MOSCOW – Russia’s 2014 World Championship-winning roster got a second chance to catch up with President Vladimir Putin just hours after returning to Moscow in glory.
The head of state had already congratulated the players in the Minsk Arena locker room moments after Sunday’s 5-2 victory over Finland put the trophy back in Russia’s hands and completed a perfect record in the tournament.
And on Tuesday the team was invited to a Kremlin reception after its open-top bus ride through the centre of Moscow, parading the trophy before thousands of adoring fans.
Typically road closures in central Moscow draw an angry response from motorists, but this time the shut down on busy Tverskaya Street was welcomed by a horde of hockey-lovers who rushed out to greet their heroes, waving flags and chanting ‘Ros-si-ya!’ as the freshly decorated bus, bearing the slogan ‘Strana pobeditelei’ (The country of winners), cruised towards Red Square.
It was a happy ending to a difficult year for Russian hockey, a sport which is always closely tied up with national pride. The depressing failure in Sochi was followed by the sight of Mike Keenan becoming the first North American coach to win the country’s top prize, the Gagarin Cup, while the KHL’s Western Conference was won by a non-Russian team, Lev Prague, for the first time ever.
So victory in Minsk has gone a long way to rebuilding the public’s affection for its team, and from the enthusiastic crowds outside to the rarefied atmosphere at the Georgevski Hall of the Kremlin, there was a sense of redemption as well as triumph.
Nobody mentioned Sochi directly, but as President Putin greeted the team his words hinted at a homecoming for the game.
“Our team made a worthy contribution to the great victorious traditions of Russian ice hockey. You reinforced our leadership in the world hockey ratings and made a wonderful gift to the millions of your fans nationwide, to all those who supported you and believed in your success,” he said in his speech.
At the reception the players received the Order of Honour, and Putin took the opportunity to swiftly repay a favour he enjoyed in Belarus at the weekend.
“You remember how in the locker room on Sunday you offered me champagne?” smiled the President. “Well, now it’s my turn,” he said according to Sport-Express.
Putin also reflected on a conversation he had with head coach Oleg Znarok after the final.
“As you know, I could not resist coming to your locker room after the game. The first thing I did was congratulate your coach Oleg Znarok on the result, his first achievement, and your victory. All of a sudden, I heard him say: ‘I am so sorry.’,” reported the official Kremlin website. “I was surprised and asked him why. He said: ‘For my indecent gesture. It will never happen again.’
“You know, at a moment like that, a moment of triumph and victory for a coach to say something like this is great – it shows we are determined to fight honestly and with dignity and win.”
Russia’s team captain, Alexander Ovechkin, so often the raucous centre point of Russia’s celebrations, was spotted before the presentation in an unusually reflective mood. It was suggested that the forward was anxious about his speech in answer to the President, but in the event he spoke briefly in tribute to his colleagues.
“Everyone knows that our team is full of real warriors,” Ovechkin said. “This team was bound in a single grip. Regardless of all the injuries and blows we suffered, we still brought gold back to our country.”
Putin, of course, was not the only Russian hockey fan enthralled by the climax of the tournament. Sunday’s big game also captured the imagination of millions of fans who did not get to Minsk. In some districts of Moscow, enterprising supporters found ways of beaming online broadcasts of the final on to the walls of their apartment blocks; the local police, reassured that no trouble was brewing, opted to stay and join the party rather than intervene.
And as the hooter sounded on a memorable win, the city centre filled with raucously happy Russians singing and chanting late into the night.
We have been here before, of course. Two years ago Zinetula Bilyaletdinov was similarly feted after leading his team to a perfect sweep of his first World Championship behind the bench. That was followed by disappointment the following year in Stockholm, and despair in Sochi as Russia slumped to quarter-final exits with a string of disjointed displays.
So it’s perhaps not surprising that Oleg Znarok is already determined to ensure there will be no slacking off in future seasons.
Asked for his recollections now the championship is behind him, Znarok retorted: “What do you mean, ‘behind’? Everything is still ahead of us. Only yesterday, when we landed in Moscow, I was thinking that this one is over and it’s time to start again. We will strive to repeat this success – and it will be even harder next time.”
And Putin also urged the team to continue to push for excellence, particularly in view of the upcoming 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship which Russia will host in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
“In Minsk you did everything right. The players in every quintet demonstrated excellent teamwork; they knew exactly what their partners were doing. Both the experienced players and the 14 so-called newcomers to the national team at the World Championship all met our expectations,” Putin added.
“I expect to see the same high readiness of the team in future competitions, both in prestigious annual tournaments and, of course, in the 2016 World Championship, which will take place here in Russia.”
There was a touching footnote to the celebrations, with an additional presentation to Viktor Shuvalov, a member of the first Soviet Winter Olympic team back in 1956. As Putin explained, Shuvalov lost his medal from that competition in the “troubled nineties”. After tracking down the medal in the USA, a campaign raised the money to buy it back, and Shuvalov enjoyed a second gold medal ceremony alongside the class of 2014.