With NHL snubbing Olympics, Russian veterans eye hockey chance

Jim SLATER
AFP

Washington (AFP) - With National Hockey League superstars staying home from Pyeongchang, the stage is set for a wide-open Winter Olympic men's hockey tournament featuring top talent from Russia's Kontinental Hockey League.

Two-time defending Olympic champion Canada seeks a fourth men's gold from five tournaments despite the absence of elite NHL players at the Winter Games for the first time since 1994.

"What really makes this Olympics interesting is that a lot of countries who didn't consider themselves medal contenders, or gold medal contenders especially if the NHL was to go, are now looking at this as an opportunity," Canada general manager Sean Burke told Toronto Sportsnet radio.

"It's going to be a very intense, competitive tournament. A lot of countries are looking at this as a chance they haven't had in a long time."

The NHL opted against shutting down its season and allowing top players to compete for their homelands, balking when asked to pay for insurance and transportation so star players could risk mid-season injury.

But missing NHL talent doesn't mean Canadian fans will accept less just because unfamiliar faces wear national team uniforms.

"Canada's expectations are never any less," Burke said. "Our expectations are to go out there and compete and have a chance to win the gold."

- 'They took our flag and anthem' -

The Russians have not managed a medal since a 2002 bronze and have not taken gold since 1992 at Albertville as the Unified Team in the wake of the breakup of the Soviet Union, which had won six of the prior seven Olympic crowns.

But this could be the year to end the drought as the core of the KHL's two top clubs, eight players from CSKA Moscow and 15 from SKA St. Petersburg, unite into an all-star squad.

A ban imposed by the International Olympic Committee over systemic Russian doping, notably at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, will see Russian players compete as "Olympic Athletes from Russia" without the nation's flag or anthem or uniforms.

"They took our flag and anthem but not our honor and convictions," Russian captain Ilya Kovalchuk said, according to the Russia Today website. "I believe our fans will support us even more. We will try to do everything to justify their hopes."

Kovalchuk, a 34-year-old former NHL star who leads the KHL in scoring with 31 goals and 32 assists in 53 games, and SKA teammate Pavel Datsyuk, a 39-year-old center who won two Stanley Cups in 14 NHL seasons with Detroit, will make their fifth Olympic appearance.

The Russian lineup will be coached by Oleg Znarok, who guided SKA to last season's KHL crown and the Russians to podiums at four world championships since taking over after Russia was fifth on 2014 Olympic home ice in Sochi.

- Another 'Miracle on Ice'? -

Rivals will assemble their best players from European clubs to challenge the chemistry-laden "OAR" squad, but it could take another 1980 USA "Miracle on Ice" to deny them.

"Any time you play a Russian team you expect high skill. You expect extremely talented players," US coach Tony Granato said. "So how they put it together and what they do in the next few weeks, we'll have to keep an eye on.

"All the competition at the Olympics is special in one way or another... whatever Russian team shows up when we play them, we'll have to deal with it then."

The Americans include 15-year NHLer and 2006 Olympian Brian Gionta as captain and a host of US college and minor-league players plus Europe-based talent.

"The biggest challenge is getting the team to gel together as quick as possible," said Gionta.

An emotional factor for the Americans will be the death of Jim Johansson, general manager of the US Olympic team, who died in his sleep January 21 at age 53. The passing of the man who brought the team together could galvanize players in quest of their first gold since Lake Placid in 1980.

"Today we are a medal contender every time we put a team on the ice and he played a major role in helping us get to that point," said US Hockey president Jim Smith.

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