VANCOUVER Feb 13 Russia are favourites to win men's ice hockey gold at the Vancouver Winter Games said Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman on Saturday, desperately trying to defuse mounting pressure on his squad.
Even before the NHL has shut down for the Olympic break, Yzerman got a small taste of the crushing pressure awaiting his men when they begin to arrive in Vancouver on Sunday and prepare for their opening contest against Norway.
In his first meeting with the media, Yzerman was grilled about the immense expectations on his team to win gold for a hockey-crazy nation where the sport is closer to religion than a simple sporting pastime.
"The Russians have won the last two world championships; they are bringing their best players," Yzerman told reporters. "They have some of the top forwards in the world right now, they are the number one ranked team in the world.
"They are the favourite going into the tournament.
"Honestly you think they'll have a parade in Moscow if the Russians come home with a silver medal. They won't.
"The expectation in Russia is gold, the expectation in Sweden is gold, whether they admit or not the USA is in this to win a gold medal.
"All of us are playing to win the tournament, win a gold medal and every team that doesn't will be disappointed."
Despite Yzerman's spin his words will have done little to sway 33 million Canadians that their team is not the one to beat.
But such pressure is not foreign to Canadian hockey players who have learned to live with such burdens from the time they were old enough to strap on a pair of skates and carry a stick.
From the youngest hockey leagues to men's and women's national teams, any player representing Canada in a hockey competition has the same goal - win gold.
"Every player from each of these countries plays to win so it's nothing unusual," explained Yzerman, who as a player helped Canada end a 50-year Olympic gold medal drought at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games. "The expectations for us and hopes are gold but they are for some other countries as well.
"But our players are use to this; they play series after playoff series, year-in and year-out.
"They play in tournaments throughout their minor hockey careers where you have to win. The situation is no different here. It is just on a much bigger scale."
(Editing by Miles Evans; To query or comment on this story email firstname.lastname@example.org)