Head coach Oleg Znarok declared his team’s Olympic gold medal triumph as ‘the most important game of my life’. For a man who has won three Gagarin Cups and medalled in four IIHF World Championships, it’s a big claim.
But what were the defining features of the Olympic Athletes from Russia’s triumph in PyeongChang, and what might the future hold?
Picking roles, not reputations
Russia’s failure in Sochi produced another round of recrimination. How was that players with the undoubted talents of Yevgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin had once again failed to make their mark at the highest level? There was a sense that Zinetula Bilyaletdinov’s roster was a collection of highly-skilled individuals that rarely resembled a cohesive team.
Znarok, throughout his coaching career, has done the opposite. From his first success, leading unheralded MVD to a Gagarin Cup Final, to his Olympic triumph in Korea, he has specialised in putting together rosters of players who will do a job, even if they don’t always rattle up the highlight-reel plays. H
is 2014 World Champion team benefited from the post-Olympic hangover that weakened several other teams, but also showed how Znarok was willing to be ruthless in his choice of players. By the time PyeongChang came around, he had taken the unprecedented step of overlooking Ovechkin for IIHF action in Cologne and built a roster with plenty of scope for the workmanlike talents of Sergei Andronov, Ivan Telegin or Andrei Zubarev.
Highly-touted names such as Andrei Markov and Vladimir Tkachyov were nowhere; free-scoring SKA forward Vadim Shipachyov, once a lock, barely featured throughout the tournament. The formula worked: a hard-working, hugely committed Russian roster displayed defensive fortitude rarely seen from the Red Machine and reaped its golden rewards.
That opening game against Slovakia, half forgotten now, highlighted everything that can go wrong with any Russian team. Brilliant for five minutes, pedestrian for 55, the OAR lost out 2-3 and alarm bells started ringing. Lambasted for having no ‘Plan B’, slammed for going 0 for 6 on the power play, it felt like the same old story for Russian Olympic hopes.
But this time, instead of retreating into a sullen bubble of recrimination, the Russians actually followed their own post-game statements about studying what went wrong and drawing the appropriate conclusions.
An 8-2 thumping of Slovenia in the next game calmed nerves, a decisive 4-0 win over the USA announced the team as a contender, and those first night nerves were banished. Crucially, the Russians trailed 2-3 once again, with seconds left in the gold-medal game: by now, the team understood what it had to do to win and snatched a dramatic victory.
The ‘base club’
Not everyone in Russian hockey is happy about it, but there were shades of ‘Back in the USSR’ about Znarok’s triumph. The glory days of Soviet hockey relied on an almost seamless overlap between CSKA and the national team; in 2018, SKA has replaced CSKA as the country’s pre-eminent club, but the overall result is much the same.
Fifteen SKA men, who play together under Znarok day in, day out formed the backbone of the national team. A further eight came from CSKA, and just two Metallurg Magnitogorsk players rounded out the roster.
It was a decision that prompted criticism. Is it really a ‘Russian’ team, rather than a recreation of SKA? Have the Russian hockey authorities sacrificed a competitive KHL on the altar of Olympic glory? Or is it simply a logical move from a coach eager to work with players he knows and trusts as he goes into the biggest challenge of his career?
Maybe it’s simply a reflection of the fact that, between them, SKA and CSKA had lost fewer games than their closest challengers in the KHL, Jokerit or Ak Bars, and were the best available options. Whatever the reasons, it produced a team that had the instinctive understanding to deliver in clutch plays, giving a vital edge over unfamiliar opposition.
The delights of youth
Kirill Kaprizov’s gold-medal goal was the stuff of fairytales. A 20-year-old forward, whose boyhood club, Metallurg Novokuznetsk, was removed from the KHL, pops up to decide the biggest game of his life in thrilling fashion.
For many, especially those who didn’t closely follow the World Juniors in recent years, PyeongChang was a first sighting of this baby-faced assassin. Znarok’s decision not to select him in Cologne was criticised at the time, and many suggested it spelled the end for the likeable forward’s Olympic dream.
Instead, it proved to be a mini master-stroke: unleashed in top-level competition for the first time, Kaprizov chipped in with nine (5+4) points from six games. Not bad for a secret weapon.
The there was the tournament’s top scorer, Nikita Gusev. Now 25, he’s not exactly a rookie anymore. But his top-level international experience was limited to a run-out in Germany last May after a career path that took in stints at Amur Khabarovsk and Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk in the lower reaches of the KHL before he got his chance to shine at SKA. There were players with bigger reputations, but Znarok’s willingness to trust one of his key lieutenants from his ‘day job’ paid dividends with a consistent level of performance throughout the Olympics.
Among Znarok’s comments after the Games, the coach complained of being tired and said he had some ‘big decisions’ to make. Combining the high-pressure roles of coaching the national team and slaking SKA’s thirst for KHL glory generates a huge workload, and the sky-high expectations of both sets of fans intensifies the glare of attention that Znarok faces.
Znarok’s words carried echoes of Boris Yeltsin’s “I’m tired, I’m leaving” address at the sudden end of his presidency – and immediately alerted the Russian media to the possibility that their man might prefer to quit while he is ahead. Roman Rothenburg, vice-president of the Russian Hockey Federation, was quick to insist that Znarok would lead the team to the Worlds in Copenhagen this May, but after that the future is uncertain – despite the FHR’s clear desire to keep their man in place.