SOCHI, Russia – As it bids for Winter Olympic glory on home ice, the Russian men's hockey team is sending out clear signals of intent, all the way down to the design of its sweaters.
Russia's uniforms tap into the proud tradition of the Soviet Union Olympic hockey teams of yesteryear, lining the right sleeve of both its home and away sweaters with symbols to pay tribute to its eight Games triumphs.
Both the white home and classic red away sweaters include eight gold stars with a crown to recognize each Olympic success – seven for the Soviet Union between 1956 and 1988 and one for the Unified Team in 1992.
Russia would love to win a gold medal in this event perhaps more than any other, even more so after a slow start. After five days of competition, the host nation managed only two gold medals, both in figure skating.
Stars or crowns notwithstanding, the Russian men's hockey team has never won a gold as "Russia" itself, coming close with a silver in 1998 and a bronze in 2002. The Vancouver Games four years ago brought nothing but disappointment as the Russians were ousted by eventual champion Canada in a 7-3 quarterfinal defeat, which prompted much soul-searching within Russian hockey circles.
The result is a more uncompromising, determined and unapologetic mindset this time around. And the message of the stars and crowns is more than a fancy bit of design embroidery. It is deliberate.
"The players love it," said Nike designer Ken Black, who oversaw the design of the jersey and the implementation of the stars and crowns. "The federation got really excited in realizing that not only is there a history they can commemorate but as players they are putting on these jerseys and seeing the stars. It is just a great reminder of the opportunity in front of them with the significance of the Games.
"We have fun thinking about the power of a uniform whether the color or the fit or the graphics. There is a lot of history that goes before these guys. It can be intimidating or inspiring."
The idea borrows heavily from international soccer, where many national teams use stars or logos to signify the number of major tournaments they have won. The Brazilian men's soccer team, for example, has five green stars placed boldly above the federation logo on its chest to signify its record five World Cup titles.
While home ice advantage and a passionate Sochi crowd could help spur the Russians on, the level of expectation also carries a burden of its own. Ovechkin, in particular, has been the subject of near-constant scrutiny from the Russian public for the past year leading up to the Olympics.
"I can see there is a certain pressure," Ovechkin said.
Head coach Vladislav Tretiak, the legendary goaltender who was subbed out during the U.S.S.R.'s remarkable 1980 "Miracle on Ice" defeat to the United States, has left his players in no doubt about the gravity of the opportunity that lays before them.
"Every match is the finals for us," Tretiak said. "It doesn't matter who plays against us. We are going to approach it as a final."
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- Alex Ovechkin