Once a hockey powerhouse, Russia now risks dropping out of the top tier unless it can win a major tournament—and soon

The Kozel beer mugs and hamburger sliders are on full display, but the bags and boxes make it hard to know precisely what other gifts are on offer.

A hint might be found in the fact that Mats Naslund has travelled from the visitors’ dressing room down the hall to briefly interrupt Slava Fetisov from his press duties so the latter can put his signature on a bottle that almost certainly doesn’t contain water.

After receiving an appreciative nod from the Swede, Fetisov returns to his interaction with the gaggle of reporters who’ve flocked to him. It’s an off-day in Moscow at the 2016 World Championship, but fans have still been treated to some hockey in the form of an old-timers game, and they took great delight in watching Fetisov and his countrymen defeat a team of international stars.

One of the heartiest roars of the night occurred when Fetisov, a hard-rock defenceman in his day, deftly deked goalie Ari Sulander on the type of penalty shot they award for a soft trip in these lighthearted contests. Though a language barrier makes it impossible to know, it seems Fetisov’s Russian discussion after the game carries a little more weight than what happened on the ice.

There’s been a palpable tension in the city as Team Russia, with a semifinal match set for the following day, attempts to win a tournament every European country takes very seriously, especially when hosting.

The Russians even altered the Kontinental Hockey League schedule so the season would end earlier and the national team would have more time to prepare. Though Fetisov had no direct hand in putting the squad together, he’s one of a few people whose names are inexorably linked to hockey in Russia.

In 2002, he began a six-year stint as President Vladimir Putin’s minister of sport, and when the conversation flips to English, Fetisov speaks about the challenges he faced in that role after the nation’s most cherished game fell into disrepair following the crumbling of Communism.

“The system was destroyed,” he says. “The people around the hockey program was f–kin’ crooks, and it’s not easy to get back on the highest level.”

Push comes to shove
Evgeni Malkin has dazzled on the world stage, but Russia lacks the depth it once had.

Russia’s return to the top of the podium always seems in play thanks to an unbroken line of elite talent.

The country has medalled at the past six World Junior Championships and is home to the game’s uncontested best goal-scorer as well as the NHL’s reigning rookie of the year. But the exploits of Alex Ovechkin, Artemi Panarin and a dozen other dazzling wizards sometimes belie the reality that Russia’s overall talent pool has dried to disconcerting levels, something that’s become unmistakable at events where the planet’s best players gather.

Since NHL Olympic participation began with the 1998 Nagano Games, Russia has just two medals—a silver and a bronze, both won more than a decade ago—to show for its five entries.

Its last appearance featured a humiliating fifth-place finish in front of Putin in Sochi. Eight of the 12 best-on-best hockey tournaments held to this point have been won by Canada, while Russia, the U.S., the Czech Republic and Sweden have each claimed one. The Russian victory, however, technically belongs to the Soviet Union and came 35 years ago at the 1981 Canada Cup.

With the current iteration of that event, the World Cup, set to return this September in Toronto, no group is in more need of a reaffirming win than the sporting sons of Fetisov and Vladislav Tretiak. Russia’s problems might not all be bear-sized, but stickhandling to a better place will take some doing. Until they can, their place in any conversation of hockey’s true upper crust will increasingly be in peril.

It’s never easier to believe in Russian hockey than while being mesmerized watching Panarin play on a line with his former KHL teammates Vadim Shipachyov and Evgenii Dadonov. The trio was a spectacle unto itself at the worlds, finishing 1-2-3 (Shipachyov, Panarin, Dadonov) in scoring.

They had previously skated together with SKA St. Petersburg, and their chemistry not only carried over, it transported people to a different time.

“Like Red Machine play, 20 years ago,” said Washington Capitals centre Evgeny Kuznetsov following Russia’s preliminary-round win over Norway.

Memories of that bygone era would be triggered even without the symphonic music of the World Championship’s best threesome. In and around Moscow’s Ice Palace, monuments to a glorious past are just as prominent as at any nostalgia-soaked Original Six arena.

While some reminders take the form of stoic faces in framed photos, others bear all the subtlety of a slapper to the temple. The pre-game show is a frenzied collage of on-ice images that blast off with an homage to Soviet-era space exploration and keep flipping frenetically until the thunderous moment when the team spills onto the ice flanked by pyrotechnics.

The mood doesn’t dip much after the puck drops, with voracious chants—sometimes prompted by the public-address announcer—of “Ruh-See-Aah! Ruh-See-Aah!” rising regularly.

Between periods, supporters rocking CCCP throwbacks—occasionally with red jeans to match—collect in the corridors, scarf hot dogs and relive every play.

Before and after games, they gather at the nearby Red Machine sports bar, where more montages roll. The career highlights of players from the legendary Alexander Kharlamov right up to Alexander Radulov flash on enormous wall screens, set to crunchy heavy-metal versions of songs like the Beatles’ “Come Together” and Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise.”

A similar passion also surrounded the team that wore the hammer and sickle, even if the decibel level wasn’t quite so deafening.

When Kuznetsov drew a link between Shipachyov’s line and the past, it was a nod to the unified approach that became the Soviet Union’s unique contribution to hockey.

From the time the nation took up the game in the mid 20th century through its splintering in 1991, any authentic fan could set aside partisanship and appreciate Russia’s progressive tactics. If Twitter and modern-day analytics had existed in 1975, there would have been non-stop gushing about the way the Soviets surrendered possession only when all other options were exhausted, a style only recently embraced in most of the world’s best leagues.

“Russia’s problems might not all be bear-sized, but stickhandling to a better place will take some doing.”

Comparing different decades is always a dangerous exercise, but that’s especially true when overlaying present-day Russia onto a communist country that used sport as propaganda for its way of life. In a sense, one has no business being mentioned in the same breath with the other, but any exploration of where the Russians are will invariably lead back to what they once were.

And to put a fine point on how good the Soviets were, consider that had their 1987 Canada Cup team scored an overtime goal in game two of a best-of-three final, it would have beaten a Canadian squad featuring Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier at the heights of their primes, plus Mario Lemieux just as he entered his. If that ’87 Soviet squad showed up this September in Canada, it would be no worse than co-favourites.

As it stands, Russia is firmly in dark-horse territory.

“It’s not like it used to be,” says a 1980s Soviet national team player who still works in hockey, “a whole gym [full of players], you [could] say, ‘Wow, what a team.’”

Wade into the reasons for that and you wind up in territory that’s a bit complicated.

Life under Soviet rule was horrendous for huge swaths of people, but even those who had it relatively good were in a daily grind, including the country’s top hockey players. That bred a mentality the former national-team player claims you won’t find as much today in Russia, which, for all its enormous problems, still features more flush families than the past.

“When you have rich parents, they take care of you,” says the player. “My parents were poor, so I don’t have other choices. If I don’t play hockey, my life, I don’t know what it’s going to be.”

Combine that in-the-bone hunger with a government that provided equipment to sports clubs and a large number of factories that sponsored junior teams, and you’ve got a player pipeline flowing.

There was also a greater concentration of talent because, in the late 1980s, the top Soviet league comprised 12 clubs. Last year, the KHL iced 28 squads (it will add another in Beijing this coming season) after starting out with 18 when it launched in 2008. Even accounting for an influx of international talent—and don’t forget, about 30 Russians come over to play in the NHL—that’s stretching things pretty thin.

For context, consider that the NHL had 21 clubs during the 1980s. If it grew at the same rate, there would now be about 50 teams on the circuit and endless howls that a third of the players were nothing more than glorified American Hockey Leaguers.

“When I played, around me were great players,” says the former skater. “You learn from them. Now [there are] many players, but they’re not good ones. So you don’t learn from them.”

That dynamic has gouged one position in particular. The best defenceman on Russia’s World Cup team, Andrei Markov, wouldn’t come within an outlet pass of cracking the roster of teams like Canada and Sweden.

While it’s possible Russia is simply at the end of a natural down cycle—a pair of really good rearguards, Ivan Provorov and Mikhail Sergachev, were top-10 NHL picks the past two Junes—Dave King, who coached Lokomotiv Yaroslavl from 2013 to 2015, believes it traces back to the absence of a specific type of player.

“The top attackers leave the Russian league [and] go to play in the NHL,” says King, who coached Canada’s national team from 1983 to 1992 and also spent a year guiding Metallurg Magnitogorsk in 2006–07. “That affects the level of play of the defencemen. You’re not tested as much; you’re not tested as much in practice, you’re not tested as much in games.”

As the greatest blueliner Russia has ever produced and the captain of the national team for most of the ’80s, Fetisov had the knowledge and resolve required for the job when he became minister of sport.

Having a hockey aficionado for a leader—Putin is an occasional participant in the Night Hockey League, made up of amateur teams from around the country, about 100 of which end up in Sochi for a year-end championship—surely helped grease the skids when it came to raising funds. Fetisov says 300 indoor rinks have been built since the start of his tenure, and the signature item in his portfolio is the creation of the KHL.

Subsequent seasons have seen the advent of a junior league, the MHL, and an attempt to roughly create a version of the AHL with the developmental VHL. Fetisov, who became a senator in 2008, steadfastly claims Russia has invested more in hockey than any other country in the past 15 years.

“That indicates one thing” King says. “They’re concerned.”

A former Detroit Red Wing and New Jersey Devil, the 58-year-old Fetisov is still dripping with sweat while speaking after the legends game.

In his immediate vicinity, other megastars—Sergei Fedorov, Pavel Bure, Alex Mogilny—are also holding court. While Fetisov’s press responsibilities have allowed him to remove nothing more than the top layer of his equipment, his neighbour, Valeri Kamensky, who won Olympic gold with the Soviet Union in 1988, is fastening his watch, completing the dapper look of a 50-year-old man who could leave the room and walk right onto a billboard.

Alexei Kasatonov may not cut the same sleek figure as Kamensky, but it’s still impossible to see him around Fetisov and not think about the incredible defence tandem the two once formed. The collection of talent in and around the room is staggering, and with many of those men having stayed involved in the game during their post-playing days—Fedorov is GM of CSKA Moscow; Mogilny is trying to get more covered rinks built around his home in the poorer, eastern part of the country—it’s easy to hold out hope for the future.

“We’ve just got to keep believing in [our] nature and the culture,” says Mogilny, standing a few feet from the ice surface where he once again formed a line with Fedorov and Bure. “We’ve always been strong spiritually, always been playing for each other. I don’t see any problem with Russian hockey; everything’s going in the right direction.”

Though Fetisov seems to believe that, too, he acknowledges the bumps. In particular, he expected the establishment of the KHL would have done more to push things forward by now.

“We still cannot get on the same page with all these parts of the hockey program,” he says.

The search for synchronicity also has a lot to do with Tretiak, the legendary goalie.

As president of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, Tretiak’s tasks include figuring out how to keep young talent in the country as long as possible and overseeing the construction of national teams that some accuse of giving preferential treatment to KHLers for the purpose of glorifying the domestic league.

One day before Fetisov and Co. were feted on the ice, Tretiak was re-elected to another four-year term on the IIHF council. Voting occurred behind closed doors at the Radisson Royal Hotel Moscow, and when the session let out, Tretiak was bombarded from all sides.

After dealing with a barrage of microphones, he was swarmed by a group of volunteers all clad in the distinct yellow T-shirt of tournament sponsor Raiffeisen International. If they’d all been wearing bike helmets, you’d have sworn a bunch of Tour de France winners had cycled into town for a photo with the Hockey Hall of Famer.

The English interview Tretiak conducted was stunted not only because it was done through a translator, but also because people from places like Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan couldn’t get enough of him, pulling him away to joyously inform him of which position they used to play on the ice.

While Tretiak’s smile might not quite match that of his fawning admirers, he’s still got one of the best grins going in a land where they can sometimes be scarce. It came out while he discussed the thrill of winning the 1981 Canada Cup and didn’t disappear completely when he talked about the tough economic landscape in Russia that would seem to make establishing further infrastructure a challenge (Tretiak says the government is committed to building another round of rinks after 2018), or how sport schools are trying to get more kids interested in playing defence.

Then again, difficult conditions are nothing new for a 64-year-old who certainly would have been an NHL star had he not been born in 1952 under Communist rule.

“We never had easy wins,” Tretiak says, “not in the Soviet era, not now.”

Brawn drain
The line of Vadim Shipachyov, Evgenii Dadonov, and Artemi Panarin were the top scorers at the 2016 World Championships

Even if the depth doesn’t soon improve, victories might be more obtainable with some changes to the way lineups are deployed.

The critique of Russian coaches for some time now is that they’re slow to make in-game adjustments and a little too stuck on simply rolling lines. If the bench does get shortened, it tends to be senior players who benefit.

When Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock passed through the press room at the worlds, he soon found himself answering questions about 24-year-old blueliner Nikita Zaitsev, who was signed shortly before the tournament by the Leafs.

Asked how well he expected Zaitsev to do in the NHL given that he was being used as a third-pair defenceman at the tournament, the man who will coach Canada’s entry at the World Cup laid it bare.

“The Russian coach plays the old players, that’s what they do,” he said. “I play the best players.”

Suggesting there’s no new blood among Russia’s coaching ranks would, of course, be a mistake.

Metallurg Magnitogorsk replaced 66-year-old Canadian coach Mike Keenan with then-40-year-old Russian Ilja Vorobiev early last season, then went on to claim the Gagarin Cup.

While there’s by no means a revolution going on, some next-generation Russians—1991 Leafs draft pick Alexei Kudashov in Yaroslavl is another—are popping up behind KHL benches. (This is also because there’s been a movement to ensure the KHL’s 22 Russia-based teams have Russian coaches.)

Beyond being open to fresher techniques, some believe the communication skills of these younger men far exceed those of their predecessors, who were reared in a time when the coach was God.

“They’re Russian coaches, not Soviet coaches,” says King. “They’ve played in North America, they’ve seen our preparation and they like it.”

Regardless of who coaches the Russians at world events—in September, it will be Oleg Znarok, 53, the same man who guided them at the worlds—an intervention with the team’s top stars may be required.

The ferocity with which fans back the national team is matched by how desperately the players want to return glory to the homeland.

When Evgeni Malkin emphatically celebrated 2014 World Championship gold (the Russians also won the 2012 tourney), some tone-deaf North Americans suggested he seemed awful happy for a lead horse on an NHL team that continuously fell short of Stanley Cup aspirations.

Last May, after Malkin’s Penguins defeated Ovechkin’s Capitals in what surely had to be the most crushing loss of Ovie’s pro career, the latter barely had his skates off before he was boarding a plane home for the worlds.

Question priorities all you want, but there’s something endearing about the way these deeply invested players rush to wear their country’s colours. The problems occur when the drive to change the storyline manifests in a counterproductive do-it-yourself approach.

One-man missions from Ovechkin and Malkin have been far too common at past Olympics and actually do more to torpedo Russia’s chances than aid them. Expecting the current Russian team to play like the version from 30 years ago—one which essentially worked together throughout a whole season—is no less a fool’s errand than asking the 2016–17 Philadelphia Flyers to play like the Broad Street Bullies.

Still, the Russians have looked particularly disjointed in the past two Olympics, and must find some element of that old cohesion if they’re to prove doubters wrong at the World Cup. 

When a gold medal stopped being a possibility at this World Championship, the Russians made sure to send their supporters home with a win, pumping Team USA 7–2 in the third-place game.

After the contest, Znarok and his coaching staff engaged in a group hug so tepid they looked like teenage brothers who had been ordered to like each other by their mom.

The players, meanwhile, seemed to wear their bronze medals heavily as they shuffled past the media. Ovechkin spoke briefly in English about an obligation to win for family, friends and fans. It’s hard to imagine anyone was appeased.

“Hockey is the No. 1 sport in the country and we need the Olympic gold or World Cup,” says Fetisov.

The first part is undeniable—making it all the more painful if the second really is unattainable.

Photo Credits

Paul Drinkwater/Getty
David E. Kluth/Getty
Andre Ringuette/HHOF