Pressure on, but support also intense for host Russiaby Corey Masisak
SOCHI -- They entered the room, single file, to applause. They listened as their boss earned cheers for answering a question about the country's most surprising defeat with a response about a triumph four years later. When they left, it was another, louder round of applause, which included some of the people assembled standing up to cheer and acknowledge them.
The entire Russian hockey team held a press conference Tuesday, only this wasn't like a normal meeting with the media. A total of 463 people attended in an auditorium-style room inside the Main Press Center, many who aren't likely to cover a hockey game at the 2014 Sochi Olympics but just wanted a glimpse of this event's rock stars.
If figure skater Evgeni Plushenko is Russia's version of Michael Phelps, this collection of hockey players is the country's Dream Team.
"Ice hockey is extremely popular in Russia, and this is very obvious from the fact that there are so many people in this audience, a lot of fans, a lot of press, and I think on the international level this is going to be the most prestigious tournament here," Vladislav Tretiak, the head of the Russian hockey federation and one of the legends of the sport, said through a translator. "Let me say this again: We understand what we have to do and we will fight for the results in every match."
All 25 members of the Russian team plus the coaching staff and Tretiak filled the stage in Pushkin Hall at the MPC. It was part press conference, part public relations.
This country with its rich and proud hockey history has not won gold at the Olympics since 1992, when a group called the Unified Team won shortly after the end of the Soviet Union. There has been criticism at times in recent years of the composition of the team, and a notion that players from the NHL and the Kontinental Hockey League had more trouble forming a cohesive team than other countries that might not boast as much talent.
Though only captain Pavel Datsyuk, Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Evgeni Malkin answered questions among the players during the press conference, the team sat together as a display of solidarity two days before a tournament where anything short of the iconic Russian national anthem blaring from the speakers of the Bolshoy Ice Dome postgame on Feb. 23 will be considered a failure.
"We know that we enjoy a lot of support here but we also know that we have a lot of responsibility, a lot to answer for," Tretiak said. "But sport is sport, our team is going to try to show our best game and we will do our best. How we perform we will have to see, we will see the results later, but everyone on the team understands what they are expected to do."
Kovalchuk, who retired from the NHL over the summer and returned home to play in the KHL, is well aware what's at stake.
"A home Olympics is a very special event, something that may happen once in your life," he said. "It is a big honor for us to be here together. We hope we will be able to show a good result at this Olympics."
The collection of high-end talent is undeniable, both among the top six forwards and in goal. So is the gold-medal drought at the Winter Olympics. So is the fact the country has not won a best-on-best tournament since the 1981 Canada Cup.
What happened decades ago might not matter much to the present players, but the loss to Canada in the quarterfinals four years ago in Vancouver does. Though it was an embarrassing defeat, Canada's eventual place on top the medal podium might provide positive reinforcement for the Russians in the next two weeks.
"Basically I think whoever has hosted the Olympic Games probably has the most pressure and I am sure we are in the same position that Canada was four years ago, but I am pretty sure we have experience and we are old enough guys to handle that pressure. I am pretty sure everything is going to be fine," Ovechkin said.
"As soon as we step on the ice we are going to think about the game and how to win the game, not about pressure and all that kind of stuff."
At one point Tretiak was asked about Russia's loss in the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. He reminded the questioner that "we got our gold" four years later in Sarajevo, which elicited a round of cheers from some of his countrymen in the crowd. The way he finished the response may have been the best insight about the pressure this team is dealing with after days of questions about the topic.
"Every match is the finals for us," Tretiak said. "It is a final match. It doesn't matter who plays against us; we are going to approach it as a final. Everyone understands we are all trying to approach the game in this spirit."