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SOCHI, Russia – How are Russians reacting to their hockey team being eliminated from the Olympics without making it past the quarterfinal round?
The reaction is that there was no reaction.
The fans have been quiet, outside of their immediate response at the end of the loss to Finland on Wednesday. As the Russian team was gathered in the center circle of Bolshoy Ice Dome, all the team could hear was loud whistling – the European version of booing. It was the only way the 12,000 representatives of their nation could send their message.
As they were walking away from the Bolshoy their flags were not flying high, but were dragged along a wet pavement. Their eyes were red and their faces pale. They were too shocked to comprehend what happened to them, too stunned to even express their emotion. When the Russians lost to the United States there was anger, there was passion, there was heart.
After the loss to Finland there was only emptiness. These are the Russian fans.
The media? The reaction was of course front page news.
The translation: "We Don't Need This Type of Hockey," a famous phrase by a Russian play-by-play anouncer during Game 8 of the 1972 Summit Series, in reference to the Canadian style of play. Here. it's an ironic headline commenting on the Russian loss.
In Sovietsky Sport, the cover was:
This photo of Russian players on their knees is under a headline proclaiming that the loss and their effort was embarrassing to everyone involved. It's a reference to a classic Russian film in which a righteous man said that the actions of his antagonists were offensive to his country.
The Russian NHL players who were checking into their 10:40 a.m. flight back to the United States with their families were a mirror image of their fans. They were disappointed and shell-shocked. Quietly talking to their loved ones or simply sitting next to them without saying a word, they were all stunned.
Just like Alex Ovechkin couldn’t find any words after the loss, they still couldn’t find any explanation to what happened. Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Andrei Markov, Sergei Bobrovsky and Anton Belov were the only ones who were able to talk to the media after the game.
The Russian coaching is in crisis. Russian hockey legend Vladislav Tretiak said Thursday that the Russian team must be coached by a Russian, and that there will not be a foreign coach under his watch. Yet there is little alternative in Russia, with the coaching style stuck in late 80s failing to adjust to the modern game.
(Is Scotty Bowman still writing coaching books? If so, could he send a copy to Russia?)
The defeat itself was not an illogical conclusion to the Russians’ Olympics. The Russians were not deep enough to win or even medal in Sochi. They were outplayed and outmatched. Their gameplan was exposed as nonexistent. Here the coaching staff had the players who could do the job. Yet they were given no direction of how to do it.
Any superstar in a team sport still needs to know what his and his teammates’ roles should be. It should not be left up to Evgeni Malkin to skate over to the Russian bench and tell his coaches to pull the goaltender. It should not be left to Pavel Datsyuk to tell players where they should stand during the face-off. The coaches were given a break by everyone for two years: Fans’ reaction was subdued after the losses to France and an 8-3 thrashing at the hands of the United States, filled with NHL third liners at the last World Championships.
The media kept relatively quiet after every loss at the Euro Hockey Tour not to create a “bad atmosphere.” Even the KHL reluctantly accommodated the coaching staff’s requests for longer breaks in their calendar for the national team needs.
Yet coach Bilyaletdinov decided to throw Alex Ovechkin under the bus after the Finland game.
This was their golden moment with true superstars on their team. Ovechkin will never get another opportunity in his lifetime to write his Olympic legacy on home ice. For Pavel Datsyuk, this may be his last Olympics altogether. By the time the 2018 games roll around, Ovechkin will be 32, Malkin 31, Kovalchuk 34 and Datsyuk 39.
The time was now. In Sochi. That’s why there is no reaction. From anyone. And there won’t be for days or even weeks. It hurts so much that it numbs.
The Olympic flame is still burning over Sochi. But it was put out in the hearts of all Russian fans.
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