Russia again fails to deliver at Games
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- It all sounded so darn good on paper.
Stack your team with nine KHL players, win the Olympic gold medal, show the world your fledgling league is just as good as the NHL, then enter your own Games in Sochi, Russia, in four years as the reigning champion.
You see, it wasn't enough that Russia was going to be a heavy contender in this Olympic hockey tournament. There was, as rumor would have it, tremendous pressure on coach Vyacheslav Bykov to include as many KHL players as possible. There were powerful people behind the scenes who wanted to make this a political statement, too.
Well, Russia made its statement, all right. Thanks for coming out.
In a quarterfinal game that meant everything to both hockey superpowers, Canada embarrassed Russia 7-3 on Wednesday night.
"It is the same feeling as the Canadians would have had if they lost -- it's a disaster," Russian netminder Ilya Bryzgalov said after the game.
If these are indeed the last Olympics with NHL players, mark Russia down with a big oh-fer -- four Olympics with NHL players, zero gold medals.
With Russia's talent base and stable of high-end offensive players, it's stunning that it hasn't delivered at least once in four NHL-sanctioned Olympics. Of the four Games, this was clearly Russia's best chance. Superstar Alex Ovechkin, in his prime, was leading the way, along with fellow NHL stars Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk, Andrei Markov and Sergei Gonchar.
Yet this team never fully came together. The shootout loss to Slovakia in the preliminary round was not a hiccup, it was a precursor. One Russian player, who shall remain anonymous because he wanted it that way, told ESPN.com after the Slovakia loss that his great fear was the KHL and NHL players were not on the same page and he hoped the team would come together before it was too late. Talk about prophetic.
"You know, I can't answer, I can't answer for this question," Bryzgalov said Wednesday night when ESPN.com asked him about the potential KHL-NHL chemistry issues.
It's not so much that KHLers were on this team. Fact is, aside from Alexei Kovalev of the Ottawa Senators and maybe Alexander Frolov of the Los Angeles Kings, there weren't many NHLers overlooked. But it's the fact that perhaps not all the right KHLers were taken. It still amazes at least this writer that veteran blueliner Sergei Zubov, the Nicklas Lidstrom of this generation of Russian hockey players, was left home despite having a solid KHL campaign. Russia's lackluster power play at these Olympics surely could have used his mastery.
Asked by ESPN.com about the KHL players on the team, Bykov disagreed with the notion that it contributed to his team's downfall.
OK, so let's agree to disagree. But from this standpoint, Russia's makeup was flawed from the beginning.
Wednesday's elimination also ends a controversial Olympics for Ovechkin, who -- for reasons that remain unclear -- decided to clam up with the media in Vancouver and rarely granted interviews. For a guy who is so publicly imploring the NHL to send its players to Sochi in 2014, his behavior here with the media and his decision not to help showcase these Olympics are mind-boggling to say the least.
Once again Wednesday night, he answered just a few questions for TV rights holders and Russian media and just two questions for the wire news services before blowing off the media at large. Twice. No matter how you spin it, it's unacceptable for a player of his stature not to fulfill his obligations as a spokesman for the game.
When asked by a news agency reporter whether he was disappointed with Wednesday's outcome, Ovechkin said, "What do you think? I'm disappointed." He then walked away.
Classy Datsyuk? He answered lots of questions. So did Evgeni Nabokov, who got drilled for six goals before getting yanked. Somebody had to answer for this loss, but apparently Ovechkin didn't see it that way.
It may very well be that Ovechkin atones for 2010 and leads the host country to Olympic glory in four years, but that won't carry the same weight if the NHL doesn't send its players to Sochi (Ovechkin has said he would play regardless). But let the record show, in the biggest game of his sparkling career, Ovechkin delivered a major dud. He was a total nonfactor.
Shocking? You bet. And it'll take four years to heal these wounds.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.