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A Russian hockey revolution? Super Series woes may bring changes

NHL.com @NHL

RED DEER, Alta. (CP) - The tie against Canada may quiet the criticism Russia's junior hockey team is getting at home, but there are rumblings that changes in that country's hockey system are looming.

Russian sports minister Viacheslav Fetisov, a former NHL player and decorated Russian national team player, told the financial publication Kommersant prior to Friday's game that youth hockey needs a revamp and that a wider net has to be cast for talent.

Sound familiar? When Canada finished out of the medals at the 1998 Olympics, which was the first year NHL players were involved, the question was asked across the country: What's wrong with our hockey?

Russia seems to be experiencing a similar bout of navel gazing. Canada dominated the Russians in the first six games of this series and outscored them 29-8 before Friday's night's 4-4 tie in Red Deer.

What had been airtight defence by Canada earlier in the series loosened considerably on Friday. If that continues into Sunday's final game in Vancouver, Russia could pull one win out of this series.

But the damage to the team's reputation has already been done.

Kommersant called Russia's 8-1 loss to Canada in Game 5 in Winnipeg "one of the most humiliating defeats in the history of national hockey."

Fetisov spoke of "shameful defeats" of players who are projected to be the ones representing Russia at their home Olympics in 2014 in Sochi.

He said the Canadian team has been better in strategy, passion and tactics, which were previously the trump cards of Soviet players in international hockey.

"Our hockey players do not have the training, there is no character, there is no understanding of the demands of playing today's hockey," Fetisov said.

"Our hockey has lost its identity. It is possible to define easily the Finnish, Swedish, Czech style, also Canadian and Americans. And ours - faceless."

Having been through a similar crisis after the 1998 Olympics, Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson said the Russians are still a hockey power and don't need wholesale changes.

"Their structure is not in turmoil," Nicholson said. "Don't rip up the whole structure. Just fine tune it."

The Russian team knew they were taking a beating in the press back home.

"We're trying not to read it," head coach Sergei Nemchinov. "We're trying not to pay a lot of attention to the media. We try to get ready for every game.

"I talked to the players about the media and it's part of the job."

Fetisov said Nemchinov doesn't deserve the blame for the team's performance and that their record in this series comes from more systemic problems in player development.

What's been puzzling about this Russian team has been the lack of team cohesion from a country that normally produces a seamless unit.

Talent is cyclical and Russia may simply be experiencing a downswing in their talent pool. These players were born in 1988 and 1989 and the 1988 group finished fifth at last year's world under-18 championship.

This year's NHL entry draft featured players born in 1989 and only nine Russians, the lowest since 1988, had their names called.

But even with the loss of star forward Alexei Cherepanov to injury in the Russian half of this series, the team still has half a dozen players who faced Canada in the final of the world junior hockey championship in January and 10 NHL draft picks.

Even if talent was an issue, the Russians are capable of producing a team game better than the sum of its parts.

Most of the players on the Canadian team are expected to represent their country again at the 2008 world junior hockey championship, opening Dec. 26 in the Czech Republic.

The Russian team may look quite different.

"Before the Czech Republic, we've got to do some big scouting to see who else is available to play in the world championship," Nemchinov said.

Defenceman Kirill Tupulov, who plays for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Chicoutimi Sagueneens, said the Super Series will help Russia prepare to meet Canada at the world junior championship.

"I'm quite sure we're going to make it to the finals and we're going to face the Canadians again. I bet we're going to have a different team," he said.

"No matter what happens, it's a good lesson for us and it only makes us stronger. It's a really good level of hockey. The boys know what they have to work on."

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