Weight of the world

Get ready for more international hockey, as the World Cup is set to return in 2016. (Harry How/Getty)

Five men were the defining players of these Games. They shared golden expectations, but each bore different burdens. Some wilted. Others shone. At the end, one stood alone.

Before arriving at these Games, the world was asking: “Why Sochi?” The answer was apparent as soon as you walked off the plane. This was cool and unique. Sochi felt like a small town. NHL superstars rode around on bicycles, soaked in the gorgeous sunlight and left their winter coats at home. These were the Winter Olympics where the world’s best hockey players went to escape winter. Exiting the Bolshoy Ice Dome, the Black Sea and palm trees on your left and the Caucasus Mountains on your right, it was surreal. It felt like a spring break attended by some of the highest-paid athletes on the planet.

Against that backdrop, isolated and insulated inside an Olympic bubble, a long way from home, the very best of those best players—the 25 men comprising Team Canada—went out and executed in what Jaromir Jagr pronounced the best Olympic hockey environment ever. In Vancouver, Canada’s best won gold for a nation. Here, they won it for themselves. And after the sixth win, they rested.

The room was dark and the music was loud, but this wasn’t a real party. Martin St. Louis quietly ate dinner. Patrick Sharp, Roberto Luongo, Dan Hamhuis and Alex Pietrangelo drank Baltika 7—the only beer available— slowly, savouring it and the win in not quite equal measure. Sidney Crosby looked like himself again, like a weight had been lifted.

Mike Babcock worked the room, quietly thanking each player individually, all of them proudly wearing their medals. Assistant coach Ken Hitchcock made his way through with two pucks from the gold-medal game.

The gathering was much more subdued than those going on back home. Jonathan Toews, wearing a black tuque and looking anything but serious, posed for photos with his parents. Rick Nash relaxed in the corner with his family, saying this might be the most special of all his Canadian golds.

They had all won the chance to play for their country in front of millions watching around the world, a journey they had hoped would end exactly like this, but that easily could have come to a worse conclusion. It went largely unsaid, but most knew that it might be the last time they’d do this; the last time they or any of their NHL peers would sink their teeth into Olympic gold. Like a puck in flight, it really was a beautiful thing.

The Olympic Games are all about expectations—those placed on athletes by their countries and by themselves. For the NHL players on contending teams in Sochi, and not just the Canadians, the expectations could not have been greater. They are the superstars of the Olympics—the richest people, the most recognizable faces. Their every move is tracked, every shift and linemate dissected. Even their bikes became famous. But for five men from five different countries, these Games carried expectations greater than the burdens placed on their teammates or rivals. Some wilted under them, others rose to the occasion, and one cemented his place among the greatest his country has ever produced.

They were just a few words scribbled on the first page of a training diary, but they would bring purpose to a young boy’s life, portend greatness and prove that this all did not happen by accident: “Our goal is the Russian national team.” Valeri Kovalchuk was a great admirer of Soviet hockey legend Valeri Kharlamov, and spent hours showing his son, Ilya, video of the speedy winger. He also kept a training log that laid out specific goals. He was the most powerful figure in his son’s life, the driving force behind one of Russia’s greatest ever players, even if Ilya has starred during an era of national hockey disappointment.

Ilya Kovalchuk was expected to be the great unifier of this Russian national team. The 30-year-old was an established NHL superstar last summer when he convinced the New Jersey Devils to rip up the remaining 11 years of his contract so he could return to his homeland and play for SKA Saint Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League. He was a natural peacemaker between the KHL-based players, who spent a week training in Kazan before arriving in Sochi, and those who arrived on NHL charters after the Olympic flame had already been lit then grumbled about how much ice time the KHLers were getting. He had a foot in both camps, and more invested in seeing the team live up to expectations here than any other player. As much as Alex Ovechkin fronted the Games for Russia, Kovalchuk embodied the country’s spirit. And unlike Ovechkin or Evgeni Malkin, he would not have the chance to escape to North America if Russia disappointed.

That was a matter of personal choice. Kovalchuk, like his father, is very proud of his homeland. When he looked directly at his countrymen in the stands after scoring on a gorgeous fadeaway shot during the memorable eight-round shootout against the U.S., it was a high point of his entire tournament. Thanks to T.J. Oshie’s sense of occasion, that game ended in Russia’s first loss on home ice. The second, 3–1 to Finland in the quarterfinal, let the air out of the Bolshoy Ice Dome—and out of much of Russia.

But Kovalchuk does not look back on his decision to leave North America with any regret. “I feel like I’m home,” he says. “That’s the most important thing.” Valeri, no doubt on his son’s mind throughout the Olympics, died of Parkinson’s disease nine years ago. But Kovalchuk’s three children will grow up as Russians and spend more time with their grandmother, Luba, who often takes the high-speed train three hours from Kovalchuk’s birthplace of Tver to St. Petersburg to watch him play. She chose not to attend the Games, though, because she gets so emotional watching him play she feared her heart might give out.

But Russian fans came from Moscow, from St. Petersburg, from Ust-Kut—a town in Siberia four days from Sochi by train. Russians have a wonderful tradition of writing their cities’ names across the country’s flag to remind the hockey players that they have support from all corners. And although Kovalchuk—who finished with a team-high three goals—bore none of the blame, it’s certain that around Russia, many millions of hearts were broken.

These Games held great promise for Team USA as well, and a measure of that same heartbreak the Russians inflicted on their fans. For the Americans, it wasn’t a matter of defending home ice, but of redeeming a lost opportunity. Four years after earning a silver that was nearly gold in Vancouver, they were considered a pre-tournament favourite, in part because players from that 2010 team, notably Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel, had emerged as shining stars. The expectations were huge and the focus was clear.

But Kane had his own burden to bear, one that seemed to weigh on him all tournament. He would never share the keepsake he brought to Russia to remind him of his best friend: the grandfather he grew up next door to, the one who never missed a Blackhawks game, the one who had died just days before the NHL went on its Olympic hiatus. An emotional Kane flew home to Buffalo to attend the funeral, where his aunt gave each of Donald Kane’s 14 grandchildren something to remember him by. Then Donald’s most famous grandchild went straight to Sochi. He made no secret of the fact that another Olympic medal would be the best way to honour the life of his grandfather.

About an hour before facing Russia in a much-hyped preliminary game, Kane slipped out to the American bench in warm-up clothes and oversized black headphones.  He stared straight ahead, searching for his zone. Few players in the world possess more skill than the 25-year-old winger, so when Kane found himself with a clear breakaway and the game on his stick in overtime a few hours later, the U.S. bench couldn’t help but rise as one. But Kane’s deke of Sergei Bobrovsky failed and U.S. coach Dan Bylsma acknowledged that the miss played into leaving Kane out of the epic “T.J. Sochi” shootout win that followed. It was a defining moment of the tournament, for player and country. “I was hoping he was going to score,” teammate Ryan Suter said post-game. “He’s saving them maybe.”

He wasn’t. After a 7–1 drubbing of Slovakia to earn a bye straight to the semifinal, Kane—and, to be fair, his whole team—was unable to break through in a 1–0 loss to Canada. Then he missed on two penalty shots in his team’s 5–0 loss to Finland in the bronze-medal game.

Normally someone who brightens a room, Kane looked forlorn leaving Sochi. He hadn’t scored a goal and couldn’t put into words how hollow he felt inside. He couldn’t believe he was going home empty-handed after the Americans—with 20 goals in their first four games—had faltered so stunningly when it counted most. “Hopefully,” he said, “that chance comes again and I can redeem myself.”

The man who played arguably the largest role in Kane’s dejection was Teemu Selanne, a near-mythical figure who needed no redemption at all. After leading Finland to bronze against the U.S., he addressed the media with the kind of glee 43-year-old professional athletes don’t often project. “Twenty-six years ago I played my first national team game and I’ve been carrying this jersey with a lot of pride and love,” he said. “Winning this last game like this is a dream come true. What a great ending.”

The truth of the matter is that if Finnish hockey had done a better job of developing players during Selanne’s heyday, there wouldn’t have been room for him in Sochi. But Finland hasn’t produced another singular talent like him, in part because of a philosophy the hockey federation developed called “Everybody Plays.” The main tenet of that program was giving every young hockey player the same chance and not focusing on the special ones. It was abandoned about a decade ago.

There was a period when some in Finland wondered if Selanne was too much of a star—too cheery and outgoing, too un-Finnish—to lead the national team. Selanne first thought he’d hit the end of the road 12 years ago in Salt Lake City, but somehow found himself at his sixth Olympics in Sochi, wearing his country’s “C” for the first time as part ageless wonder, part philosopher king. At this stage in his life, he’s more interested in experiences than he is in records or results. That was the message he tried to drive home to young teammates like Aleksander Barkov—who wasn’t even born when Selanne first competed at the Olympics in 1992 but started the tournament alongside him on Finland’s top line.

And man, did the “Finnish Flash” have fun. Three times in Sochi he set the record for the oldest player ever to score in the men’s tournament while adding to his own Olympic record for points—including the game-winner against Russia and the bronze-medal insurance marker against the U.S. He got in Sidney Crosby’s face for a long chat about diving during a preliminary-round game and went toe-to-toe with Swedish captain Nicklas Kronwall in the semifinals.

In the end, it was Selanne who kept Finland going. Prior to the U.S. game, it was the captain who made an inspirational speech and scored twice in the 5–0 win. For Selanne, it was a refreshing change from life with the Anaheim Ducks, where he now plays a reduced role during what is almost certainly his final season of hockey. “A lot of tough nights in the NHL,” he said, “but this is what kept me going.”

Many years ago, Selanne’s father, Ilmari, recognized something special in his boy. And now, here he was at the end of a very long road, an icon in his country. As part of a fundraising effort, the Finnish players auctioned off the bikes they rode around the athletes village in Sochi. By the time the Finns had clinched bronze, the bidding for Selanne’s bike had reached $11,500—four times any other. “Teemu?” says veteran centre Olli Jokinen. “He’s like God.”

If Selanne was the wise old man of the Olympic tournament, Erik Karlsson was its free spirit. He gets it. He is not the typical Swede—a far cry from just a useful cog in a perfect machine. This was the first Games for the 23-year-old and he wasn’t afraid of making the stage his own. What was merely wondered about Selanne in his possibly un-Finnish youth were the qualities Karlsson actively embraced. He boldly pronounced this tournament as his moment the day before it got underway—he then went out and scored the event’s first goal against the Czech Republic, adding a second for good measure. About an hour after the final buzzer sounded, he stepped up to a microphone and was asked if he would sing some karaoke. He smiled and replied, “F–k no” for all of the world to hear.

That is Karlsson, but that is not all of him. He is the face of the next generation of Swedish hockey, and when it mattered most he showed his intensity, breaking his stick over the boards during a thwarted third-period power play in the final. And throughout the tournament, he carried the puck into the offensive zone—playing Bobby Orr in a manner today’s defencemen are not supposed to attempt. But it was exactly the sort of creativity the depleted Swedish attack sorely needed and a style that five-time Olympian Daniel Alfredsson urged his good buddy to embrace. It worked. Karlsson led Sweden in scoring—tying for the tournament lead—en route to being named the Olympics’ best defenceman and an all star.

Nice, but not enough, as he was first to point out. Because despite the flashy style, endearing honesty and rapidly accumulating personal accolades, winning is all that matters to Karlsson. His steely resolve was never more apparent than in the wake of the gold-medal game. He walked by a group of reporters wearing his just-awarded silver medal and was asked what it meant to him. “You will see when I put it on eBay,” he replied.

And then, of course, there was the man perhaps most responsible for the colour of that medal heading to the online auction block.

Once Ovechkin and Team Russia had flamed out, Canadian captain Sidney Crosby became the most scrutinized athlete at the Games. He couldn’t walk 10 feet without being stopped. He was the star among stars. An entire cottage industry of Olympians taking selfies with him cropped up in the athletes village. “I made a lot of new friends,” he said.

Maybe that’s why he implored his Canadian teammates to take part in the closing ceremony an hour after winning gold. Sid is no longer the Kid—he’s the Man, and has acquired some perspective: There was business to take care of, but being part of the wider Olympics is what makes the experience special.

There was a burden on Crosby’s Games that most will never appreciate. He delivered the overtime winner four years earlier in Vancouver, and expected nothing less from himself in Sochi. He was even better.

When the temperature was turned up, he was far and away the best player. For Canada’s opponents, it was death by a thousand cuts—and No. 87 cut deepest. Crosby is chasing a standard very few athletes have ever realized. He wants to be considered among the best players ever and he has a great sense of history. “Sidney Crosby was dominant,” said Babcock.

As the leader of Team Canada, Crosby absorbed a lot of criticism for failing to score through the first five games. Never mind that he hit a post and saw at least six other quality chances go for naught. Never mind that at times his linemates seemed snakebitten. The one thing the coaching staff noticed was that he never wavered, and Babcock would later credit him for being the difference between winning and losing.

Crosby is an inquisitive soul. He wants to know how things work. How people tick. Every night that Team Canada didn’t play, Crosby made the trip from his room in building five of the athletes village to the fourth floor of building four, where Canadian athletes gathered to watch the Games. He went to hear from other high-level competitors and to soak up these Olympics. Crosby listened more than he talked. “Sid is kind of a quiet guy,” said double silver medal–winning figure skater Patrick Chan.

Canadians still aren’t good enough at recognizing greatness, but Crosby was great in Sochi. That backhand deke on Henrik Lundqvist with everything on the line proved it. He beat the King, and in so doing, cemented his position as the current king of hockey. Crosby may never put up 200 points, or score 50 goals in 50 games. He may never be called the most talented man in hockey history or lead his Pittsburgh Penguins to multiple Stanley Cups in a row. But he has scored immortal goals on the international stage on a level with Henderson in 1972, and in Sochi he led by example, sacrificing his offence for the greater good. His journey on the ice is not nearly done, but with two Olympic golds now in his pocket, he’s assured of a place alongside the greats in Canada’s collective memory.

And in the bowels of the Bolshoy, he seemed himself again.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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