SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - This week’s Russia v United States ice hockey clash will be a totally different affair from the David and Goliath tale that ended with a U.S. team of unknowns stunning the Soviet Union at the Winter Olympics 34 years ago.
That group of amateur and college athletes captured the hearts of the sporting world at the 1980 Lake Placid Games when they stunned a talented Soviet team that had won nearly every world championship and Olympic tournament since 1964.
The medal-round game, widely known as the “Miracle on Ice,” was not even shown live on U.S. television but Saturday’s preliminary-round match between the two nations is a must-see clash that will draw massive ratings.
“I‘m always nervous, but everybody will be nervous,” said Vladislav Tretyak, president of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation and the goalie who started in the 1980 game.
“We’re all nervous because everybody wants to win, especially against us. All the teams want to face us in the final.”
With a team comprised entirely of top National Hockey League players and looking to build on the silver medal won at the 2010 Vancouver Games, the U.S. will not be able to fly under the radar in Sochi.
The Russian team will not be taken lightly either because it includes a mix of NHL stars, most notably high-scoring forward Alex Ovechkin, and talent from the Kontinental Hockey League, Russia’s top league.
Unlike the 1980 Soviet team that was expected to blow by the United States, this year’s Russian squad will enter the game on a mission to restore pride to a hockey nation stinging from a sixth-place finish at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Russia’s squad in Sochi will carry the weight of an entire nation on their collective shoulders and nothing short of a gold medal will suffice in the hockey-mad country. Russia President Vladimir Putin has said the ice hockey gold was the one medal he wanted his nation to win.
“Yeah, this Olympics there is much more pressure,” Russian captain Pavel Datsyuk told reporters. “Usually, there’s lots of pressure but this is much more, playing at home, in front of our fans.”
Russia boasts one of the more explosive and talented forward lineups in the 12-team tournament, led by Ovechkin, Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk.
The main area of concern for the team, which also has plenty of talent in goal, is a young defense that will have their hands full and nerves tested in a pressure-packed Olympic environment.
In 2010, the United States were again labeled as underdogs but played far better than expected and with admirable spirit en route to an overtime loss to Canada in the gold-medal game.
They arrive in Sochi with much loftier ambitions than the national teams who preceded them and with hopes of securing their own place in the history books.
“I think the Miracle obviously is a great accomplishment for the U.S., but it was 34 years ago and we’re still living on something that happened 34 years ago,” U.S. forward David Backes told reporters.
“As great as it was, and as awesome an accomplishment, I think the guys here would like to write our own chapter and we can talk about ‘80 and 2014.”
The $50 billion spent on the Sochi Games, the most expensive Olympics staged, is intended to showcase Putin’s power but also puts added pressure on the host country’s team.
“Russia hasn’t won a gold medal yet in hockey. You can see how much our president and all of those guys have put in to host the Olympics and they are very proud of it,” said Kovalchuk.
“I think there will be a very high level of play in the competition and it will be a great final.”
Reporting by Frank Pingue; Editing by Robert Woodward