BERNE – I remember it like it was yesterday. Game One versus France. A roaring capacity crowd of 12,000 with Russian president Vladimir Putin at the Ice Palace in St. Petersburg. And the all-star team that was supposed to restore Russian hockey pride on home ice.
If you haven't guessed, I'm talking about the 2000 IIHF World Championship. And boy, was that ever a shocking experience. It was my first World Championship as a journalist. It made a deep impression when Russia flopped with an 11th-place finish rather than claiming gold for the first time since 1993. Beating France 8-1 on opening day was as good as it got for the hosts.
This, despite a roster featuring Pavel Bure, Alexei Yashin, Alexei Zhamnov, Sergei Gonchar, Andrei Markov, and a host of other well-known (or soon to be well-known) names. Goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, incidentally, was one of the culprits in 2000, posting an .879 save percentage and 2.75 GAA in four games, and is eager to erase those memories as the Russian starter here in Switzerland.
So what's led to the turnaround for Russia, the current defending champs, over the past decade?
For years after St. Petersburg, I could never really trust the Russians. They'd always show up at this tournament with offensive talent that glittered as brightly as a Faberge egg, and would run roughshod over the lower-echelon nations. But their defence and goaltending would always prove to be, shall we say, far less impregnable than the Kremlin walls in key situations, and would sooner or later be exposed versus the Czechs or Canadians.
An anomalous reversal of those trends occurred in Sweden in 2002. The Russians made it to the finals with a less-than-flashy, uncharacteristic commitment to defence. But they fell short anyway when Slovakia's Peter Bondra wired a late blast past goalie Maxim Sokolov in the gold medal game.
Give Sokolov credit for showing up each year between 2001 and 2006 to backstop the World Championship squad. But while Sokolov led Avangard Omsk to the Russian Superleague title in 2004, in international play he couldn't deliver the key saves at key times that Russia needed to get back on top. Just as importantly, his defencemen were caught far too often fishing for the puck instead of clearing out the crease, pinching in from the blueline at inopportune times instead of taking care of their own zone.
The Russians stumbled badly again in 2004, finishing 10th in the Czech Republic. Viktor Tikhonov's comeback behind the Russian bench at age 73 proved to be a classic example of “jumping the shark.” (Although in fairness, the legendary Soviet coach probably didn't watch many episodes of Happy Days.)
However, something began to change at the 2005 IIHF World Championship in Austria. Positive signs emerged, showing Russia might once again regain its superpower status in hockey.
During the NHL lockout year, the Russians iced another all-star lineup, which included, as a point of interest, all three future candidates for the 2009 Hart Trophy as NHL MVP: Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, and Pavel Datsyuk. But they didn't just run around trying to run up the score in Vienna. They demonstrated their best commitment to team defence in years.
Granted, they tied the Slovaks in the Preliminary Round and the Swiss in the Qualifying Round, which can't have been satisfying results. They won most games only by a goal or two. They lost to Canada in the semi-finals 4-3, after spotting their rivals a 4-0 lead. But in the end, they gained more than just a bronze medal versus Sweden. It was as if the 2005 tournament provided a set of “training wheels” for what was yet to come.
In 2006, Russia knocked off Canada in the Olympic quarter-finals but couldn't get past the Finns in the semis. Their World Championship outing saw them go undefeated through the Preliminary and Qualifying Rounds before the Czech Republic's Zbynek Irgl outdueled Sokolov in the quarter-final OT.
They were heading in the right direction, by and large eschewing the rampant individualism that had kept them off the throne since the 1990s. Yet under the guidance of 2005-06 bench boss Vladimir Krikunov, an old-school hard-liner, the critical rapport between coach, NHLers, and Russian league players wasn't where it needed to be.
Bringing in Slava Bykov—a Westernized coach rooted in Russian hockey excellence--solved that problem. The Russians were nearly perfect in Moscow 2007 until Finland's Mikko Koivu ousted them in the semi-final OT, forcing them to settle for bronze. In 2008, they finally ended their 15-year gold medal drought in dramatic fashion against the host Canadians, thanks to Ilya Kovalchuk's tying goal and OT winner.
Today, Russia's offence is delivering the goods, and its defence is no longer a day-in, day-out detriment versus the other top nations. As the 2009 tournament has shown, the Russians can play you any way you want, and they're not helplessly dependent on the availability of their NHL stars. On Thursday, for instance, they deployed just five NHLers.
Of course, it would be nice to have Ovechkin, Malkin, and Datsyuk in the lineup. But the Russians just seem to find ways to win these days, whether it's the easy romps (7-2 over France, 5-0 over Germany), the tight-checking nail-biters where they're actually outshot (4-2 over Switzerland), or the pond hockey extraganzas (6-5 in OT over Sweden).
There is an aura of confidence around them that has intensified ever since they got over a huge psychological hurdle by winning the gold last year. Their commitment to doing the proverbial “little things” is buying offensive opportunities for snipers like Kovalchuk and Alexei Morozov as well.
Yes, there are reasons to believe in Russia again. And St. Petersburg feels like a long time ago.