Russian ice hockey player Alexei Morozov was flag bearer for his country at the opening ceremony of the Vancouver Winter Olympics
As the home team, Canada's Olympians have an extra perk to do well in Vancouver. Canada is particularly interested in its highly regarded men's and women's ice hockey teams. In overall terms of viewing as a fan and active participation, ice hockey is considered the most popular sport in that country.
When compared to their Canadian rival, the talented Russian men's ice hockey team is arguably more under the gun to win the Olympic ice hockey tournament. Canada is projected to win more medals than Russia. With this in mind, Canada will likely have a greater number of other Olympic achievements to cherish than Russia.
Canada's Sidney Crosby and Russia's Alexander Ovechkin are ice hockey's two biggest stars. In last year's National Hockey League (NHL) Stanley Cup playoffs, Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins bested Ovechkin's Washington Capitals in a seven game semi-final series. Russia won the last two men's International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championships. Although significant, the IIHF World Championship tournaments do not have as high a stature as the Olympics. The next Winter Olympics will be in Sochi, Russia. These factors and some others put added spotlight on the Russian Olympic men's ice hockey team.
The Canadian men's ice hockey team won the gold medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. On the other hand, since the Soviet breakup, the Russian ice hockey team participating as Russia has not won an Olympic gold medal.
Canadian coach Mike Babcock addressing Canadian and Russian hockey teams after a mutual practice in Vancouver (Winter Olympics 2010)
In the 1992 Winter and Summer Olympics, post-Soviet Russia participated as the "Unified Team," in an agreement with the International Olympic Committee and the other republics of the former Soviet Union, minus Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia - which in 1992 and thereafter participated in the Olympics under their own delegations. Back then, the Olympic gold medal winning Unified Team's ice hockey squad was overwhelmingly Russian. This Russian presence was also evident with Soviet national ice hockey teams as well (something that was not always as evident in some other sports like basketball, gymnastics and soccer).
Over the years, there have been some good regional ice hockey rivalries which include Finland-Sweden, Czech Republic-Slovakia and Canada-United States. Many fans of any one of the top non-Russian ice hockey nations find a victory over Russia as the most satisfying. This feeling is somewhat similar to how a good number of baseball fans feel whenever the New York Yankees lose. Despite not having won an Olympic gold medal as Russia, post-Soviet Russian national ice hockey teams have been perennial contenders; in addition to being viewed as the inheritor of the dominant Soviet ice hockey program. Legendary Soviet era goalie Vladislav Tretiak is the general manager of the 2010 Russian men's Olympic ice hockey team. Its coach is Vyacheslav Bykov, who played for the 1988 Soviet and 1992 Unified Team gold medal winners.
Concerning the present, the ice hockey commentariat cautiously notes that it is quite possible for a team other than Canada or Russia to be the gold medal winner in Vancouver. This view recognizes the ability of some of the other teams in the tournament and the nature of the sport in question. Ice hockey games periodically result in the higher ranked team losing, due to quirky occurrences like an odd bounce of the puck off of an unintended deflection and a not so highly rated goalie suddenly stopping every shot. In a short tournament like the Olympics, the likelihood for an upset becomes even greater.
The 1980 "Miracle on Ice," was the United States' dramatic upset win over the Soviet Union in a semi-final game at the Lake Placid Olympics. This shocker includes the realization that if the two same teams played a best two out of three games or more series, the Soviets would be a very sure bet to come out on top. Another notable Olympic ice hockey upset was Belarus' victory over Sweden at Salt Lake City in 2002. At Nagano in 1998, the Czech Republic's semi-final and championship final wins against Canada and Russia respectively, were greatly attributed to the performance of the great goaltender Dominik Hasek. Going into that tournament, the Czech team was not favored to win the gold medal. At the same time, they were still regarded as a talented squad, inclusive of Hasek's recognized achievements in the NHL. This background contrasts from the upstart manner of the fore-mentioned 1980 American and 2002 Belarusian teams.
With Gazprom executive Alexander Medvedev as its president, the recently established (in 2008) and primarily Russian based Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) is revealing its presence in Vancouver. Among North American ice hockey punditry, there is the opinion that Russia is imprudently trying to showcase the KHL with its Olympic team selection of nine players from that league, over some quality Russian NHL players who were not selected.
This view might be overlooking some pertinent variables. Since the KHL's inception, the number of Russian NHL players has declined, while Russia has been rated as one of the top two ice hockey powers. KHL players are on the announced rosters of several other Olympic teams competing in Vancouver. They include the top rated teams from the Czech Republic (five KHL players), Slovakia (eight) Finland (four) and Sweden (one), as well as some other squads. Surely, these teams are motivated to do well, rather than potentially risk success by propping the KHL.
At this juncture, it is a mistake to believe that the KHL is about to come close to qualitatively matching the NHL anytime soon. Simultaneously, some could be downplaying the actual level of the KHL. (These thoughts are expressed by someone who is an admirer of newly created sports leagues, which came about during the existence of established enterprises like the NHL, National Football League and National Basketball Association. The former grouping includes the now defunct American Basketball Association, American Football League and World Hockey Association. These leagues had a positive impact on the established leagues which absorbed some of their teams. With reasoned planning, the European based KHL has the potential to steadily improve and exist for a long time.)
The Olympic omission of Alexander Frolov of the NHL's Los Angeles Kings is noteworthy. While playing for Russia in the 2006 Winter Olympics, Frolov injured himself and proceeded to miss a number of games for the Kings. Perhaps there was a mutually undisclosed agreement to not have him play in this year's Olympics. NHL coaches and general managers are concerned about the chance of their players getting injured in Olympic competition.
Note that Alexei Yashin was not selected on the 2010 Russian Olympic roster. A former NHL all star, he is among the top scorers in the KHL this season. Maxim Sushinsky, Nikita Filatov, Nikolai Zherdev and Sergei Zubov are the other notable Russian KHL Olympic omissions. (Zubov bitterly turned down an offer to play as a substitute. His lone Olympic appearance was in 1992. He was known to have turned down invitations to play in other Olympiads.)
Like other team sports, ice hockey is a game that features different facets, including the value of having lessor known players with special skills. Personal chemistry can be another issue. Should Russia not win the Olympic ice hockey gold medal, there will undoubtedly be some second guessing of its roster selection.
The Russian defensemen are thought to be weak in comparison to their Canadian counterparts. Defense includes good goaltending and forwards who effectively play well on offense and defense. On paper, no one is doubting Russia's talent at the forward and goalie positions.
The Olympic men's ice hockey tournament runs from February 16 through the 28. Further information and commentary about Russian ice hockey related matters is provided in the December 17, 2007 Russia Blog article "Missives About Russian Ice Hockey."
Michael Averko is a New York based independent foreign policy analyst and media critic.