Nerves rattle in runup to USA vs. Russia

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports
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SOCHI, Russia – In a quiet moment before the USA men's hockey Olympic opener Thursday, Dan Bylsma found a seat on the bench of Shayba Arena. This was before the American and Slovakian players took the ice to warm up, before fans arrived, before even many stadium workers were around.

It was empty and quiet and Bylsma felt an unexpected emotion run through him: nerves.

He thought he might be too old, too experienced, too jaded for that, but here it was, like the first game he ever coached back in the minors (Wilkes-Barre vs. Hershey), or his first game with the Pittsburgh Penguins five years ago, or even Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals. Suddenly, what's routine wasn't.

"It was special," he said.

And that was against Slovakia, he noted. What's it going to be like Saturday, when the 43-year-old from Grand Haven, Mich., leads the Americans against Russia, in Russia?

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Dan Bylsma talks to goalie Jonathan Quick during a training session. (Reuters)

"A special game," he said. "Playing the Russians in their own building, I don't know if we are going to have seen a building in a place like the one we are going to see tomorrow here. The Russian country is going to be packed in and behind their team."

[Photos: U.S. hockey team dominates Slovakia]

The moment the Olympic hockey schedule came out, this was a game that was circled both here and back in the U.S. These teams are made up of grown men, professionals, often highly paid, who have excelled in pressured games at all levels. They've been opponents and teammates. There is almost nothing new. There are no surprises.

Until there are.

The U.S.-Russia hockey rivalry can make the most jaded player turn back into a little kid, whether it's hearing tales of victory or defeat from family members involved in past battles, or watching the movie "Miracle" about the American triumph in 1980, or just listening to the buzz from fans and citizens of the two nations.

The Americans forever want to talk about Lake Placid. The Russians long ago tired of that and point to their 8-3-1 record in head-to-head games (Soviet Union/Russia combined).

Both teams' goal here is to win gold, and this preliminary-round game won't determine that either way. They could very well meet again next week, in a knockout game. Still, as much as some players would like to de-emphasize this, it's almost impossible. This is special. There is no sense denying it.

"This is a different animal," center Patrick Kane said.

Friday, Bylsma looked like a man who had finally come to fully appreciate the magnitude of it all. He knew the challenge when he was named national team coach last June. Yet maybe it's bigger than he knew. And Saturday may be bigger still. This is the first Olympic meeting between the two nations since 2006, and the first ever on Russian ice.

[Video: Why does Olympic hockey sound so familiar?]

So he stood on the side of a practice rink here Friday afternoon, sipping a coffee and sounding like a coach humbled by the opportunity, respectful of the brilliance of the Russians, yet excited at just what his guys might be capable of doing.

"They have extraordinary skill and talent, Malkin and Ovechkin and Datsyuk, Semin and Kovalchuk," Bylsma said, rattling off star players. "They have extraordinary skill, elite skill, and that's something we have to be keenly aware of and know about their team."

The United States can counter, of course, but not all the way. That's part by plan. USA Hockey believes in creating a team, complete with role players, rather than just an all-star team. They don't believe in asking stars to be mules. "We bring mules," team official Brian Burke said.

In this environment, that may be critical. The 12,000-seat Bolshoy Ice Dome will be packed and passionate. The Russians are expected to take the ice flying. "You try to survive the first couple minutes and then after that you take it to them," Kane said.

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Evgeni Malkin skates against Slovenia during a preliminary-round game. (Getty Images)

This game is simply huge here. Strong minds and hardened wills are a skill too, though.

[Photos: 5 Russian Olympians who are models]

"We don't match their skill and if we try to, we won't win," Bylsma said. "But we can be hard to play against, we can be an abrasive team, and that is going to go square, nose-to-nose against some of the best skill in the world in their building.

"Part of the picking of our team and picking the players is not a team that we are going to try to compare skills and skill levels with the Russian team," he continued. "But we do have a group of guys that can go right up against their type of skill and their type of players.

"And that's how the game is going to play out tomorrow."

Bylsma coaches a team of great talent in Pittsburgh, boasting both Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, arguably the best players in Russia and Canada, respectively. Yet hockey is always a hard game, a grinder's game, and you can see him enjoying the opportunity to lead a blue-collar team, one looking to shock everyone in Sochi.

He was a journeyman player, up and down between the NHL and the minors over a 12-year career. The crooked nose and scars on his face are proof of how he played the game.

[Video: Check out Sochi's special beer fridge]

Upon retirement he became a coach and after a couple years as an assistant took over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the AHL. Just months into the season – Feb. 15, 2009, or five years ago Saturday – he was promoted to the Pittsburgh job on an interim basis, led the team to an 18-3-4 regular season rebound and went on to win the Stanley Cup, outlasting Detroit in seven games.

That first year was a whirlwind and those nerves were common. First game as a head coach. First game as a NHL head coach, at a league-youngest 38. First Game 7 as a head coach.

Now, here in Russia, the old butterflies have returned. What's old is new again.

"We just have to keep moving forward and keep playing our style, our tough-to-play-against abrasive style," he said, banking on fundamentals. "And it's going to be never more evident than in our game against Russia."

Yeah, he is loving this, loving this chance, loving the return of that wonderfully nervous pregame energy.

This is USA-Russia, the pressure, the pride.

"It's going to be big," Bylsma said.

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