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Olympics

Russian ice hockey team looking to recapture the spirit of Sarajevo

In Sochi, Russia's hockey team is aiming to make amends for an embarrassing exit from the Olympic tournament four years ago. A Soviet legend has sought to inspire them with a tale of redemption from his own career.

If there had been any doubt about how seriously the Russians are taking the Olympic ice hockey tournament, this was put to rest during the team’s first press conference since they assembled in #link:http://www.dw.de/top-stories/olympics/s-100857:Sochi#.

#link:http://old.fhr.ru/content/23/:Former goaltending superstar Vladislav Tretiak#, who is now the president of the #link:http://www.iihf.com/iihf-home/countries/russia.html:Russian Ice Hockey Federation#, brought every single member of the team to the press conference, which attracted nearly 200 journalists and more than 40 television cameras to the largest media hall at the Sochi media center.

Asked why he had taken this unprecedented step, Tretiak's answer was simple.

"I think all of us here together decided to appear at this press conference as a team because we want to show that we are one team," he told reporters. "It is a team sport and it's up to the entire team to get the gold so that is why we are here together."

The now 61-year-old Tretiak, who, as a player, backstopped the Soviet Union to three gold medals in four Olympic tournaments, was also quick to speak about the expectations weighing on the team, particularly in light of its embarrassing exit from the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

A performance to forget

Back then, the Russians, who like Canada, had gone into the tournament as one of the favorites for gold, were sent home with their tails between their legs after suffering a 7-3 drubbing at the hands of the hosts.

"We remember the Vancouver Olympics and we know we have a lot of responsibility and a lot to answer for," Tretiak said.

The biggest superstar on the Russian team, right winger Alexander Ovechkin, is also looking for payback.

"When we lost to Canada it was a big failure for us," said Ovechkin, who with 40 goals in 55 games is the National Hockey League's leading goal scorer. "Great Eight," as he has been dubbed, with reference to the number he wears on his jersey, both with the Washington Capitals and the national team, has been looking forward to Sochi for years. In fact, before the NHL agreed to shut down its season for two weeks to allow the best players in the world to take part in the Olympics, Ovechkin made it known that he would be in Sochi no matter what - even if it meant walking out on the Capitals, and no matter what the consequences.

The last Olympic tournament of its kind?

Fortunately for him it didn't come to that. But it is no secret that many owners in the North American NHL, considered the world's top hockey league, aren't happy about giving their players two weeks off from a grueling schedule to play in the Olympics, and they are even less happy about letting them go to Russia.

"When you have a North American-based Olympics, you can have a shorter period without NHL games,” the NHL's deputy commissioner, Bill Daly, told the Associated Press recently. “We're going to have the longest break we've ever had, and that could interrupt momentum for teams and have an effect on their competitiveness based on how many players they have playing, and how many injuries they have in Sochi."

Ovechkin at practice in Sochi

Alexander Ovechkin is determined to make Sochi "his" tournament

Such concerns are part of the reason that the NHL has not committed to sending its players to any Olympics beyond the Sochi Games, meaning this tournament, which Ovechkin is aiming to dominate, could be the last of its kind for the foreseeable future.

Russians among the favorites

Despite the pressure, there is an argument to make that the Russians are the favorites going into #link:http://www.sochi2014.com/en/ice-hockey:the tournament#. Ovechkin is at the top of his game, and he's just one of the many top Russian NHL stars. They'll have a hockey-crazy nation behind them as they play in front of their home fans. The international ice surface, which is significantly wider than the NHL one, also tends to favor European as opposed to North American teams.

However, the Russians are well aware that winning gold won't be easy. The Canadians have more depth up front, led by the player many regard as the best in the world, Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who scored the winning goal in the final against the US in Vancouver. However, the Canadians will be also without one of their top goal scorers. Steven Stamkos had to pull out after a broken leg suffered during an NHL game late last year failed to heal in time. Goaltending is also something of a question mark.

The Swedes, who won the 2006 tournament in Turin, had also been seen as a contender, partly due to the fact that in Henrik Lundqvist, they have possibly the best goaltender in the world right now. But they also suffered a major blow when center Henrik Sedin pulled out due to a rib injury.

So for the Russians, there may be no better opportunity to win their first Olympic gold medal since the 1992 Olympics, when it was won by the Commonwealth of Independent States, a team made up of players from the countries of the former Soviet Union.

The spirit of Sarajevo

And if any complacency creeps in, the legendary Tretiak will be there to knock them into shape. Speaking at the opening press conference, he said after the disappointment of Vancouver, the current team needed to recapture the “spirit of Sarajevo.”

"In 1980 it was a good lesson for us," Tretiak said, referring to what was possibly the biggest upset in any Olympic hockey tournament, when the Big Red Machine, as the Soviet Union was then known, was defeated by a team of US college players at the Lake Placid games.

"It taught us you have to respect your opponent. We did not have respect for the Americans at the time,” he said.

At the Sarajevo Olympics in 1984, though, the Soviets bounced back reclaiming the gold medal. Tretiak, Ovechkin, and an entire nation are hoping the current Russian team can come up with a similar performance in #link:http://www.dw.de/top-stories/olympics/s-100857:Sochi.#

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