Russia's Big Red Machine ready to roll again
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - The Russian men's ice hockey team came together in a show of unity on Tuesday, ready to reclaim the country's status as global superpower in the sport by winning the gold medal at the Sochi Olympics.
If there was any doubt about ice hockey's importance to Russians it was removed by an 'all-for-one, one-for-all' press briefing which filled the largest conference hall at the Sochi Olympic media center, attracting close to 200 journalists and 40 plus television cameras.
Spread across the podium was the best of Russian hockey past and present, with three-times National Hockey League most valuable player Alex Ovechkin and former goaltending great Vladislav Tretyak, now president of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, handling most of the questions.
"I participated in four Olympic Games and I don't remember such an interest in ice hockey players," said Tretyak. "We have brought for the first time the entire ice hockey team.
"I think all of us here together decided to appear at this press conference as a team because we want to show that we are one team.
"It is a team sport and it's up to the entire team to get the gold so that is why we are here together."
The Russians enter their tournament opener against minnows Slovenia on Thursday feeling the same crushing pressure that was on Canada four years ago at the Vancouver Games with the hockey-crazed nation expecting nothing but gold.
But if there is one country in the world where the sport matters as much as it does to Canadians, it is Russia and president Vladimir Putin would love to see the most expensive Olympics in history end the same way as Vancouver with the host nation celebrating a gold medal.
"We are on our home turf and we remember the Vancouver Olympics and know that the Canadians had a very difficult time," said Tretyak, who along with figure skater Irina Rodnina was given the honor of lighting the Olympic cauldron during Friday's opening ceremony.
"We know we enjoy a lot of support here but we also know that we have a lot of responsibility, a lot to answer for.
"Ice hockey is extremely popular in Russia and I think this is going to be the most prestigious tournament.
"We understand what we have to do and will fight for the results every match."
At a Games designed to showcase the face of modern Russia, nothing could be more symbolic of the country's resurgence as a global player than a return of the men's hockey team to the top of the Olympic podium.
As the former Soviet Union, the nation's all-conquering hockey team, known as the 'Big Red Machine' was the sport's undisputed superpower.
Winners of six-of-seven Olympic titles from the 1964 Innsbruck Games to Calgary in 1988, the last traces of the mighty Russian hockey empire were seen at the 1992 Albertville Winter Games when a unified team of former Soviet republics took the gold.
In the five Winter Olympics' since, Russia has had to settle for one silver and a bronze while slumping to a new low in Vancouver with a sixth-place finish.
"When we lost to the Canadians it was a big blow to us, a big failure, it was a big blow to everyone in Russia," said Ovechkin, the face of the Sochi Olympics and a proud Russian who was prepared to defy the NHL and risk his $124 million contract to be part of the 2014 Winter Games.
"We have not had a single match yet and I can't tell if the pressure exists but there is a certain pressure that there is so much attention from the media.
"Who hosts the Olympic Games probably has the most pressure and we are in the same position Canada was four years ago but I'm pretty sure we have the experience and are old enough guys to handle that pressure," he added.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)