The weight on Team Russia’s shoulders heading into the Sochi Olympics cannot be underestimated. It also cannot be properly described. The country is hosting its first ever Winter Olympics, and hockey is the event Russia wants to win. But even on paper Team Russia is far from being the favorites.
The fiasco of Vancouver has forced the Russian Hockey Federation to make changes as to how the roster is selected and how players, especially those playing in the NHL, are scouted.
Vladislav Tretiak, the President of the Russian Hockey Federation is the first high level official to embark on a North American scouting trip. After visiting Montreal, Tretiak came to Washington to attend the Capitals’ game against the Blue Jackets. Tretiak spent the majority of the game watching from the Capitals owners’ suit.
I caught up with him during the game to ask a few questions:
“I have already traveled to Montreal, where I spoke to guys there. Now I am here in Washington, and tomorrow I am leaving for Pittsburgh, where I want to see Malkin. After that I will go to Toronto and then fly home. After that, our national team coach Zenetula Bilyaletdinov will visit North America with his assistant Alexei Kasatonov. We have a lot more scouts. Nikolai Borschevsky is with us now, who is responsible for this region, as well as Igor Kravchuk, who is the scout in Canada.”
Q. Team Russia has a lot more scouts, comparing to the Vancouver Games. Is this a change in direction?
“It has never been like that. This is unprecedented. We are seriously getting ready. We want to be as prepared as we can be. We hired Kasatonov to be our GM. We have a lot of scouts. We also have freelance-type scouts: my friends in Chicago, for example, who scout and provide reports for us. Bilyaletdinov himself purchased a satellite dish and subscribed to the NHL package to watch games. We are constantly watching all players, because we have no room for mistakes.”
A lot is riding on these Olympics for Russia.
“A lot is riding on the Olympics always. We know everyone will play their toughest against us, because we will be playing at home. But at the same time you can remember Team Canada in Vancouver and how every team played against them. They could only manage to beat the Swiss in the shootout, and lost to the US in the group stage. It’s never easy for the host nation. That’s why it is a certainty every team will play against us the hardest. That’s why we need to work hard to build a team, a true team. Look at other countries: they are all good! The team that will truly play as one will win it all in Sochi.”
And yet, at least on paper, what country has the strongest team?
“Well, traditionally, it will be Team Canada, with the USA being a close second. You also cannot rule out the Swedes. But it is still tough to say. It is usually said that our team will be very strong, and because we are playing at home. However, if you look at teams on paper and compare, in my opinions the Canadians are stronger than we are. Of course, only if you look at the rosters on paper, Canada, and the US, perhaps, are stronger. But the main thing is not how strong you look on paper. We were also the strongest team on paper at the World Championships in St. Petersburg, but we finished 11th.
"What is important is how cohesive your team will be, how you play together as a team. That’s why a lot depends on Bilyaletdinov and how he manages the players, what lines he creates and how they work together. Because you can have one master, but if you don’t give him the opportunity to fit in, to be in that perfect place, where he would fit in: Whether it is supplying the ammunition or shooting it and scoring.
"The team should be like a living organism, and the head coach is the one who can make it happen.”
What are your thoughts on Gary Bettman’s preference for the World Cup over the Olympics and do you think the Olympics will fade away?
“The Olympics will never fade away. Because a World Cup champion is not an Olympic champion. An Olympic champion will be remembered by generations after it is won. Grandchildren, great-grandchildren will remember their grandfather being an Olympic champion.
“Of course, the World Cup is also a strong competition, and there will be the best players there, and I am not diminishing the weight of winning the World Cup, but an Olympic medal will always be an Olympic medal. For example, I am a 10 time World Champion.
"But wherever I go, I am not introduced as a 10-time World Champion. I am introduced as a three time Olympic Champion, and it matters. And the fact that I have won the Worlds 10 times is not given the same weight.”