Twenty-one years ago no one in the Soviet Union played ice hockey. So the Russians invented it—or at least imported it and stamped it with their personal imprint. Now more than one million people play hockey in Russia, and they all play it the way two coaches, Arkadi Chernyshov and Anatoli Tarasov, say it should be played. The best 18 players make Russia's national team, the team that has won the world "amateur" hockey title for five straight years and should win the Olympic gold medal over Sweden, Canada, Czechoslovakia and the U.S.
Kids in the U.S., Canada and Europe learn many styles of play and often need a good deal of time to get used to one another. In Russia, where almost every side street has its own junior club, the kids work together for so long that the ones who make the national team become a flawlessly synchronized machine. Soviet players do not even look before they make passes; they know where their teammates are going to be. Sometimes the plays seem so predictable that you would think opponents would anticipate them. But they are executed so perfectly that hardly anyone breaks them up.
Alexander Almetov, Boris Mayorov, Valery Nikitin and Anatoli Firsov (left to right) were photographed after last year's world championships in Vienna where the team scored 58 goals and yielded only nine. The Russians are experienced—about half the squad at Grenoble will be Olympic veterans. The only way to upset the Soviet players is to hit them often and hard, but each year they become less vulnerable to hard body checkers like the Canadians. Even in the most rugged games the Russians have another big advantage: they are so superbly conditioned that they never seem to get tired.