Carrying hopes of a nation, Russia makes unexpected hockey exit
SOCHI, Russia — A hockey team loses. A nation mourns, curses and cries.
With President Vladimir Putin watching, Russia’s men’s hockey team suffered a 3-1 loss to Finland on Wednesday in the quarterfinals of the 2014 Winter Olympics tournament, eliminating the host country from medal contention.
For some Russians, these Winter Games were about nothing but hockey. Forward Alexander Ovechkin half-jokingly said last week that winning the Gold Medal was worth about $50 billion — the estimated cost of the entire Winter Games.
“It sucks. What can I say?” Ovechkin, who plays for the National Hockey League’s Washington Capitals, said after the defeat. “No emotions right now.”
He added: “We fought until the end to score, but it just hasn’t worked for us. We lost our Olympic games. There is no one to blame.”
The all-star-packed Russian team was under severe pressure — from the Kremlin to the cabbie in the street — to win gold and nothing less. But the team struggled in almost all its games, managing nail-biting victories against less-talented Slovenia and Slovakia. They beat Norway in a cakewalk and lost to the United States last Sunday in a dramatic shootout.
Russia never appeared to get its high-scoring game together despite talented snipers like forwards Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings, and Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Russian players insisted they felt no pressure playing before their hockey-crazed president and hockey-mad fans, many of whom were banking on Olympic Gold to exorcise the ghosts of the American “Miracle on Ice” at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Games and the 1972 “Super Series” against a Canadian team of National Hockey League superstars.
Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the hockey team’s defeat will disappoint many Russians but shouldn’t impact what many Russians feel have been a successful Winter Games for the country.
“It takes some of the luster off, for sure,” Kuchins said. “Despite Putin being a hockey fan himself, the larger goal was a successful Olympic games. And I think it’s come off pretty well.”
At a Russian bar in Krasnaya Polyana, the game was played on a huge screen. A hockey goal sat in the middle of the dance floor and patrons spent the time between periods shooting tennis balls into the net or playing table hockey. Most in the crowd were draped in Russian flags or had their faces painted red, blue and white.
“It’s very disappointing for us,” said a stunned Igor Maltinskii after he watched the game at the bar. “We thought our team would be in the final game. It was very important to all the people who came to Sochi and everybody in the country.”
A Bolshoy Ice Dome that was deafeningly loud before the puck dropped Wednesday afternoon was eerily quiet at game’s end. Russian players and silver-haired head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov had ashen faces and stared blankly as the Finnish players celebrated their upset victory.
“I just feel empty, disappointed and empty inside,” said Russian goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who held Finland scoreless after he replaced Semyon Varlamov in goal after he surrendered all three Finnish goals on 15 shots in the game’s first 26 minutes. “It’s hard to say whether this is a maximal or minimal failure. Failure is failure. How can you measure it?”
The game’s outcome was maximum joy for Team Finland, which was banking on playing a tired and emotionally drained Russian team that had played four games in five nights.
“We had nothing to lose. We were not supposed to win,” said Finland forward Teemu Selanne, who scored his team’s second goal to break a 1-1 tie in the first period. “They had all the pressure. I think they were out of gas a little bit, and we tried to take advantage of that, and the game plan worked.”
Selanni’s tally and goals by Juhamatti Aaltonen and Mikael Granlund were all that Finnish goaltender Tuukka Rask needed to beat Russia. Former NHL forward Ilya Kovalchuk scored Russia’s lone goal.
Much to the chagrin and angst of Russian hockey fans. A post on the Russian daily newspaper Kommersant’s website said the Russian team can’t pull itself together. “Everything seem(s) to be falling apart,” the post read.
Some Russian media outlets quickly tagged the loss on the coach who had a collection of the best Russian players from the NHL and this nation’s Kontinental Hockey League.
When asked if he expected a new coach, Maltinskii replied “yes, yes, yes.” Two Russian sportswriters watching the game at the Winter Games Main Press Center predicted that Bilyaletdinov would soon be on his way to Siberia — by train.
Maltinskii, who traveled from St. Petersburg to attend the Winter Games, said Wednesday’s loss won’t dampen his Olympic spirit. He still plans to have a good time at the games.
“And the best of luck to the U.S.,” he said.
Tom Peterson of McClatchy-Tribune News Service contributed to this report.