RUSSIA'S OLYMPIChockey team is a riddle wrapped in an enigma bound by duct tape. ¬∂ The hockeymachine might still be big and red--quick and quixotic, Russia has giftedscorers like Alexander Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk--but the tailpipe is fallingoff, the fender is dented, and oil is spewing. With a nod to Canada and theCzech Republic, this is the team to watch, and not necessarily in a good way.The Russians are either impending champions or an impending car wreck. Asthree-time Olympic defenseman Sergei Gonchar says, "In such a shorttournament it all depends on the spirit of the team, how much guys are willingto sacrifice." ¬∂ Good luck. For a decade Russia has been 20 players, 20Ladas. ¬∂ To restore the faded glory of a land that last won Olympic gold in1992 (as the Unified Team), to foster altruism and camaraderie within thisfive-ringed circus, the Russian Ice Hockey Federation naturally turned to themost aloof and emotionally disengaged (albeit spectacular) former player in itsrecent history, Pavel Bure, as general manager. "[The federation is] tryingto find another Gretzky in Russia," says sports minister Slava Fetisov, theHall of Fame defenseman. "Pavel has a big name in hockey, and I hope itcompensates for his [lack of] experience in running things." Clearly thetemplate for Team Chaos is Team Canada, which tapped Wayne Gretzky as executivedirector, though the Great One had no previous management experience. Canadaresponded by ending a 50-year gold medal drought at the 2002 Olympics and addedthe 2004 World Cup to reinforce its status as the undisputed No. 1 hockeynation. The similarity between the G.M.'s is that both Gretzky and Bure arecurrent, plugged into the NHL culture. The difference is that one has awonderful infrastructure in Hockey Canada, while the other is saddled with afederation that's two arias shy of a comic opera. Also, Gretzky has one of thebrightest minds in hockey. Bure ... well, he was the Russian Rocket, not theRussian Rocket Scientist.
At hisintroductory press conference in Moscow in November the 34-year-old Bure said,"I can promise you one thing: From now on you won't see such a mess withthe national team that you've seen before." He has been good to his wordunless you consider: 1) head coach Vladimir Krikunov's calling Bure "afigurehead" until Bure pulled an Alexander Haig I'm in Charge Here; 2)Bure's laxity in contacting some players--veteran Alexei Kovalev learned of hisselection to the team by surfing the Net; 3) the frigid relationship betweenFetisov and federation president Alexander Steblin; and 4) Steblin's Jan. 8performance at the European Champions Cup in St. Petersburg, where, after beingbarred from the victory ceremony because of strong suspicions he was sufferingfrom the 86-proof flu, he allegedly cursed International Ice Hockey Federationpresident René Fasel, bloodied his own translator's face with a punch andheaved a plate of oranges at a tournament organizer. Sovetsky Sport trumpetedthe incident as steblin's hat trick.
The logical G.M.for Russia was Igor Larionov. Steblin phoned Larionov in early March 2004 toask him if he was interested in running the World Cup team. Larionov--who wonthree Stanley Cups, two Olympic gold medals and four world championships in acareer that touched four decades and two political systems--said he might beinterested if eight conditions were met, including the hiring of a foreigner,Larry Robinson, then of the New Jersey Devils, as coach. Given Russia's hockeysuperiority complex, it was a bold demand. When Steblin dithered, Larionovbowed out. "I told [the federation] not to ask me for anything else,"Larionov says. According to a Russian hockey source, a few weeks afterLarionov's rejection, during a 33rd-birthday bash for Bure in Moscow, Steblinapproached the player with the same offer. Bure, who had a badly damaged knee,said he would be honored to run the national team but only after he was certainhe could no longer play. Last Nov. 1, a mere 14 weeks before Russia's Olympicopener against Slovakia, he formally retired and took the job.
Of course, giventhe swerve toward individualism in Russian hockey, Bure might be the perfectguy after all. The upheavals in Russian society in the past 15 years have beenmirrored in its hockey. The 1972 Summit Series team and the powerhouse theUnited States upset at the '80 Olympics supposedly were composed of automatons,cogs in a state-run puck machine. Indeed, the cohesion of the U.S.S.R.'sfive-man units, the willingness to weave and wait for the shot instead of ashot, was more striking than even the teams' sublime skill. With the collapseof the Soviet Union, CCCP hockey also underwent a sea change. Mother Russiaturned into a wet nurse for freelancers and mavericks like Kovalchuk andOvechkin, for divas and divers. "Their famous combination play is not asprominent as it once was," says former Canadian Olympic and NHL coach DaveKing, who now coaches Mettalurg Magnitogorsk of Russia's Superleague. "Eventhe intuitive play you see with club teams can be missing [on the nationalteam]."
Russia is alsomissing goalie Nikolai Khabibulin (knee); forwards Sergei Fedorov (groin), AlexZhamnov (ankle) and Alexander Mogilny (pulled out of consideration); anddefenseman Sergei Zubov (who has not played internationally since 1996)."The guys who want to be on this team," Bure said last month, "aretrue patriots." Krikunov, of course, probably prefers goal scorers to flagwavers. The Dynamo Moscow coach is old-school Russian, rarely trying anythingremotely as progressive as matching lines--although he will load up powerplays, giving the bulk of time to his best unit. Not that Kovalev, captain ofthe 2005 world championship bronze medal team, cares. "I'm not focused oncoaches or the G.M.," he says. "It's not going to help me playhockey." He is, however, concerned about his teammates and the federation."One reason we've been struggling as a national team is that guys come inand try to show off," he says. "Play their own games, do their ownthings, but never really play as a team. The other thing is guys focus so muchon what the federation does or doesn't do for them. Have they paid for the[airline] tickets? Have they done this or that? We have to stop worrying aboutit.... But when you have people going against each other in the federation,that tells you a lot. If everybody's pulling in their own direction there, whatelse can you expect?"
Despitefederation follies, a thin roster and a neophyte boss, Russia is eerilyconfident about its Olympic chances. When asked which nation should be favored,Kovalev smiles and says, "Us."
Get hockey analysis from Michael Farber during the Games atSI.com/olympics.
Olympians (from left): the Rangers' Petr Prucha (Czech Republic), theIslanders' Alexei Yashin (Russia), the Senators' Dany Heatley (Canada), theIslanders' Miroslav Satan (Slovakia) and Rick DiPietro (U.S.), the Coyotes'Dennis Seidenberg (Germany), and the Flyers' Peter Forsberg (Sweden) and JoniPitkanen (Finland).