It was a game that has left Canadian hockey fans shaken and in disbelief: Did we really give up five unanswered goals in the third period of the gold medal game? Against Russia? On what was effectively home ice?
If it makes you feel any better, those who follow Russian hockey were pretty shocked as well. To get a better perspective on the turn of events – there were two teams on the ice afterall – I got in touch with Dmitry Chesnokov, a Russian-born sports journalist and lifelong hockey fan who lives and works in Washington and consistently provides rare glimpses of the often under-reported story of Russian hockey. His work appears regularly at Yahoo Sports under the Puck Daddy umbrella, and he covers the NHL for Russian sports bible Sovetsky Sport. You can follow him on Twitter also: @dchesnokov.
Our chat is below:
1. What will this win mean for Russian hockey? The view from here has been hockey development has been floundering little in recent years, at least compared to it's heyday. Do we have it wrong or was the Russian performance a bit unexpected from your point of view too?
This win means a lot. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union the junior hockey program was dying. Because of the sheer size of the country, Russia was still able to produce gems like Ovechkin and Kovalchuk. But overall, the country couldn't compete. Especially with Canada, Russia's bitter rival. The worst point of the Russian junior program was, I believe, a few years ago when Russian and Canadian juniors played an 8 game series with Russia unable to win a single game. Those in charge realized that if no changes are made, Russia will forever lose what little foundation they still had. The emergence of the Russian Junior League (MHL), the rise of hockey programs in cities other than Moscow (like Kazan, Chelyabinsk) was big. But this year's performance was still unexpected. Very unexpected to all.
2. The KHL is still very much a work in progress, but several players on the roster are playing in it; presumably at a higher level of competition than they might be if there were playing against junior age players as most of the Canadian team still are. Could that experience explain some of the resilience we saw on the ice this past week?
The KHL has its flaws when it comes to juniors. While you're right that players like Kuznetsov, Orlov, Tarasenko and Kitsyn play in the KHL, most of the other guys don't. The reason is coaches in the KHL care too much about the final result that most youngsters don't make squads. KHL coaches don't give them any chances. Since the KHL launch more young Russian players left for North America than before the KHL existed. Young players don't feel they can get a chance in the KHL.
At the same time those, who make it in the KHL get a real competitive advantage. Regardless of how everyone feels about the KHL, it is the second best league in the world. Young players get a chance to play alongside or against players like Jagr, Fedorov, Demitra and others.
3. Thanks for the clarification; while on the topic of resiliency: what do you make of the tendency by Canadian hockey people – fans and experts alike – to routinely question Russian's passion at these kinds of competitions? This group surely passes any test in that regard, but the idea that Russians will stop playing when the going gets too difficult and Canadians fight through obstacles is pretty pervasive. Prejudice? A stereotype with a grain of truth? What is your take?
30 years ago the Red Machine was that - a machine. The US Olympic team created the Miracle on Ice winning on emotion. Here we are 30 years later and it's the Russians now winning on emotion against the hockey machine Canada is. That's the feeling a lot of people share. Also, don't forget that the current crop of the young Russians grew up watching the NHL. Guys like Fedorov, Bure, Zubov, Kozlov and even the younger guys like Kovalchuk and Ovechkin are their idols. They watched Joe Sakic and Owen Nolan and wanted to be like them. The saw how those players never gave up. And that's the new philosophy. The Russians learned a lot from Canadians. And now it's starting to show when it comes to character
4. Yikes! Any idea if the Russian team/coaches/players would be aware of the stereotype? Is it a potential source of motivation?
They are aware of the stereotype. They get asked about it all the time. Ask every Russian player when they get drafted, they will tell you it must be one of the most common questions. But as I mentioned, this is a new generation. They can show emotions. A lot of times the perception of playing with "no heart" comes from players not showing their emotions. Ovechkin sort of opened the door for them. Another thing is that patriotism is on the rise in Russia. Russians are always so hard knocking their own country down, that it shows up everywhere. But it's changing. Those kids wanted to play for their country. They wanted to win for their country. Remember what Tarasenko did when he scored Russia's 3rd goal? He grabbed the Russian crest on his jersey and shook it. That shows heart. That shows what he was playing for.
Overall, there are a lot of things that combine to motivate Russians nowadays.
5. What is next? Does Russian build on this? Is this the start of another golden age for hockey's most historic rivalry?
Too early to say what's next. After Russia won two World Championships in a row (in Quebec and Bern) they thought they had a chance to win the Olympics. We know what happened in Vancouver.
Complacency will hurt Russia if they go that rout again. They have to get better. They have to start being consistent every year. Just like Canada. Coaches have to learn new systems, new methods. Canada can field a few championship caliber competitive teams. That's the sign of success. Until Russia can do the same, they are just too fragile. Canada is Russia's main rival. They have always been. They always will be.
That's my opinion.