SOCHI -- More than 100 NHL players boarded planes Sunday in New York and Atlanta and began a trip to a mysterious place, this hamlet of sporting venues and housing complexes on the banks of the Black Sea.
A select few of those players were embarking on a much different journey.
They were coming home.
Fans and members of the media waited at the Sochi airport to see hockey players arriving Monday morning for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. If it wasn't clear who they were waiting for, an appearance by Russian legend Vladislav Tretiak should have made it clear.
"It's probably like the last half year I start thinking more and more about it," Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin said. "I do my training special for the Olympics. It's big for me and for my country. It is a big moment."
"Of course this is exciting. It is kind of like you feel home," Montreal Canadiens defenseman Andrei Markov said. "You want to do your best every minute. So far everything is great. Everybody is happy. We just need a good sleep and be ready to go."
The Russian NHL players joined their temporary teammates from the Kontinenal Hockey League on Monday afternoon for the home team's first full-squad practice at Bolshoy Ice Dome. Other NHL players have certainly been looking forward to the Sochi Olympics.
For the Russians, it is different. They were able to see the Olympic village and the venues here, including the stunning Fischt Olympic Stadium and iconic torch just a short walk from Bolshoy, no slouch of an architectural feat itself.
"The village is great, but it is huge," Ovechkin said. "We walk most of the time. I think we have to rent some bicycles to move around. It is pretty cool. There's lot of athletes now."
Added ex-New Jersey Devils star Ilya Kovalchuk: "I think everybody's very excited. You can see how much [of a] job was done to build all that, and I think a lot of guys are surprised by how good the village is and how good everything is around. I think they did their job, so now our players' job is to go there and put in a good show."
The Russians posed for a team picture near one of the blue lines before partaking in a brief, but crisp practice. Captain Pavel Datsyuk was in the center of the photo, but was not in his expected spot anchoring one of the team's top lines as he skipped practice after being sidelined by injury in the NHL throughout much of February.
Ovechkin was reunited with his pal, Carolina Hurricanes forward Alexander Semin, on a line centered by Evgeni Malkin. Any remnants of an icy relationship between the former Washington Capitals teammates and the Pittsburgh Penguins dynamo are long gone, and the trio will be expected to produce magic for a nation of fans who expect nothing short of gold.
"They're both great players. It is tremendous opportunity for me and us as well. We know we have to play for each other," Ovechkin said. "I know [Semin] right away. As soon as I get the puck on the left side, I know where he's going to be. I'm sure it's going to be easy to find out chemistry with Geno [Malkin]. We just have to play for his style. He likes to control the puck, control the game. We're going to have to do some different things with him."
Four years ago, Ovechkin's Olympic experience started with a bang, literally, when he delivered one of the highlights of the tournament in the form of a bone-rattling open-ice hit on Czech Republic star (and still sworn enemy to Ovechkin's fan base in Washington) Jaromir Jagr. It ended in misery though, an awful game against Canada in the quarterfinals coupled with heavy criticism of Ovechkin for declining media interviews.
That seemed like a lifetime ago Monday when Ovechkin held court with the media in multiple languages. There was plenty of exuberance and wit. There was plenty of laughter and that gap-toothed grin.
If Ovechkin is the one who has a country of 143 million people counting on him, he didn't look like it on this day.
"Of course I'm thinking about it what I want to do [a gold medal]," Ovechkin said. "It is a long way away. It is going to be a hard way, but it is my dream."
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