Feb 14, 2014, 2:00 PM EST
SOCHI, Russia – A feeling lingers in Russia. In the moments after Russia’s occasionally brilliant and often sloppy 5-2 victory over Slovenia Thursday, reporters peppered coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov with somewhat indignant questions that seemed just a little bit out of step with the moment. After all, this was only the Russians’ first game, a virtual warm-up against an over-matched team, and they did win pretty comfortably …
Bam: Why did the team decline so much in the second period?
Bam: If you could not stop the Slovenian line, all due respect, how can you stop the Americans?
Bam: What are you going to do about the struggling first line?
The Russians have not won a gold medal in hockey in more than 20 years. Officially, they have never even won a gold medal as Russia – their eight Olympic gold medals came under the banner of the Soviet Union and the Unified Team.
And still, a feeling lingers – a feeling that this sport is conclusively Russian, a feeling that the nation’s greatest traits come out in ballet, literature and the hockey rink, a feeling that no many how many years of heartbreak go by, Russia is supposed to win the hockey gold medal.
There was, for all intents and purposes, no ice hockey in Russia before World War II ended. There were a few fledgling efforts to get hockey started, and these generally died before they were born. Instead, there was a popular ice sport called bandy, and it helped define a Russian style of hockey unlike anything that came before.
Bandy is a lot like soccer on ice – the outdoor rink is roughly the same size as a soccer pitch, there are 11 players on each team, the ball used is small and round and so on. Success in bandy depends on speed and precise passing and angles – there is not much player contact – so this was the perspective the Russians brought to ice hockey. The Canadians and Americans would rough you up. The Russians were too refined for that kind of game.
The father of Russian hockey was a fascinating man named Anatoli Tarasov who seems like he was sort of a Bear Bryant type of coach. In 1946, in the wake of more than 20 million Russian deaths during the war, there was an effort to start the first Russian hockey league. Legend goes that the first championship was basically formed based on a couple of old hockey rulebooks.
Tarasov was soon taking the lead in creating a Russian style of hockey. He wanted to make it different from the rough-and-tumble Canadian version of the game – he never did like those physical Canadians.
“A hockey player,” he once said, “must have the wisdom of a chess player, the accuracy of a sniper and the rhythm of a musician.” This was how he saw the game. As art. As expression. And to a startling degree, he was able to bring that vision to the ice. The Soviet team played in its first world championships in 1954 – just eight years after the sport essentially began. And the Soviets won it, going undefeated and crushing Canada 7-2 in the final game.
Tarasov had instilled his hockey vision just that quickly. He was forceful man, exuberant, irrepressible, exceedingly harsh one minute, positively jovial the next. His players loved him and despised him in equal measure (which made him different from the other giant of Russian hockey, Viktor Tikhonov, who was unanimously hated).
His love was for the strategies of the game, the angles, the methods of attack. He wanted his players to know each other so well that they would sense, instinctively, without looking, where everyone stood on the ice. He saw the beautiful geometry of the rink and was thrilled with a pass that seemed headed for nowhere only to have a teammate materialize and take the puck in full stride.
The Russian style of hockey awed the world, much in the same way that the Brazilian style of soccer or the American style of basketball did. The Soviet Union took its sports very seriously during the Cold War. Each gold medal, each world record, each triumph was seen as just that, a triumph of Soviet dominance. It was that way in space. It was that way in the arts. And it was particularly that way in hockey. The Soviets won 22 world championships and eight Olympic gold medals and, even more, won them with style and finesse and a flair that was exclusively Russian.
“When they got it going,” American Mike Eruzione would say, “it wasn’t even hockey. It was like ballet or something. You would be on the ice watching them just like the fans.”
It has been a long time since Russian hockey was like that. The breakup of the Soviet Union badly hurt the team. Between 2002 and 2010, Belarus, Latvia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine each fielded a hockey team that qualified for the Olympics. All four countries were part of the Soviet Union before the break.
And with the addition of NHL players to the Olympics, Russia’s ability to field a brilliantly honed team that can make art – the way Tarasov’s teams did – is basically at zero. Olympic hockey now is more about individual skill and the ability to make quick adjustments than it is about building a finely tuned team that moves as one.
But a feeling lingers in Russia. Also, there’s a tremendous amount of talent on this year’s Russian team. Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk probably go on most fans 10 best players in the world list. And with the advantage of home ice and some goaltending questions among the other favorites, there’s a feeling that this is the year for Russia to capture some old glory.
There really wasn’t a lot to learn from Thursday’s game. The Russians scored two goals in the first five minutes and peppered Slovenia goalie Robert Kristan with shot after shot in the first period. The Russians promptly lost their edge in the second period against a game Slovenian team. They regained their footing in the third.
It was the sort of game, frankly, where you probably saw what you expected to see, and what Russian journalists saw, predictably, was doom. You could almost hear the minds whirring away as they tried to figure out the conversion rate for a 5-2 win over Slovenia against Saturday’s game against the loaded U.S. team.
There’s so much pressure on this Russian hockey team. The Sochi Olympic cost $50 billion and countless hours of frustration to create … and for what? There are other gold medals, of course. Russia won the pair figure skating, for instance – Russia has an unprecedented record in pairs figure skating.
But, in Russia, realistically, there are no other gold medals.
“What would gold mean here?” Ovechkin was asked in what has already become the most talked about exchange of the Olympics. Ovechkin had clearly prepared his answer.
“It means gold only cost $50 billion,” he said and he smiled. It was a joke. Sort of.
Jan 30, 2015, 4:53 PM EST
NBC’s figure skating analysts will be part of Super Bowl XLIX pregame coverage starting at noon ET on Sunday.
Jan 30, 2015, 4:12 PM EST
Rupp will compete in the Armory Track Invitational on NBCSN on Saturday.
Jan 30, 2015, 11:00 AM EST
Tatyana Chernova beat Jessica Ennis at the 2011 World Championships.
Jan 30, 2015, 9:32 AM EST
The ban would rule Jeptoo out of the Rio Olympics.
Jan 29, 2015, 3:41 PM EST
Five women to watch, plus the schedule of events.
Jan 29, 2015, 3:37 PM EST
How to watch Lindsey Vonn, Mikaela Shiffrin and more go for gold in Colorado.
Jan 29, 2015, 9:32 AM EST
The relay will start in May 2016.
Jan 28, 2015, 3:23 PM EST
“I only did it to send a message,” shoveler said.
Jan 28, 2015, 2:02 PM EST
An Olympic legend helped convince him to come back, possibly for the 2018 Olympics.
Jan 27, 2015, 4:14 PM EST
Bowie may try to make the World Championships team in three individual events.
Jan 27, 2015, 2:37 PM EST
Once Usain Bolt’s top rival, the Jamaican is returning from a second major injury in as many years.
Jan 26, 2015, 2:41 PM EST
Armstrong touched on many topics in a BBC interview.
Jan 26, 2015, 10:58 AM EST
Could Hingis return to Olympic tennis, 20 years after her only Olympic appearance?
Jan 26, 2015, 8:41 AM EST
Park’s management agency cited “an illegal injection administered by a local doctor.”
Jan 25, 2015, 9:48 PM EST
Brown is the youngest U.S. men’s champion since 2004.
Jan 25, 2015, 7:35 PM EST
Instead, past Winter X Games champions prevailed in Aspen.
Jan 25, 2015, 3:00 PM EST
Jason Brown tries to become the youngest U.S. men’s champion since 2004.
Jan 25, 2015, 2:00 PM EST
An inside look at the skier’s comeback from two major knee surgeries.
Jan 25, 2015, 7:36 AM EST
Vonn captured victory No. 64 in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
Jan 24, 2015, 11:50 PM EST
Wagner becomes the oldest women’s champion since Michelle Kwan.
- Tara Lipinski, Johnny Weir at Super Bowl Media Day (video) 0
- Galen Rupp talks training with Mo Farah, marathons, weird drug test story 0
- Russian Olympic, World champions get doping bans 0
- Lindsey Vonn, Mikaela Shiffrin lead World Alpine Skiing Championships women’s preview 1
- Rio 2016 Olympic torch relay details announced 0
- K.C. Boutiette returns to World Cup speed skating for first time since 2006 0
- Tori Bowie ‘going after medals’ after breakthrough season 0
- Emotional Bode Miller medals in race that mattered most (61)
- Russian women kissing after relay victory at World Championships causes stir (60)
- IOC drops wrestling from 2020 Olympics (47)
- South Korea filing official complaint over Yuna Kim’s Olympic silver (39)
- Zola Budd, 47, dominates college runners in 5K (33)