By Garrett Miller
In a country where hockey is as popular as the NFL is in America, a gold medal on a global stage means everything. Add to this the legacy of dominance left by Soviet-era Russian hockey teams and the fact that ice hockey is a personal passion of none other than Vladimir Putin, the man who brought these Games to Sochi, and you can begin to understand the kind of pressure to win team Russia is under. Maybe.
Ultimately, it took a qualification match against Norway, which Russia won 4-0, for them to advance to the next round of play.
Now, as the so-far underwhelming Russians gear up to face a formidable foe in Finland in the quarterfinal round, the pressure to win will only amplify. Finland, which crushed Norway and Austria in group play, tied in regulation with gold-medal favorite Canada before losing in overtime.
And the drama of the tournament will become heightened across the board, as every game will represent a battle for Olympic life. In the coming rounds, a single loss means elimination.
Team Russia will continue to look for great performances from players like Ilya Kovalchuk, a former NHL star currently playing for Russia’s premier hockey league, the KHL, and Pavel Datsyuk, a longtime offensive presence on that perennial Stanley Cup contender, the Detroit Red Wings.
But no other player is experiencing the dubious honor of the men’s ice hockey spotlight as much as Alexander Ovechkin, arguably the greatest player in the world currently. The star forward for the Washington Capitals is carrying the hopes of his home country, a nation of hockey fans, and the great expectations of the Russian media, who have suggested that the legacy of the Sochi games rests upon the team’s performance.
Many are hoping the tournament will lead to a Russian confrontation with the always-favored Canadian team, captained by Sidney Crosby, Ovechkin’s closest competitor for the title of best hockey player in the world. Though the Canadians look to have a stronger team on paper, Canada has not won a gold medal in ice hockey outside of North America since the Oslo Games in 1952.
Of course, hockey fans would also love to see a rematch between Russia and the United States team, which came an infamous “one goal short” of winning it all in Vancouver four years ago and will be hungrier than ever to get to the gold medal match. The excitement over a potential rematch is only heightened by the controversial and dramatic shootout win the USA enjoyed over Russia during group play.
As the elimination rounds of the tournament begin, it will be interesting to see how Russia adapts to the incredible pressure, and to see how these bitter rivalries will play out on the ice.
What do you think? Will Russia be able to win gold behind the support of their countrymen? Or will they crack under the pressure? Vote on our poll below.