For Russia, Sochi is the ultimate chance for hockey revenge. No better way for them to quash the memory of their seminal defeat in the 1972 Summit Series than to beat Canada in their homeland for Olympic gold.
Building expectations, the Russians have been saying that the hockey prize is far and away what matters most at these Games. We can imagine how their man of steel, President Vladimir Putin, will gloat if they pull it off. It’s not the Cold War again, but the former KGB agent is flexing his muscles the world over, including in the Canadian Arctic.
But watch him shrink, watch those eyes tighten if they lose. The Canadian team can puncture Mr. Putin’s ego in Sochi. That couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
The Russians are making a mistake by putting so much stock in the hockey result. Hockey history has shown that, with the odd exception, they don’t respond well to intense pressure. Rather, they crack.
There’s been an ingredient missing in their hockey makeup – but it certainly hasn’t been skill. The Russia-Canada hockey rivalry began in 1954 at the world championships in Sweden, where they stunned us 7-2 to win the gold medal. “Their slowest skater was faster than our fastest skater,” Canadian forward Eric Unger observed. The team the Soviets beat were a third-rate outfit, the East York Lyndhursts. Still, the Russians showed then what they’ve often shown since – superior skating, passing and puckhandling.
They learned the game on big frozen pitches where they played a form of hockey called bandy. Their soccer culture blended with hockey, which they played in a similar way: little physical contact, tic-tac-toe passing, stellar footwork, quick counterattacks, circular weaving. In keeping with the communist system, they worked as a collective. Their hockey guru, Anatoli Tarasov, beat the credo into them that the puck carrier is the servant of the other players. No one was to stand out. Emotion was frowned upon.
As Moscow correspondent for The Globe in the 1980s, I often went out to the dimly-lit Luzhniki arena, where their robotic precision was on display. The melancholy was palpable. There was no fire in the hearts. Even the spectators were numb. If they got noisy, the public-address announcer instructed them to calm down and heed the socialist order.
When Canada beat the Soviets, it was because of capitalist hockey. It was “guts and desire,” as Wayne Gretzky has since called it – the intensity the Soviets lacked. Their automatons had no end game. We beat them in the last minute in 1972, and then in similar circumstances in the Canada Cups of 1984 and 1987. In 1980, they crumbled in the last period to the Americans at Lake Placid.
After Mikhail Gorbachev liberated the Russian players, they moved here and learned to play the game with emotion and physicality. They learned more from us than we did from them. We continued, as before, to develop as many muscle players as skill players. Back in the 1950s, Canada had a Tarasov of sorts in Lloyd Percival. But few listened to him. Our approach was never as scientific, never taken into the lab and dissected.
In recent times, with so many of the best Russians in the National Hockey League, our rivalry has lacked the big defining moments. But with Russia a big power again and with the Olympics in Sochi, such a moment could be upon us.
If the two teams do meet, who will triumph? The Russians are no longer robots on ice, as Slava Fetisov once called them, and they remain superior skaters. But they are weaker in goal. They don’t have that guy who lit the Olympic torch.
More significantly, there are few signs that they have learned to play to their potential when the chips are down. Witness the Vancouver Games, where they Hindenburged.
In Sochi, it wouldn’t be a shock if it happened again – right under Mr. Putin’s cold glare.