Newspaper article International New York Times

On Ice, It's the Latest Version of a U.S.-Russian Cold War

Newspaper article International New York Times

On Ice, It's the Latest Version of a U.S.-Russian Cold War

Article excerpt

The Russian and American hockey teams are ready to do battle at the Sochi Olympics on Saturday.


Around every corner here, the face of Russia lurks. Not the stony visage of President Vladimir V. Putin, who delivered the Winter Games to his country, but the jack-o-lantern grin of Alex Ovechkin, on whose stick the host nation's success now rests.

The ubiquitous Coca-Cola ads featuring Ovechkin are the surest sign that this is not his mother's Russia. The slogan, as translated by Ovechkin, is "Join," which was not a popular sentiment in 1980 when Tatyana Ovechkina (nee Kabayeva) was the point guard on the women's basketball team that won the gold medal in the first Summer Olympics held on Russian soil.

Neither Canada nor the United States attended the Moscow Games, staying away along with 59 other countries, to protest the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Thirty-four years later, at the first Winter Olympics held on Russian soil, the United States and Canada are big-game prey that Ovechkin is expected to slay on his way to leading the hosts to men's hockey victory.

In Russia, hockey is not just the national sport, it is a mirror reflecting the country's collective soul. For the past 22 years, since the break-up of the Soviet Union, that mirror has been cracked by teams that looked strong on paper but could not make it to the top of the medals podium.

As the Russians prepared to face the United States on Saturday in a national pride rally masquerading as a round-robin hockey game, Ovechkin was not counting on any helpful motherly advice.

"Those days were old days," he said. "It was the '80s. It's not the same. It was a different country."

Ovechkin's starring role with the Washington Capitals of the National Hockey League and his association with the iconic American soft drink company are proof of history's power-washing of the communism versus capitalism battle lines.

Yet, the Cold War hostilities have not been totally scrubbed, as was evident at the Russian team's pre-tournament news conference this week.

Seated at a podium, surrounded by every player he helped select, was Vladislav Tretiak, the general manager of the Russia hockey team and the goaltender who started for the Soviet squad in its epic semifinal upset loss to the Americans at the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Tretiak, who watched the final two periods from the bench after giving up a first-period goal, was asked how long it took him to get over the disappointment of that 4-3 defeat.

The 530-seat conference room, filled with scores of Russian volunteers, broke into applause at Tretiak's response: "Let me tell you this; in '84 we managed to rectify our mistakes. We got our gold."

Between 1956, when it made its ice hockey debut, and the break- up of its republic in 1991, the Soviet Union won the Olympic gold in seven of nine appearances. In 1992, a unified team composed of the splintered republic also won. In the five Winter Games since, Russia has won two medals; a silver in 1998 and a bronze in 2002.

The pressure on the men to win an independent Russia's first gold medal on home soil is greater than anything faced by the United States in 2002 or even Canada in 2010.

"Our fans are a little bit tougher, I think," said Sergei Fedorov, a forward on those 1998 and 2002 Olympic teams. "They don't like when the national team loses."

The team going for the gold here includes Viktor Tikhonov, the grandson and namesake of the Soviet coach responsible for pulling Tretiak in 1980, a move that will be second-guessed by the Russian faithful until all the rounded-up stray dogs come home.

"I don't know the exact details," said Tikhonov, a 25-year-old forward who was born in Latvia and moved to northern California when he was four, after his father, Vasily, was hired as an assistant coach by the Sharks. …

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