"I have not one brother here, but 22." Thus spoke the legendary Pavel Bure in 1998 when asked how it felt to play in the Olympics with his brother, Valeri.
The Hall of Famer's phrase struck a note, and the Russian media immediately christened that Nagano squad "The Band of Brothers." But what about the 2014 edition of Team Russia, set to start its home-ice Olympic tournament on 13th February against Slovenia? What kind of team, squad or band are they? If you ask Pavel Datsyuk, this version of the Russian hockey family is even more impressive.
“I think we will have a lot more than 22 brothers here,” said Russia’s captain. “The entire country will be with us this time.”
Cohesiveness and brotherhood were the theme of the Russians’ Tuesday press-conference, in which the team’s entire 25-man roster participated, along with the coaches and the Russian Hockey Federation President Vladislav Tretiak. To be sure, all of the questions from the media were directed towards Alexander Ovechkin, Yevgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Datsyuk and Tretiak, but everyone sat through the whole thing, everyone left together and the press was not treated to a single one-on-one.
Russia has never met a public demonstration of anything it didn’t like. But the sight of all 25 players together, with their “game faces” securely on (well, all but Malkin, who was in a relaxed and jovial mood) surely made the impression the team’s coaching staff was looking for. Nobody watching in Russia would refuse the invitation to join this brotherhood.
Will this provide any unwanted pressure? Ovechkin doesn’t think so. He reminisced about the pressure he felt in Turin in 2006, where he was invited as a 20-year-old. He spoke candidly about the “heavy blow” he felt in Vancouver four years later, after being embarrassed by Canada in the quarter-finals. He also said that if Canadians could handle the home fans’ frenzy, surely the Russians will handle it, too.
“I have no idea what the pressure will be like yet”, he added. “I can only guess from the amount of people present here now.”
The Pushkin Hall at the Main Press Centre was indeed bursting at the seams. Russia is always a big draw.
Remembering the 1980 “Miracle on Ice”, Tretiak said the key to Russia’s success will be respecting all of its opponents.
“This is the biggest lesson the Americans taught us,” he said. “Every opponent must be respected first. You can opine on what kind of a team they are after the game. We didn’t respect them and lost. This time, we will respect everybody.”
As for the team’s physical readiness, the Russians were quick to assuage any fears. Pavel Datsyuk, who took part in the morning practice after missing one the previous day, dismissed the Canadian head coach Mike Babcock’s doubts about his health.
“My injury doesn’t bother me. Babcock doesn’t bother me either,” said Datsyuk with a wry smile, sending a wave of laughter through the room.
“NHL players always arrive a bit late,” said Malkin. “But we have plenty of time to get ready. Today the guys were skating much better and the speed was higher. I am sure we will be able to get in synch soon.”
As was the case with his Canadian and American colleagues, Russia’s head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov staunchly refused to reveal his thoughts on the goaltending situation. With NHL stars Semyon Varlamov and Sergei Bobrovski listening with stony facial expressions, “Coach Bill” said the decision has not been made yet.
The dilemma is indeed a difficult one. Bobrovsky was the Vezina Trophy this year, but Varlamov has much more international experience and was in goal for Russia’s victorious 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship campaign. Both goalies are having tremendous seasons with their NHL teams. One would think that whoever winds up winning the job will not have much of a margin of error.
The margin of error appears to be slim for the entire home team. After not medalling in the two previous Olympics, the proud hockey nation is sure to react strongly to any problems. With a country-full of brothers, the team’s pain is everyone’s pain as well. Not that these particular 25 brothers are afraid.
“With a captain like this one, we are not afraid of anything,” said Kovalchuk, nodding in Datsyuk’s direction. The Detroit Red Wings’ magic man kept smiling his wry smile.
For him, and for all of Russia, the time has come.