Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Warm Up The Gulag

In the first match-up of hockey superpowers at the Sochi Olympics, Russia met Finland today. There was an immense amount of pressure on Russia to do well in the men's hockey tournament with their star-studded lineup and the games being on Russian soil, so it was do-or-die for the Russians based on expectations. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin had been preaching the "gold-or-else" mantra that seemed to follow this team. Like Canada in Vancouver during the 2010 Winter Olympics, no other medal would do. The game between the Finns and Russians would send one team into the medal round while the loser would be sent home empty-handed.

There will be no celebrating in Sochi or Moscow tonight. There will be no gold, silver, bronze, frankincense, myrrh, or anything else brought to Russia regarding the men's hockey tournament. Russia, for all of it's talented stars, lost to Finland by a 3-1 score today. Malkin, Ovechkin, Datsyuk, Kovalchuk, Radulov, and the rest of the highly-touted team will return to their respective clubs with nothing to show for the biggest hockey tournament held in Russia since the 1972 Summit Series. Russia lost to Finland today to end their tournament.


There have been rumours swirling about the NHL-KHL rift in the dressing room for the Russians. There were reports that the KHL had had a heavy influence over the running of this Russian team in order to see if they could influence players to come to the KHL. There were many questions about the personnel and strategies used by Russian head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov when it came to rolling lines. There were questions as to why Semyon Varlamov was starting more games than the reigning Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky. In short, it seemed that the Russian "Dream Team" was nothing more than a pipe dream as they iced a team that looked more comfortable just attending the Olympics than competing in them.

The one player who I thought deserved a better fate after all he's done in his career was Pavel Datsyuk. "Inside I feel absolutely empty," Datsyuk told reporters through an interpreter. "Disappointed we lost with home advantage and we can't score today. Hard to win if you're not scoring."

Datsyuk was the best player each and every time that Russia took to the ice. Along with his KHL linemates in Ilya Kovalchuk and Alex Radulov, Datsyuk's line was Russia's best in the tournament without question. His two goals and four assists tied his for the team lead with linemate Radulov, and it appeared he was always was creating when on the ice. If anyone deserved better results, it was Datsyuk in my eyes. However, hockey is a team game and Datsyuk's team is going home empty-handed.

Ovechkin? One goal in the opening game. Malkin? Ditto for him. Linemate Alexander Popov - who was somehow paired with these two stars while Alexei Tereshenko, Valeri Nichushkin, and Alexander Semin all played third- and fourth-line roles - recorded zero points. Russia's top line had two goals against Slovenia and was never heard from again in their five games. Ovechkin, who leads the NHL in goals with 40, scored once. Something just wasn't right with this team.

While I joked at the start about the gulag, I'm quite certain that Zinetula Bilyaletdinov won't be coaching Russia in the future. Alexei Kasatonov, the former member of the Big Red Machine and current Russian general manager, will probably be questioned over this failure to win gold, and he may be removed from that position with the Russian loss. In short, the management and coaching staff will pay the price for Russia's failure.

Concentration camps will remain closed, thankfully, but work will need to be done in Russian hockey. No one, from Vladimir Putin down to every Russian fan, will be happy with this result, and there will certainly be a review of the entire system after today's crushing loss.

This team was no Big Red Machine despite the pre-tournament rumblings about how great they were. They more closely resembled the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz. For all his strength, the one thing he lacked was a heart.

Sounds like the Russian men's Olympic hockey team, doesn't it?

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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