GANGNEUNG, South Korea – Gary Bettman handed Russia a gold medal on a silver platter and now you wonder if it is just going to blow it like always.
Slovakia defeated Russia 3-2 in the men’s hockey opener at these Olympics, and to call this humiliating for the Russians doesn’t do it justice.
They were a couple classes better in terms of talent, taking a 2-0 lead in the first 4:08 of the game. But when Slovakia slowly got organized and began applying pressure, the Russians folded.
“We lost,” coach Oleg Znarok said. “I think it’s crystal clear. What else is there to say?”
They got outhustled. They took stupid penalties. They were too cute on the power play (0-for-6).
They disappointed the vocal crowd of fans who traveled here to cheer them on because, well, these are supposed to be the Olympics where Russia was back, mainly thanks to the NHL’s decision to not send its players. which affected other countries more.
“Red Machine, Reloaded” said one fan’s shirt.
Not if they play like this.
After having its players compete in every Olympics since 1998, the NHL decided to sit this one out. Bettman, the league’s commissioner, cited the hassle of shutting down the league for about two and a half weeks of its regular season.
“I think the overwhelming sentiment of the teams is that it’s very disruptive on the season and there is somewhere between fatigue and negativity on the subject,” Bettman said in 2017.
That’s left everyone putting together rag-tag rosters that mix aging veterans and promising young players that haven’t yet made it to the NHL.
Then there is Russia, which benefits the most from the new system.
Technically, it’s not “Russia” because the International Olympic Committee banned Russia from being here after it was caught running a massive doping and sample-tampering operation at the Sochi Games. These are the “Olympic Athletes from Russia” but they are wearing familiar red and white. Their fans arrived draped in Russian flags.
They don’t have their best players – Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and others are back in the North America. Neither does anyone else, though. And because many mid-tiered Russian players choose to play professionally in the Russian Kontinental Hockey League, they have a better roster than other countries.
As expected, the Russians looked like a juggernaut … for the first four minutes, pumping in two goals. Slovakia was ready to get steamrolled. Russian fans were singing and dancing and dreaming of gold.
The nation is in desperate need of re-establishing itself in a sport it once dominated. Under the old Soviet Union, the best players weren’t allowed to play professionally outside the country. They were technically “amateurs” so the USSR sent loaded all-star teams of grown men to Olympics where everyone else had mostly college kids.
From 1956 to 1992, the Soviet Union (or in one case a “Unified Team”) won gold eight times. The event was so lopsided, in 1972 and 1976 Canada didn’t even bother entering, arguing that what the Soviets were not an “amateur” team.
It’s why the victory by the United States in 1980 goes down as one of the greatest upsets in the history of sports. The Americans also won in 1960.
Times have changed though, and not for the favor of the Russians. They haven’t won gold since 1992. They won silver in 1998, bronze in 2002 and since then … nothing.
In Vancouver in 2010, they were famously humiliated at the hands of the Canadians, 7-3, in the quarterfinals. In Sochi, they lost to the U.S. in a shootout in pool play and were knocked out by Finland in the quarters, a disgrace on home ice.
The roster features Ilya Kovalchuk, who in the NHL had nine seasons scoring 30 or more goals (including two 50-plus seasons) and is still just 34 years old. He has 32 in 60 games this year for St. Petersburg in the KHL. There’s Pavel Datsyuk, who racked up over 1,000 points (playoffs included) for Detroit and even at 39 is a wizard with the puck.
Vadim Shipachyov played three games with Las Vegas this year and might be on the roster now if he had accepted an assignment to the minors rather than jumping to the KHL. Defenseman Slava Voynov played for Los Angeles and would still be in the NHL if not for a domestic assault charge.
It goes on and on.
Yet there was little heart. The third period they looked like a team playing under the weight of expectations. With the game tied at 2-2, the Russians opened the period with three consecutive icing calls. They committed back-to-back delay-of-game penalties for shooting the puck into the stands, the last one resulting in a game-winning goal for Slovakia. When mounting a furious assault in the final two minutes, they picked up a pointless tripping call that effectively sealed the result.
“You saw what you saw,” Znarok said.
Twenty-six years without a gold. Sixteen without a trip to the podium. Canada, the United States and Sweden depleted due to the NHL ruling.
And yet there goes Russia, heads bowed in defeat again. It is but one game in pool play, but for a once-hockey power that figured Bettman had given it a clear path to a second life, the result sure was familiar.
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