Russian men’s hockey team carries host nation’s hope for golden glory

McClatchy Foreign StaffFebruary 12, 2014 

— The Cold War is over and Perestroika has passed, but some memories die hard in Russia. Especially when it comes to ice hockey.

Russia and the United States face off Saturday at the 2014 Winter Olympics in an early pivotal match that could advance — or derail — each country’s drive towards the gold medal.

A raucous Russian crowd and national pride will likely be on full display inside a packed Bolshoy Ice Dome. Hockey is ingrained in Russia’s culture: President Vladimir Putin occasionally suits up and gets on the ice with Russian hockey heroes of the past or current players, daring goaltenders to stop his shot.

While fans wave Russian flags and chant shaybu! (shoot) whenever Russian-born National Hockey League stars like Alexander Ovechkin or Evgeni Malkin touch the puck, palms may sweat and stomachs churn in the arena and across this large nation that’s mindful of its uneasy hockey history with the United States and Canada.

From inside Putin’s “Ring of Steel” that secures and sections off the Olympic complex to the cafes in nearby Adler, talk about Saturday’s game and the Winter Games’ hockey tournament invariably shifts to the ghosts of 1980 and 1972.

In 1980, a U.S. team of college players pulled off the “Miracle on Ice” by beating a powerhouse Soviet Union en route to winning the Olympic gold medal at Lake Placid.

In 1972, the Soviets narrowly lost the first “Super Series” against a Canadian team stacked with National Hockey League all-stars. The series was a watershed moment for hockey because it exposed Canadians to Russian hockey playing and training methods — many of which are employed in the U.S. and Canada today — and the Russians to the more physical North American style.

Coincidence, or not, Russian television has been airing commercials in between Olympic coverage for a movie about the 1972 Russia-Team Canada contest, with scenes of the Canadian stars hacking and whacking at the Soviet players.

Hockey is so much part of the Russian psyche that Dmitry Chernyshenko, president of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Organizing Committee, recently reeled off the names of three American horror films he watched as a youth — “Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Friday the 13th” and “Miracle on Ice.”

“We all want to see Russia in the finals. Definitely,” said Alexandra Kosterina, a spokeswoman for the Russian Olympic committee. “There is no secret about it. For us it is very important because, as (with the) Canadians, I think most of the Russians are crazy about hockey.”

How important is a hockey gold medal to Russia?

“It means gold only costs $50 billion,” said Ovechkin, a forward for the Washington Capitals, referring to the record price tag for the entire Winter Games.

Dan Bylsma, the U.S. team’s coach and head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, said Malkin, one of his star players in Pittsburgh, “stopped talking to me a couple of days ago.”

Pavel Datsuyk, a Russia’s team captain and forward for the Detroit Red Wings forward, missed practice Monday because of an undisclosed lower body injury. When asked about it, Datsyuk replied “What injury?”

The U.S. team faces pressure, too, though much of it self-imposed. While its reach and impact are growing, hockey isn’t the national pastime that it is in Russia and Canada.

Still, the U.S. players hunger for gold and still remember the sting of losing the championship game at the 2010 Vancouver Games on a goal by Pittsburgh Penguins forward Sidney Crosby in overtime.

“There’s definitely that hunger, U.S. team captain Zach Parise, a forward for the Minnesota Wild, said of the opportunity to avenge the loss in Vancouver. “It was a special thing, but it was tough. It was a tough way for us to finish.”

Dustin Brown, a Los Angeles Kings forward and another returnee from the 2010 team said “I remember how it felt after Vancouver and it is one of those things I will keep in the back of my mind this time.”

Like Russia, the Canada’s hockey team has the weight of a country on its shoulders. Canada is the reigning Olympic champion, but hockey hasn’t been kind to the Great White North lately.

Canada’s Under 20 junior team failed to medal at the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Junior World Championship in Malmo, Sweden last month; a men’s national team that included several NHL players finished fourth last May at the IIHF world championship in Helsinki; the Canadian women’s team lost the four straight pre-Olympics matches to the U.S. women in a series of friendlies that ended last December in an on-ice brawl in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

In another blow to Canada’s hockey mojo, the IIHF recently placed its men’s fifth in the organization’s pre-Olympic rankings. Sweden is first followed by Finland, Russia, and the Czech Republic. The U.S. ranked sixth.

A recent poll provided to the Canadian Press found that 73 percent of Canadians believe that a gold medal in men’s hockey is “important in determining the success of the Games.”

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE) “I think that’s unfair to the rest of the Canadian Olympic team,” said Steve Yzerman, Team Canada’s general manager, GM for the Tampa Bay Lightning, and a former Olympian. “We can only do our part, and hopefully we do bring home a gold medal. “I think it’s unfair that we detract from any of their accomplishments, regardless of what happens with our hockey team.”

Don Cherry, the colorfully-dressed, bombastic analyst for CBC’s “Hockey Night in Canada,” begs to differ.

“We expect gold. Silver’s no good,” Cherry said. “That’s why when we lose the gold, we get bronze because out heart’s aren’t in it. We don’t get gold, everybody knows, it’s a disaster.”

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