Saturday, February 23, 2002
Belarus does what Russia should have at Games
By Eric Adelson
ESPN The Magazine
WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- The clock hit 20 minutes, and all of the underdogs raised their sticks in triumph, and none of the favorites smiled. And the crowd stood and chanted "Be-la-RUS! Be-la-RUS!"
And when the bronze medals were handed out to the Russians, it seemed like a mistake.
The Russians looked bitter and miserable Saturday in a halfhearted 7-2 consolation victory over upstart Belarus. They looked like a team that never wanted to play hockey again after losing another shot at gold a day before. The bronze medals seemed like an albatross around their necks -- carrying the huge weight of unmet expectations.
"It's disappointing," said goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, who made 21 saves. "I thought we were good enough to win a gold."
Khabibulin slouched over slightly as he answered postgame questions, pausing before whispering every answer. He confessed he's not too excited about going back to a losing Lightning team.
"I might need a little time to adjust," Khabibulin said. "It's so emotional playing for your country. It's quite different from the NHL. After awhile, you just approach it as your job. Here, you find a little extra."
Belarus found plenty extra -- an upset win over Sweden on Wednesday set off a nationwide celebration, and games against Canada and Russia were just a cherry on top. A fourth-place finish in the Olympics -- with only one current NHL player on the roster -- might just be the best thing that ever happened to the young nation.
"We made history for our country," Anaheim Mighty Ducks defenseman Ruslan Salei said. "This was more than successful -- nobody thought we could do it."
And while Khabibulin slumps back to his starting job in the NHL, Salei still buzzes about getting a chance to play against the NHL's best in front of a worldwide audience.
"It was one of the best moments of my career," he said with a smile. "It's like playing against an all-star team. I hope the Ducks were watching."
Salei himself was watching the Russians lose to Team USA on Friday night in the second semifinal.
"They should try harder," he said.
That's the word: should. It carries the expectations of others, and little else. The Russians must hate that word.
"We won a medal," Darius Kasparaitis said. "We should be proud of it."
Eric Adelson is a writer for ESPN The Magazine.