BUFFALO – “Davai! Davai!” Russian head coach Valeri Bragin cheered on his players when they needed it in the last two, tight games, and also in the practice on Tuesday that was somewhat different than at the time he used to be a player.
North Americans who watched the practice might have noticed that the days of deadly serious and close-lipped players of the former Red Army Team touring through North America have gone.
These juniors here in Buffalo showed overwhelming happiness on the day between the shootout win against Sweden and the gold-medal game against Canada.
Bragin let them practise what they enjoy most: varying rushes to the net and shots that keep goalkeeper Dmitri Shikin hot, who has become Russia’s number-one netminder after the opening game, a 6-3 defeat to Canada.
In between, the players were kidding around with their teammates and cheering each other after each penalty shot. Of course Bragin let them practise the shootout, essential work given that it was needed in the semi-finals game against Sweden.
“The good atmosphere is easy to explain,” Bragin said. “We reached the final after two hard games and for the first time in several years. The players really enjoy it. They could also recover a bit after two games in two days. The main goal before each tournament is to reach the gold medal game, so now we put pressure away for us and in the final it’s a 50-50 chance for each team.”
The gold-medal opponent will once again be Canada. An opponent he knows well as he was an assistant coach in 2005 when Russia lost the gold-medal game against the Canadians. And he played for the Soviet U20 national team in the “unofficial” World U20 Championships in 1975 in Canada and the U.S. and in 1976 in Finland, winning both round-robin events just before Canada.
Of course he also followed on TV the great rivalry between the two nations when the Soviets played in the Super Series and Canada Cups.
“Those games beginning from 1972 gave a huge boost for the development of the game worldwide. It was really a really great event,” Bragin remembered.
“Everybody in Russia expected us in the final this year and it will again be a classic rivalry. When the men’s team won the World Championship in 2008 and 2009, the interest in hockey started rising again in Russia, so everybody back home is looking forward to the gold-medal game.”
Bragin has definitely understood how to bring this team together and how to form great team chemistry.
“We have a good locker room and guys helping each other and we showed that we can defeat any team,” said defenceman Nikita Pivtsakin. “But it is always a battle against Canada at any level. All the hockey world will follow this game and we’re looking forward to it. We really like the atmosphere here, and the pro-Canada atmosphere will give us extra motivation to score goals and silence the crowd.”
Looking at the roster, it’s striking that all but one player is 1991-born. Teammates know each other well from other youth selections. Yevgeni Kuznetsov is the only 1992-born player and the designated team leader for next year based on his strong performance here in Buffalo.
Another thing, which confuses fans in North America more than in Russia, is that only players from Russian leagues got ice time in the last few games, but for Bragin that’s not an issue.
“There’s no controversy about players who want to play junior hockey in Canada. It’s good that everybody has the free choice whether they want to play in Russia or in Canada,” Bragin said. “I think the players we have on our team are the best, and they’re better than those playing in Canada.”
Bragin tested some of the 20 Russians from the Canadian Hockey League when the U20 national team travelled to Canada for the “Super Series” against all-star teams from the OHL, QMJHL and WHL, but he didn’t select any but backup goalie Igor Bobkov.
“The Super Series really helped us in terms of mentality. The players got the feeling that they can beat Canadian teams,” Bragin said. “It was also an opportunity for the players to show they deserve and want to play in the World U20 Championship.”
The coach and the players don’t talk about the past and want to forget the opening day loss against tomorrow’s opponent. They followed the semi-finals against the U.S. from the press tribune.
“We play better right now as a team and we want to make our country proud,” Kuznetsov said, knowing that it won’t be an easy task. “Canada had a one-sided game against the U.S. in the semi-finals. We know Canada plays with a great spirit and emotions against us. They expect to win the gold medal, but back home in Russia they also expect from us to win the gold.”
May the better team bring the gold home.