How did Russia lose its hockey mojo? Sochi Olympics a massive test.
The Russians have not won an Olympic gold in men's hockey since 1992, and they've looked worse and worse every Winter Games. The pressure is immense to turn it around in Sochi.
The "old Russia," as we know, was pretty good at the whole hockey thing at the Olympics. It took miracles on ice to beat them.
The current Russia, not so much.
This is how the Russians have done since National Hockey League players were allowed in the Winter Olympics: second (1998), third (2002), fourth (2006), and sixth (2010). If the Russians finish seventh here, Putin will reportedly demand that the entire Olympics be replayed again until the "right" result is achieved. Russian TV might try to splice in shots from the 1968 gold medal ceremony in Grenoble, though the CCCP on the sweaters could be a bit of a giveaway.
The fact is that we are where we were four years ago – in a hockey-mad country where most men would gladly exchange every medal won by their country in exchange for a shiny gold one in ice hockey. For many Russians, men's hockey is not in the Sochi Olympics, men's hockey is the Sochi Olympics.
Yet unlike four years ago in Vancouver, the host nation does not have a recent gold to calm its anxieties. Canada had won gold in Salt Lake in 2002. Russia last won gold when it wasn't even Russia – the Unified Team, a joint team consisting of six of the fifteen former Soviet republics playing under the Olympic flag, won in Albertville in 1992. The Russian tricolor has never been hoisted to the top spot during a hockey medal ceremony at the Winter Games.
And that points directly to the core of the Russian hockey crisis.
Russia is not the Soviet Union any more, and that has changed hockey here from top to bottom – from the talent coming out of the country's hockey schools to how the players play on the ice. Since Vancouver, it has become clear to the Russians that they need to rebuild their hockey program in the new, wild, Western world they have entered. But whether they have managed it in time for Sochi – or whether playing at home can lift the team above its limitations – are the questions to be answered in the next 11 days.
"The general excitement is making everyone optimistic," says Eduard Sorokin, an independent sports correspondent in Moscow. "It seems that the wave of overwhelming patriotism can create a positive result by itself. Before the [Sochi] Olympic Games, third place would have been considered a good result. But now, swept up in the wave of patriotism, they've begun to talk about gold."
"If it happens, it will be like a national holiday," he says. "It is the most cherished dream of Putin, all sport officials. It will justify any expenses, any robbery – if we win in hockey."
Thursday's opening preliminary-round game against Slovenia will do little to dampen that optimism. Russia turned on the style in the third period to win, 5-2.
But beneath the final score of a game against a sub-par team, the same flaws that have begun to plague Russian hockey were still evident: an overreliance on the top two forward lines, a tendency to make three passes when one would suffice, a desire to unnecessarily spin and pirouette as if auditioning for the Bolshoi, a lack of defensive discipline and intensity.
At one point, Slovenian forward Žiga Jeglič had the puck in the slot, and no Russian was within 10 feet of him. That's called target practice. He scored.
It was the first game, and teams often need a game or two to gel at the Olympics. But it was a warning. Against better teams, the Russians won't survive such mistakes. On Saturday, they play the USA, who beat a decent Slovakia team, 7-1.
Canada did not end its 50-year gold medal drought at the 2002 Olympics by being the flashiest team, though it often was. Instead, it found a way to play Stanley Cup hockey in February. It was not an all-star team, per se. It was a team that had the best scorers and grinders and defensive specialists in perfect balance. It was, in short, a team, and if it had to play ugly hockey at times to win, it would buckle up its chin strap and get to it.
Russia has not done that since the Soviet echo died out. "Canada is a team, Sweden is a team," says Georgy Makovetsky, a journalist for the Russian newspaper Izvestia. He does not include Russia in that list yet.
That makes the contrast between Soviet hockey and Russian hockey stark. There's a reason the Soviets were called the Big Red Machine. The rink was not a palette for the players to express their hockey artistry, though many were more than capable of it. It was a machine designed only to win. And win it did under legendary coach Viktor Tikhonov.
"He was a tyrant," says NBC hockey analyst Mike Milbury. "He controlled not only his players' hockey lives, but their lives off the ice, too."
On the ice, that took form in an athletic communism that would have made Lenin proud.
Milbury quotes former Russian national team defender Sergei Gonchar, saying: "It used to be the player with the puck was the least important person. The rest of the team played to present themselves to him."
"We seemed to have lost that," Milbury recalls him saying.
Now, it seems, the Russian player with the puck is the one in the spotlight. Without the tyranny of a centralized sporting machine, players have become millionaires many times over and are answerable to no one, Izvestia's Makovetsky says.
He cites Russian forward Ilya Kovalchuk, who left the New Jersey Devils to play in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League. Makovetsky worries the move was so he could live a more comfortable life, paying fewer taxes and getting more perks.
At the same time, the hockey schools that once fueled the Soviet team "are not working," he says.
These are the challenges that coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov faces as he tries to patch together a gold-medal contender in Sochi.
"The current Russian hockey team has been formed of players from the Kontinental Hockey League and National Hockey League just a couple of days before the beginning of the hockey tournament, and that makes the situation difficult," says Sorokin, the independent sports correspondent. "The question is whether they will be able to use the days left just to find elementary teamwork."
That is a question now two decades in the making. And all Russia, it seems, is riding on the answer.