SOCHI, Russia — A hockey press conference Tuesday turned into a scene from Rocky IV.
Every member of the Russian Olympic hockey team gathered to face hordes of reporters and 32 TV cameras, and one of the first questions went to perhaps the most beloved athlete in this nation’s history: Vladislav Tretiak.
The three-time gold medalist goaltender, who lit the torch at the Opening Ceremony last week, was asked by an American reporter how long it took for him to get over the Miracle On Ice defeat to an upstart Team USA in 1980. Tretiak was infamously pulled after the first period in that game, in what is now known as one of sports’ all-time greatest upsets.
The response from the retired goalie – now the head of the Russia Hockey Federation – drew a burst of cheers.
“In 1984 we managed to rectify it,” Tretiak said, referring to the former Soviet Union’s gold-medal win in those Winter Games at Sarajevo. That line got many of the Russian media clapping wildly.
What followed, though, was honest, gracious, and sportsmanlike.
“It was a miracle,” he said, acknowledging a loss that many Russians still won’t talk about.
Tretiak admitted he and his teammates didn’t respect the U.S. players, who were amateurs going up against some of the greatest hockey players of all time.
“It was a good lesson the Americans taught us,” he said.
It was clear on Tuesday that the lesson won’t have to be learned again. The Russians feel enormous pressure to win a gold medal on home ice, only four years after the Canadians managed the feat in Vancouver. Star forward Alex Ovechkin, whose mother is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, called 2010 “a big blow to us” and “a failure.”
A loss to Canada or the U.S. (or any other team) would be even more colossal, as the entire nation has been awaiting this hockey tournament for years. Unless there is a terrorist attack, these Olympics will be remembered here for how the Russians do in hockey.
The lineage from Tretiak to the current team is clear, and the respect for him is equal or greater to that shown for Wayne Gretzky in Canada. Tretiak was one of the first players born and raised outside North America to enter the Hockey Hall of Fame, along with the late Valeri Kharlamov, who is Ovechkin’s hero. Now 61, Tretiak first made his mark on the global hockey stage with his performance against Canada in the infamous 1972 Summit Series. Tretiak’s word is gold in Russia, and it was remarkable to see a group of rock star athletes completely defer to an elder at Tuesday’s press conference. Tretiak, who lit the torch with former Russian figure skating star Irina Rodnina at the Opening Ceremony, stole the show.
His openness about the 1980 loss is a classy and significant close to a difficult chapter for him and his country. Now it’s up to Ovechkin and his teammates to do something that will last in Russian memory as long as the Miracle on Ice has in American lore.