ZURICH – Russia’s path to winning the World U20 Championship in Buffalo was both rocky and spectacular. Completing the success required intangible qualities that haven’t exactly been known as typical Russian attributes. But times change.
Fans in Buffalo and in front of TV screens saw it over and over again. Russia was one preliminary round loss away from the relegation round, they were virtually gone from the quarterfinal, three minutes away from a semi-final loss and they were down and seemingly out after two periods of the gold medal game.
Russia made the final round as the third-placed team of its group recovering from a start which saw them lose to Canada and Sweden. A win against the Czechs saved the playoffs.
Their comeback win in the quarterfinals against Finland was as unexpected as it was spectacular. They came back from a 3-1 deficit with two goals in the last four minutes of regulation time before the team’s only underaged player, Yevgeni Kuznetsov, scored again, at 6:44 of overtime.
After only 17 hours of rest, Russia faced Sweden and had another comeback win. Sergei Kalinin made it 4-4 with 87 seconds left in regulation time to pave the way for a shootout win.
Then, in the gold medal game against Canada, came the coronation of Russia’s series of comeback wins. Canada led 3-0 after dominating for two periods and nobody, really nobody, saw any indication that this game could turn into another direction. And still, it did, with five Russian goals in 16 minutes.
How could this be possible? How could this be achieved by Russia, whose hockey teams haven’t been known for huge comebacks, and for what North Americans often refer to as “character wins”?
One reason could be that the Russian hockey psyche has changed. Russian players survived the tough (although, successful in hockey terms) Soviet days and in the process they have survived the transition phase between the Soviet time and modern Russia that was characterized by chaos in many aspects of life in the ‘90s.
This included hockey with low salaries and with high-calibre players escaping to all kind of foreign leagues, from the NHL to Switzerland to Denmark to Italy.
All players on the gold-medal winning U20 national team were born when the Soviet Union was in the process of dissolution. They know this country only from history books.
When they were teenagers they were already playing in hockey organizations in a remodeled Russian hockey landscape, where players were true professionals and the best ones could earn more than anywhere else in Europe.
The top domestic league had become more professional in the 2000s, its clubs again won European club trophies after the Russian league’s deep crisis in the ‘90s and later, the founding of the KHL in 2008 solidified the upward trend.
When these players were 13, they saw the rise of superstar, Alexander Ovechkin, who became a top player of the Russian league and helped Russia win the U20 gold in 2003. This was followed by emergence of Yevgeni Malkin.
They saw on TV how the men’s national team found their way back to glory, winning the 2008 and 2009 World Championships, ending a 14-year draught. Since then they know how it is for their nation to win gold without needing to listen to tales from the glory days from their fathers and grandfathers, about how much more successful their generations were.
“When the men’s team won the World Championship in 2008 and 2009, the interest in hockey started to rise again in Russia,” said Valeri Bragin, who coached the U20s to the world title.
This might explain why these kids are different than those from a few years ago. Players like Yevgeni Kuznetsov, Vladimit Tarasenko and Maxim Kitsyn had their childhood years in a more stable situation. Both when it comes to general life in Russia, but also in terms of hockey development.
But there’s more behind all these changes that happened between the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 and now. The end of the Soviet rule was also the end of centralization in Russian hockey. There was and still is a Central Sport Club of the Army (better known as CSKA Moscow), but it has lost the power to recruit any top player, like in the old days.
Dynamo Moscow won some Russian championships later on, the last one in 2005, but most titles have gone to clubs from other regions since Lada Togliatti became the first non-Moscow champion in Russian/Soviet hockey history in 1994.
Russian club hockey has for the last decade been dominated by teams from the vast area of central Russia – from the steel city of Magnitogorsk at the European-Asian border, to Kazan in Tatarstan or to Omsk in Siberia.
These are clubs that were not really relevant during the Soviet times and which lost their best players to the army team in Moscow. Now, they were suddenly competing for top players and for national reign with money mainly from local industry or regional governments. And they started developing players, with Malkin from Magnitogorsk as the best example.
This U20 national team that won gold is a reflection of the new Russian hockey landscape with strong clubs from all around the country and with a hockey scene in Moscow that went from dominant to struggling.
Of the 22 players, only five were raised in or around Moscow and seven came from the western part of Russia. This means 15 players, including most of the team leaders, were raised in central or eastern Russia, anywhere from the Tatar capital of Kazan to Khabarovsk near the Pacific Ocean.
These players have a different mentality than the Muscovites such as last year’s captain Nikita Filatov. They represent a hard-working, team-oriented and humble approach, which you might need in those regions.
And they don’t necessarily dream too much about the NHL, instead focusing on developing in Russia rather than becoming a junior star in Canada.
Coach Bragin, a Moscow-raised former Soviet U20 national team player, managed to combine the different mentalities into a team concept seldom seen since the end of the Soviet Union. There was a chemistry of cooperativeness and happiness during practices and in the games that hasn’t been seen before.
Bragin praised his players, and especially captain Vladimir Tarasenko, who came back from the dressing room during the gold medal game despite a rib injury. “He’s a real character guy and a real captain. He went on the ice despite feeling pain after every shift,” Bragin said.
Indeed, talking to Tarasenko, you can hardly hear a glimpse of selfishness or arrogance. You hear a player who is rather shy, who avoids big words and who prefers talking about the team.
“It’s not just about me; it’s all about the team,” Tarasenko said before the final round. “Every guy on our team can be a leader in a different moment.”
Or, as Denis Golubev said after scoring the deciding shootout goal against Sweden: “It doesn’t matter who scores the goals. It’s not about me, it’s about the team. We wanted to win badly because Russia hasn’t won the World U20 Championship for the last seven years.”
Or, as Kuznetsov commented after winning gold: “We improved as a team each game and we wanted to make our country proud. We were simply the best team in the end. We have the Russian character, that’s why we never gave up.”
And while the coach praised the players, they praised him. Valeri Bragin did not only merge these players into a strong unit, he also motivated them in the right moment. After the first intermission of the gold medal game he was angry enough to break a coaches’ board in the dressing room.
“The team didn’t play as they should. I just woke them up and told them how they should play,” Bragin commented.
And in the end it worked. And in the process, showing character hockey observers haven’t noticed from Russian junior squads before. Somehow, those Russian kids became “more Canadian” in a game where different styles of play have been merging in the last few decades.
Something, that isn’t necessarily bad. For sure, winning gold isn’t.