QUEBEC CITY – The heroes are back in town. After seven games in Halifax, Team Canada has an opportunity to play its two most important World Championship games in Quebec City. The Colisée Pepsi has seen many exciting NHL games and international match-ups, including Rendez-Vous ‘87 between the NHL All-Stars and Viktor Tikhonov’s Soviet national team with stars like Vyacheslav Fetisov, Igor Larionov, Vladimir Krutov, Valeri Kamensky, and Vyacheslav Bykov.
Even though the Soviet hockey soldiers were seen as hailing from an evil country at that time, their impressive individual hockey skills gained much admiration within the North American hockey community, and encounters with the Soviets in the ‘70s and ‘80s are often remembered as the best hockey games ever by many Canadian hockey fans.
Even though more than two decades have passed since Rendez-Vous, the impressions have remained in the memories of hockey-crazy Canadians. Today, Bykov is leading Russia as the head coach, and in Team Canada’s absence from Quebec City, Bykov’s team became the darlings of the crowds. Bykov himself became the darling of the provincial journalists, since during his time in Switzerland in the ‘90s, he learnt to speak French.
The organizers in Quebec City seem to do everything that would make their traditional archrivals feel right at home. Each goal scored by the Russians is followed by a club version of the famous Russian folk song Katyusha. And it’s happened no less than 32 times now. The title of the song, which was composed in 1938, was later also bestowed upon rocket launchers. The lovely melody remains popular to this day, far beyond the former Iron Curtain. And now, the only rockets are the ones in red uniforms on the ice of the “Kolizey”, as the Russian national team has become something like the home team, with the Québécois their supporters.
The song is about a lonely girl, missing her true love, a soldier who’s far away from her: “Let him preserve the motherland, same as Katyusha preserves her love.” The time of “hockey soldiers” has been over for about twenty years, and it isn’t just the Red Army Choir’s version of the song that’s available now. Alexander Ovechkin and his friends are living in luxury hotels instead of barracks, and they’re not playing for only honour and the Motherland, but also for millions of dollars. And their Katyushas are actually with them instead of writing love letters while sitting at home.
Fans in Quebec City admire the former hockey soldiers and their not-quite-so-golden successors. They’re cheering for the thus-far most successful 2008 World Championship team on Quebec ice, forgetting about old political differences and whether it’s traitorous to applaud Canada’s traditional rivals, focused on the fascination of sport. Rossiya is present everywhere: on the ice, in the stands, in the tourist sites of Vieux-Quebec, in the hotspots of the Grande Allée.
Ovechkin is recognized everywhere, but maybe even more famous is Alexander Radulov, the former record-setting star of the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts. He scored an impressive 207 points in his second season and is remembered everywhere he goes, two years after he left Quebec to make the NHL with the Nashville Predators. He’s brought back memories for the Québécois of the high art of Russian hockey that they saw in the old days. The speed, shots and unpredictability of the Katyusha weapons, the smoothness and skating abilities of Russian ice dancers like Katyusha Bobrova. And now, “Radu” is back with a bunch of high-calibre players from the East.
However, today could be the last day of the “Kolizey” flirtations between the Russian team and the enthusiastic crowds. They will cheer again and want to see Russia in the final against Canada. Then, should it happen, the love will wither away, the “Kolizey” will become the Colisée again. The Canadians will cheer for the Maple Leaf team just like in the old days while enjoying the clash of the two historically most successful hockey cultures. And the Russians will have to do without support here in the West. Far away from home, meanwhile, many Katyushas are hoping that Bykov’s squad will make the Motherland proud before coming back.
And the Québécois? They will hope to celebrate Canada’s title. And whatever happens, the international flair Russia’s shown on and off the ice will offer shining memories for a long while, much like Rendez-Vous ’87.