Russia a team united
SOCHI, Russia -- You wonder what all of this means to the Russian hockey players, to Russians in general. What it would mean to win their first Olympic gold since 1992, to win it on home soil, to recapture hockey glory that used to be a kind of birthright for this nation.
And maybe this, in some ways, answers that question.
The entire Russian team took part in a press conference in the Pushkin Hall on Tuesday with a crowd of 463 jammed into a sprawling auditorium in the main press center. The crowd burst into applause when the team arrived and again when the players left, many rushing to the front to take pictures of the team and coaching staff.There was also a spontaneous round of applause when head of Russian hockey and Hall of Fame netminder Vladislav Tretiak referenced the 1984 gold medal won by the Russians four years after being upset by the Americans in Lake Placid at the so-called Miracle on Ice Olympics.
The event on Tuesday was recorded by 48 television cameras and 23 still photographers.
Normally the press briefings include coaches and senior managers and maybe a couple of players. But the fact that the entire Russian team was on display was more than a little symbolic in a nation mad for hockey success.
"I think all of us here together decided to appear at this press conference as a team because we want to show we are one team," Tretiak said. "It is a team sport and it is up to the entire team to get the gold; that is why we are here together to talk to you.
"We know that we enjoy a lot of support here, but we also know that we have a lot of responsibility, a lot to answer for. But sport is sport, our team is going to try to show our best game, and we will do our best. How we perform we will have to see. We will see the results later, but everyone on the team understands what they are expected to do.
"Let me say this again: We understand what we have to do, and we will fight for the results in every match."
If the press-conference spectacle spoke volumes about the burden of expectation this Russian team bears, then this spoke volumes about how the players themselves are feeling: Sergei Bobrovsky, the defending Vezina Trophy winner, was asked if he could imagine what it would be like to win a gold in the Olympic tournament that begins here Wednesday.
He paused, a grin spreading across his face as he shook his head.
"No. Actually, no," the Columbus Blue Jackets netminder admitted.
"It's going to be huge. Huge."
The Olympic dream?
"Of course," Bobrovsky said. "I think it's lots of sport men's dream about play in front of your people, your country. It's great; it's a great experience."Viktor Tikhonov's grandfather, after whom he was named, is considered one of the great hockey minds of all time and led Russia to Olympic gold three times (and added a silver). Tikhonov, a former first-round draft pick of the Phoenix Coyotes, grew up in the United States but has been playing in his familial homeland in the Kontinental Hockey League the past three seasons.
He is effusive in discussing the opportunities that lie ahead for this Russian team in the coming days.
"It's tons and tons of butterflies," Tikhonov said. "I'll tell you that. Ever since the opening [ceremonies], just been super, super excited for it to all start. Now that NHL guys are here, it's just amazing seeing so many superstars in one room."
Has he been asked about his iconic grandfather a few times in recent days?
Tikhonov laughed. A few.
Understandable, though, given the connection to past glories, glories that have eluded the Russians in best-on-best tournaments for many years now.
"Obviously, it's always been a dream," Tikhonov said. "The fact that's kind of coincidentally at home kind of just adds to that awesome factor. I don't know how else to explain it. Ever since I was a kid, that's what you think about you always want -- to win the Stanley Cup and the Olympic gold. So hopefully we can pull it off."
Ilya Kovalchuk walked away from a monster NHL contract with the New Jersey Devils to return home and play in the KHL before the start of the current season. If Alex Ovechkin is the face of Russian hockey in North America, Kovalchuk is a kind of a hockey prodigal son returning to his homeland at the peak of his powers.
"It's great," Kovalchuk said of his return to his roots. "You know, I'm very excited. I feel good. My family loves it; my mom is very often at the games. She plays with my kids, so it's good."
If he has been embraced by fans because of his decision, Kovalchuk said he's not aware of it, and it certainly wasn't a motivation for returning just as the Olympics were about to come to Russia.
"I don't know," he said. "When I was leaving, I don't think about that. I had a great 11 years in the NHL, and I appreciate everything that they've done for me. Right now it's a new page, new challenges for me. I feel like I'm home -- that's the most important thing."
"No. It wasn't a decision [made] just in one day or two days," he added. "I was thinking about it. I think I made the right decision."
Regardless of where he plies his trade, Kovalchuk will carry a heavy burden as one of the team's biggest talents. Along with Ovechkin, captain Pavel Datsyuk and Evgeni Malkin, Kovalchuk will need to produce offensively for a team that on paper looks to be vulnerable defensively.
"Everybody believes we can do [it] and we believe in ourselves too," Kovalchuk said. If the overriding question for the Russians is, "What would it mean," Ovechkin joked about what it would cost.
"A gold is going to cost $50 billion, probably," the Washington captain quipped, a reference to the estimated cost of hosting the Sochi Olympic Games.
If the tournament is vitally important to the nation's sporting psyche, it is likewise an important moment for Ovechkin, who is running away with the NHL's goal-scoring race and coming off his third Hart Trophy as most valuable player. But he has never achieved the team success that marks all truly great leaders.
This will be Ovechkin's third Olympic tournament, and he is already looking forward to facing firsthand the kind of pressures he saw Canada embrace in Vancouver four years ago in winning gold on home soil.
"I'm pretty sure it's probably going to be my biggest tournament," Ovechkin said. "You can't compare Torino, Vancouver and Sochi. Torino was my first Olympic games. I was 19. Everything was new for me. It was crazy. In Vancouver, we played against Canada, and that was a crazy moment.
"Right now, I play for my country at home, and this is another crazy moment. I'm pretty sure you can ask any Canadian guy, 'What's the biggest moment for them when they play for national team?' Of course, it's home Olympic games. It's probably biggest moment for me."