For some, the Winter Olympics is all about the figure skating. Curling has a passionate following, especially in Canada. Skiing and snowboarding attract people who like their sports to be dangerous. But according to Sports Illustrated’s Michael Farber, for a lot of the Russians, including Vladimir Putin, the 2014 Games are all about hockey. Michael joined Bill to explain why.
BL: In your SI article titled “Black Sea Bullies?” you quote Hall of Famer Igor Larionov, who said, “if Russia wins hockey and no other medals, this Olympics will have been a success.” Is that a widely-shared opinion among the Russians?
BL: The Soviet Union used to be dominant at men’s ice hockey, but the Soviet Union ceased to exist almost 15 years ago. Is the Olympic hockey tournament all about reestablishing that reputation?
MF: There really has been a Cold War vibe with everything associated with Sochi. And part of it is Vladimir Putin wanting the games to show that Russia is a modern nation and a great nation, and sports, especially hockey, is an expression of that. The Soviet Union was dominant in the Olympics until the NHL players got there because the Russian players — and they were almost all Russian; not just merely Soviet — the Russian players were together for 11 months. These were fabulous players. They trained together and they had the advantage of staying home. They were not NHL players. They were not allowed to be NHL players. And while the NHL players were off in their own league, the great Soviet teams had to play essentially amateurs, and so that domination was expected. That’s why 1980 — the U.S. triumph — was a minor miracle.
BL: Countries hosting the Olympics usually do very well at the Games, but Russia has hosted the World Hockey Championships twice as well as two junior championships since 2000. The Russians never finished better than third throughout that time. Will the home ice in Sochi provide any particular advantage?
MF: I think there’s an advantage because it’s international ice. International ice is 15-feet wider than ice surfaces in the NHL. When you grow up on that ice, the angles change. The geometry of the game changes. Not that great players can’t adjust. Canada for example won the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City on the wide ice. So it can be done, but North American teams have never won the gold medal in the NHL-era of Olympic hockey outside of North America. Canada won in Salt Lake and Vancouver.
BL: Some have described the Russians’ game plan as “conservative,” but three-time NHL MVP Alex Ovechkin, whose day job is playing for the Washington Capitals, has a history of putting on a high-scoring show. Will those two approaches work well together?
MF: Well we saw Ovechkin change under Dale Hunter when Hunter was coaching the Capitals. I think for a two week tournament Ovechkin is quite capable of parking his ego at the door, realizing what is at stake. The real problem for Russia is that there are six players on the ice, but only one puck. They haven’t played well together. They haven’t shared the puck. Individualism has been the order of the day. So there’s a new coach this time, Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, and he preaches defense and teamwork. We’ll see if the Russian players can all come together.
BL: Do you like Russia’s chances to capture gold?
MF: I think Russia is one of four teams for three medals. I think the co-favorites right now would be Canada — which has the most talent top-to-bottom in the lineup — and Sweden. But Sweden seems to know how to get together and won the gold medal in Turin in 2006. I like the U.S. team as well. I think the Americans suffer from perhaps a lack of goal scoring, but the goaltending is excellent. Russia is one of these teams in the mix. Goaltending has been a problem traditionally. I don’t see now with Semyon Varlamov, who plays for the Colorado Avalanche, but it will be a great tournament and quite probably the last tournament — at least in the near future — in which NHL players will play in the Olympics.