By Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Often seen as a destination for veterans or those struggling for ice-time in North America's National Hockey League (NHL), the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) has suddenly become a haven for Russians with Olympic aspirations.
Following the NHL's decision to bar its players from competing at the 2018 Winter Games, several Russians have ended talks with teams in the league, extended contracts with KHL clubs or returned home in the hope of making the Olympic roster.
Defenceman Andrei Markov, who had 572 points in 990 games over 16 seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, told Reuters he signed with KHL club Ak Bars Kazan over the summer for family reasons and not because of next year's Pyeongchang Games.
However, the 38-year-old finds himself among a pool of Russians in the KHL, widely considered the world's second best international league, who could compete at the Olympics.
"We can't hide that Russia wants to win gold," the three-time Olympian said. "I've always taken pride in playing for Russia. It's a big responsibility."
The NHL announced in April that it would not halt its season to accommodate next February's Olympics, infuriating those wishing to participate and ending a run of five consecutive Winter Games with players from the league.
The Russian men's hockey team have won only two medals -- a silver in 1998 and bronze in 2002 -- in the past five Olympics, while Finland, a country of 5.5 million, have won one silver and three bronzes during the same period.
Despite having some of the world's leading talent, Russia have suffered humiliating defeats in recent Games, including a 3-1 quarter-final loss to Finland at the 2014 Sochi Games and a 7-3 rout to Canada in the last eight at Vancouver 2010.
The KHL, whose 27 teams are spread out between Bratislava, Slovakia, and the far eastern Russian city of Khabarovsk, has accommodated players hoping to play in Pyeongchang, declaring a lengthy break in its schedule to cover the Games.
Player agent Shumi Babaev told Reuters that four of his clients had chosen to remain in the KHL because of the NHL's decision and that another had returned to Russia.
These include Chicago Blackhawks draft pick Maxim Shalunov and winger Stanislav Galiev, who signed with Ak Bars Kazan from the Washington Capitals' farm team for a chance to play in South Korea.
"The Russian mentality makes players want to play for the national team," Babaev said. "Everything else is secondary. The NHL is not going anywhere."
The prospect of playing in the Winter Olympics has also affected well-established Russian players.
Left winger Ilya Kovalchuk, who had 816 points in as many NHL games, this summer re-signed with SKA St Petersburg for another year after having pondered an NHL comeback, saying the Olympics had been "one of the key factors" in his decision.
Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin had said he would defy the boycott, before last month begrudgingly conceding that he could not challenge the NHL's decision.
Meanwhile, the Russian government has been mulling the adoption of a hockey development program next year in a bid to return to the Olympic podium.
Last year, President Vladimir Putin hosted a televised meeting with government and sports officials in which they admitted Russia had been surpassed by rival hockey powers.
"We haven't won in a long time," Kazan's Markov said.
"The leadership, the league, coaches and players are doing everything to make that happen."
With NHL players out of the equation, the Russians in the KHL with experience in the North American league, who are well versed with the larger rinks used in international tournaments, could give the country an edge in Pyeongchang.
However, Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretyak, now president of the Russian hockey federation, insists that Russia did not view themselves as the favorites.
Tretyak was on the accomplished Soviet team that lost to an American squad filled with amateur players at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, an upset dubbed the "Miracle on Ice".
If Russia did not take their opponents seriously -- be they non-Russian KHL players, minor leaguers or university players -- history could repeat itself, Tretyak warned.
"We must respect every opponent. We shouldn't think our medal has already been won," he told Reuters. "In 1980, American students came out to play and they beat us."
(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by John O'Brien)