Russia’s lofty goal to win gold at home

The last Olympics were an abysmal failure for Team Russia. These Olympics cannot be -- and the pressure of making the home country proud falls most heavily in the man who chose to return.
February 9, 2014, 7:45 AM

SOCHI, Russia — Pressure? What pressure? The first wave of Russian hockey players arrived at the Olympics to a crush of media and a call from one of the country’s largest figures to revive the Big Red Machine.

"They need to play with heart," Vladislav Tretiak told the Olympic News Service. "I want our boys to remember the team of my days … which dominated the hockey world in the 1970s and 1980s. I want this to inspire them to carry the tradition forward."

Accomplishing that lofty goal will require them to start a new tradition: Winning gold. That hasn’t happened since NHLers started coming to the Games, with the last Russian victory in an Olympics coming in 1992 when a unified team (including a player from Lithuania and Ukraine) prevailed in Albertville, France.

Try as they might, there has been no escaping the attention in the leadup to Sochi for the current Russian stars. Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexander Radulov and the other seven KHL-based players spent the last week training privately in Kazan — more than 2,000 kilometres northeast of here. Those men elected to skip Friday’s opening ceremony and arrived to a wild scene on Saturday night, with Russian media surrounding their bus at the airport in a bid to get them to speak.

The players didn’t break their silence until after a practice at Bolshoy Ice Dome on Sunday morning.

"We weren’t expecting that there would be such a rush of media," explained goaltender Alexander Eremenko. "We’re all shy guys. We haven’t done anything yet to be talking about it."

It is hard to fathom what the scene will be like when captain Pavel Datsyuk, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin arrive along with the other NHL players on Monday. By then, those men will be carrying the weight of an extremely proud hockey nation on their shoulders — although the burden really stretches back to the Vancouver 2010 Games, where they flamed out of the quarterfinals with a 7-3 loss to Canada.

Kovalchuk has more invested in the team’s success than anyone else on the roster after leaving the NHL last summer to play for SKA St. Petersburg. That instantly made him the face of the Russian-based KHL, where he has put up good offensive numbers but hasn’t exactly played to rave reviews. A goal-scorer his entire life, the 30-year-old will be counted on to produce in his fourth trip to the Games.

"It’s good to be back home, especially in the Olympic period," said Kovalchuk. "We play at home with a lot of pressure, but it’s great pressure."

That certainly proved to be the case for Team Canada four years ago. There was a lot of strain on everyone during that memorable tournament in Vancouver — executive director Steve Yzerman admitted afterwards that there was more relief than excitement when they won — but the sense of duty and responsibility to perform also proved to be a powerful motivator.

Nobody wants to disappoint on a stage like this one. This is a tremendously proud time for the Russian people — "It inspires us enormously to be here," said forward Ilya Nikulin — and success for the men’s hockey team would be the ultimate expression of that pride.

It has been that way dating back to the golden era that Tretiak referenced. He played goal during the 1972 Summit Series against Canada and, from an international perspective, this is the most significant hockey event to be played on Russian soil since then. Imagine if the home team actually prevailed under those circumstances?

Those are the thoughts and feelings the players will be wrestling with over the next two weeks. That is why the Russian players are wise to focus on their spirit — in Kovalchuk’s words — because managing the emotions will be just as important as executing the power play. Consider also the tremendous demands the Russian players will face from family, friends, fans and media.

Even for big stars like Ovechkin and Kovalchuk, this promises to be an experience unlike any other. "On one hand, it’s fantastic," said Eremenko. "But on the other, so much attention. We still can’t get used to it."

That is what the KHL-based Russians were trying to avoid by retreating to Kazan after their club schedule was halted. Coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov kept the practices closed to the media and the players were reluctant to even discuss what they did there.

"There was aerobic exercise," said Eremenko. "We danced a little."

The task now is to get the Russian people dancing right along with them. Hockey fans in this country have a wonderful tradition of chanting "Shaybu! Shaybu!" during games — a demand, loosely translated, to "score a goal." Over the next two weeks, the people will be demanding a gold as well.

As hard as it is to imagine, the Olympic final will be played here in just 14 days. Now that the long wait for these Games is finally over, the Russians just hope they’ll still have a game to play when Feb. 23 arrives.

"Russia against anybody," said forward Viktor Tikhonov. "It doesn’t matter."

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