past regulation, the odds are pretty much stacked against Belarus, and no stroke of luck will save them this time around.

THE REST OF THE TOURNAMENT: Having now advanced to the Olympic Semi-Final, Sweden is given a re-match with the Canadian side that they had easily beaten in their opening game. By this point, Canada has undergone a lot of stress, both on the ice and off, due in large part to the team’s underperformance in this tournament. Martin Brodeur was given the starting job following Curtis Joseph’s poor effort against the “Tre Kronor”, and has given the team some security in goal. Of course, you can’t win if you can’t score, and Canada goes into this Semi-Final having scored only eight goals in the three games since their opener – a disappointing total considering the amount of talent on this team.

Sweden has the mental advantage going into this game; yes, they may have needed a shoot-out to beat a scrappy Belarus team, but that may only have served to wake up the top round-robin team. Sweden’s mental advantage would quickly be wiped out, as Canada would play for their lives in the Semi, trying to bruise and batter their way to victory. Having figured out that Hardy Nilsson’s counter-attack, Canada would hold their opponents to 2 goals on only 22 shots, but Tommy Salo’s heroics ensured that the Canadians could only muster 2 goals in their 34 attempts. A ten-minute sudden death period was needed, but that, too solved nothing, and it was off to another shoot-out.

Canada made the mistake of keeping Wayne Gretzky off the ice in 1998, but Pat Quinn wasn’t about to follow suit. Their first shooter is Mario Lemieux, who converts. Sweden responds with Daniel Alfredsson, who does the same – 1-1. Steve Yzerman and Mats Sundin are next, and neither miss their mark. Simon Gagne is the first to miss, and Niklas Sundstrom’s goal means Sweden have a 3-2 advantage. Owen Nolan is next for Canada, but is stopped by Salo, meaning that with a goal, Michael Nylander can send his country to the Gold Medal Game. Nylander dekes out Brodeur, then slots it home; Sweden advance, and Canada are eliminated in the shoot-out for the third straight Olympic Games.

It was a repeat of Nagano for the Canadians, as they were now forced to compete for bronze. Their opponents this year would be the Russians, who had fallen to the Americans in the Semis, and looked like they were relying on Nikolai Khabibulin to carry them to Gold throughout the tournament. The “Bulin Wall” would do his very best to secure some hardware for his squad, holding the Canadians to 2 goals on 36 shots, but the team in front of him could only manage a pair of goals on Ed Belfour in 31 attempts; over-time was again on the cards. During the OT period, Canada would keep up the onslaught, and a goal from Jarome Iginla would be the decider as the pre-tournament favourites would go home with bronze medals.

Sweden were in tough against an American team that had seemed invincible throughout the tourney. They won all three games in their round-robin group, then knocked away Germany and Russia in the playoffs to get to the Gold Medal contest. The U.S. had won the previous two Olympic tournaments held in the country, and looked poised to continue the streak in 2002. The United States would control much of the game, being sure to snuff out any potential counter-attacks, and the contest would end with the hosts claiming a 3-2 victory. While there were some comparisons to the “Miracle on Ice” from 22 years prior – including the presence of head coach Herb Brooks for both events – Brooks himself would shrug off any attempts to link the two games, stating that this American team was full of NHL stars, and could easily compete with anybody they faced.

THE EFFECTS ON FUTURE OLYMPICS: With two straight failures looming large for the Canadian side, Team Canada goes with Jacques Martin to be the new head coach for the 2004 World Cup of Hockey. The event is notable not just as a potential audition for 2006 Olympic roster spots, but also as the last chance fans would get to see top NHL stars before the lockout that would cancel the 04-05 season. Martin’s team proves effective on home ice, as Canada claims the World Cup against a surprising Finland team. That success is enough for Martin to get the coaching job going into the Torino Olympics, and the Ottawa bench boss now finds himself as a makeshift scout in the first half of the 05-06 NHL campaign.

With legendary coach Scotty Bowman overseeing the selection process, Canada goes with many players that were present for the last Olympics, with a few changes here and there. Of those that went to Italy in the OTL, only three are excluded, as Rick Nash, Shane Doan, and Adam Foote are replaced respectively by Alex Tanguay, Brendan Shanahan, and Dan Boyle, the last of whom is moved from the reserve team to the main squad. The Canadians are once again stacked, but it remains to be seen whether they can actually gel as a team for the Olympic tournament, or if old ghosts will continue to haunt the favoured side.

Canada starts off with two easy opponents in Italy and Germany, and very early on, the favourites roll, scoring a combined 14 goals in those games. But when Switzerland comes along, the offence dries up, as Martin Gerber holds the Canadians to a single goal on 49 shots. A pair of goals from Sault Ste. Marie-born Paul DiPietro are enough to secure the upset for the Swiss, and the questions begin to arise of the Canadian side. Roberto Luongo is given the starting job in the next game against Finland, but even his good play (28/30 saves) isn’t enough to grab a point, as Antero Niittymaki holds strong to secure a 2-1 victory. Canada would at least end the round-robin on a high note, as a four-goal barrage in the first period holds up in a 4-2 win over the Czech Republic.

Canada would have to deal with a Russian side that had finished 4-1 in the Group Stage, losing only to the Slovakians. Russia was packed to the gills with NHL stars, including Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk, and Evgeni Nabokov. They also had a dynamic young duo in Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin, the former of whom would soon join Pittsburgh, and the latter of whom was already lighting up North America. But for all of their stars, the most important player in this game was Evgeni Nabokov, who responded to an early Canada goal by shutting the door for the rest of the night. Russia would get two power-play tallies in the third period, and the Canadians were once again left disappointed, exiting in the Quarter-Final stage.

Sweden went into the Torino Olympics with a plan to start Tommy Salo in goal; after all, he had already won gold and silver with the national team, and now that he was back with Frolunda in his native land, he was more accustomed to the larger ice surfaces than NHL netminders Henrik Lundqvist and Mikael Tellqvist. Salo was okay in his first contest against Kazakhstan, but struggled against the Russians to the tune of a 5-0 loss. From then on, Lundqvist was the guy, as he held off Latvia and the United States, allowing only one goal in each game. A 3-0 loss against Slovakia could be excused, as that team just seemed to be clicking all tournament long.

While the focus of the Group Stage was goaltending, the defining factor of the knockout round was total team effort. Given a match-up against the resilient Swiss team in the Quarter-Final, Sweden would rely on skill instead, overwhelming opposing goalie Martin Gerber with 6 goals on 27 shots. The “Tre Kronor” would follow this up with a dominant 7-3 win against the Czech Republic, a game which saw starting goalie Milan Hnilicka chased after five Swedish goals. When it came time for Lundqvist to step up in goal in the Gold Medal Game against Finland, he did, stopping 25 of 27 shots from the Nordic rivals to clinch Sweden’s second goal in four tournaments.

The Torino Olympics would represent a true torch-passing for the Swedish national team. It was Tommy Salo that started the tournament as the national starter, but by the end of it, Lundqvist had well and truly taken his place. For all of his recent struggles at the professional level, Salo would leave the national team a hero, having won two Olympic golds and a silver, to add to his several medals at the World Championships (including gold in 1998). There may have been tough times along the way, but Salo would always hold a special place in Swedish hearts for his fantastic performances at the national level.

SALO’S CAREER: Now, you’ll notice that in the last section, I mentioned that Salo, by the time of the Torino Olympics, was back in Sweden with Frolunda. This obviously mirrors what happens in real life, but if he doesn’t have the shame of that error against Belarus, why would this still happen?

To actually answer this question, we should look at the effects that such embarrassing goals had on other goaltenders of note. In 2015, Sean McIndoe (a.k.a. “Down Goes Brown”) wrote an article for Grantland that looked at certain other crease howlers. In addition to Salo’s folly (which McIndoe rates as the very worst), there are several odd goals from the past two decades on the list, with all sorts of goalies victimized – from short-lived ‘keepers like Sebastien Caron to absolute legends like Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur. (For the sake of this article, I’m ignoring Patrick and Martin’s blunders, as they are in a class of their own, and the goals hardly mattered to their legacies.)

The very first goalie listed, Vesa Toskala, is the most obvious case of a goal turning the tide in a player’s career. Boasting a .906 SV% on the year prior to that goal, Toskala’s stats plummeted over the rest of the 07-08 campaign, as he posted a .878 SV% over the last six games. While his final total of .904 was acceptable, it would also be his high mark with the Leafs, as over the next two years, he would get worse and worse. By the 2010 off-season, he was out of the NHL, signing with AIK in Sweden. The goal given up to Islanders’ blue-liner Rob Davison can easily be seen as the moment in which Toskala’s effectiveness as a goalie was completely wiped out.

Similar declines came in the form of Sebastien Caron and Roman Cechmanek. Caron finished out the season with Pittsburgh following his blunder in 2006, but went on to play only two games the next year – one each with Chicago and Anaheim. His last NHL action would come in 2011-12 with the Tampa Bay Lightning; in three games with the Bolts, he was terrible, posting a 3.12 GAA and .877 SV%. Cechmanek, meanwhile, would at least manage to win Game Seven in the opening round of the 2003 playoffs, but would be traded to Los Angeles in the off-season. While his .906 SV% wasn’t bad by any stretch, it was a far cry from the stratospheric numbers he posted with the Flyers (a .923 SV% in three seasons).

For some goalies, there was hardly any effect on their careers in the aftermath of their own blunders. Roman Turek had gone into the 2000 playoffs having had a break-out year with the Blues, leading the league in shutouts and earning the William Jennings Trophy in the process. He would spend the next three years as a starter with both St. Louis and Calgary, and although his SV% would fall over those years (.904 compared to .914 in 1999-2000), he would still post 15 shutouts over those years. Jonathan Quick, too, was unaffected by his gaffe, not only recovering to post a .915 SV% that year, but also winning his second Stanley Cup in three seasons. Over the next four seasons, he proved remarkably consistent, before seemingly falling off a cliff in the 18-19 campaign (a 16-23-7 record and a .888 SV% in 46 games).

Most surprisingly, two goalies actually got better in the wake of their errors: Dan Cloutier and Tim Thomas. Cloutier may have lost that series against Detroit in 2002, but he would go on to steadily improve his save percentage over the next two years with the Canucks, even if his playoff performances left a little to be desired. It wouldn’t be until the post-lockout season in 2005-06 that he would decline, losing the starting job to Alex Auld, then getting traded to Los Angeles in the ’06 off-season. Thomas, meanwhile, would see his SV% dip by 12 points the season after his gaffe in ’06, but from 2007 on, he blossomed into one of the best goalies in the league, recording a .926 SV% over the next five seasons, as well as winning two Vezina Trophies, a Stanley Cup, and a Conn Smythe Trophy.

So, all in all, the goalies highlighted in that article had mixed results. While some recovered to be good (or even great) in the future (whether in that same year or over the course of the next few), an awful goal proved to be the turning point for others – not the least of which was Toskala. Ultimately, it can be surmised that there really is no correlation between a goalie letting in a terrible goal and their performance in the years following such an event. In fact, this proves true in the OTL with Salo himself; in the last part of the season following the Olympics, Tommy recorded a .929 SV% in 16 games, bringing his overall SV% for the year to a total of .913 – just a single point below his career high to that point.

Without the Belarus howler hanging over his head, Tommy Salo would likely have been a choice for the Torino games. With two Olympic medals (including a gold in ’94) to his name, and recent experience on larger ice, Salo would have the inside track on being the starter, even if he would eventually lose the job to the emergent Henrik Lundqvist. But Kopat goal or not, he would possibly still suffer a decline at the NHL level in the years following the Salt Lake City Winter Games. There are many rumour sites that speculate that an alleged affair between Tommy’s wife and Mike Comrie is the primary reason for Salo’s fall-off; whether you want to believe them is up to you.

Next month, the focus will stay on goalies, as well as the early 2000s: What if the San Jose Sharks kept Miikka Kiprusoff instead of Evgeni Nabokov?