Another major hockey tournament for Team Russia ended in another heart-stomping defeat Wednesday at the hands of Team Finland. But if familiarity brings contempt in most cases, it doesn’t when you see the dejected faces of Russian players and fans. We’re smack in the middle of pity territory with this nation now. Without a victory in a best-on-best competition in decades, each additional loss for them adds football fields of height to a mountainous sense of helplessness and despair.
While it’s always dangerous to make knee-jerk reactions to losses at single-game elimination tournaments, it’s undeniable Russian hockey needs a reset. When the coach has the temerity to blame the team’s best player despite having no ability to make in-game adaptations, the problem is clear. When the body language of stars such as Ilya Kovalchuk – who, if you’re paying attention, often skates away from his teammates after he scores goals – imply this is still a collection of individuals and not a team, the problem is endemic. And when there are still serious and troubling questions as to the internal politics that go along with a split NHL/Kontinental League roster, the problem needs addressing urgently.
Nobody should read the previous paragraph as a xenophobic attack on the Russians. This isn’t about Alexander Ovechkin being a loser at heart, or about some fundamental fatal flaw that will prevent that nation from being champions on the world stage again. This is about building a system from the grassroots up that gives Russian players the ability to lean on each other when the crap meets the fan.
That’s the great irony here: decades ago, the Russians/Soviet Union were renowned for being a smooth machine and a true team, while North Americans were the group of individuals who were lesser than their parts’ sum. The latter group learned from the former and now Canadian and American teams succeed because they play as a unit.
But the Russians have moved in the other direction; when they face adversity, everyone takes it upon themselves to try and do it all. Nobody recognizes the different roles players have to play in order to win at this level. Nobody knows what it means to grind out games. The Finnish team that beat Russia certainly has learned that lesson. They had nowhere close to the talent their opponents did Wednesday, but they function as one regardless of which five skaters are on the ice at any moment. When is the last time anyone could say the same thing of the Russians?
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia had to decide what type of country it was going to be. Their hockey team faced the same decision. And it’s now wholly apparent the initial direction and philosophy they chose was the wrong one. Any reversal of fortune from the ashes of Sochi would be accelerated by a focus on developing more quality defensemen, but the overarching goal must be far grander. The Russians need to rebuild with one voice and one mentality. And any individual who sees themselves as more important to the process than the process itself – including players, coaches or management members – must immediately be removed from it.
It shouldn’t matter from now on how many goals you scored in the NHL in any particular Olympic year, or whether you’re a KHL legend or a Hockey Hall-of-Famer. If Russia is going to reclaim its status as a world hockey superpower, everyone involved must set aside personal interests in favor of selflessness and humility.
Otherwise, the sad picture we saw in Sochi will repeat itself at other Olympics and global hockey events. And no hockey fan from Russia or elsewhere should want that. A proud, unified Russian team forces all teams to be better. But the first step and the majority of the steps that follow will only be taken if they’re brutally honest with themselves.
Here’s the brutally honest truth: the modern Russian way of doing on-ice business is no longer defensible.