As his players come off the ice at WinSport Arena C, high-fiving a gaggle of minor-hockey players, head coach Valeri Bragin is dragging his way through another interview. Questions, always more questions.
How good is this Russian team compared to the gold-medal winners of 2011? Bragin doesn’t know yet. Slishkom rano. Too early.
Has he picked his lineup? Nyet. Five players must be cut.
Is anyone on the Russian team planning to honour the two lost players from 2011? Bragin doesn’t want to respond to that query. He points out he answered it the day before, then reluctantly consents.
“It’s very serious and difficult,” he said through an interpreter. “They’re like kids to me. They had a great future. It’s a tragedy.”
No matter what it does in Alberta, the 2012 Russian world junior team will be hard-pressed to live up to the legacy of its predecessor, the one that won it all – then lost so much. In the tournament finale in Buffalo, trailing 3-0 after two periods, Russia scored five unanswered goals to serve Canada a humbling defeat. On the ice, the players celebrated like rarely before. If you go to YouTube, you can see forward Daniil Sobchenko cradling a TV camera in his hands and shouting into it with joy. You can see defenceman Yuri Urychev singing his national anthem, shoulder to shoulder with his comrades.
Those are among the last images of the two teenagers. Both were aboard the passenger jet carrying the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv hockey team that crashed Sept. 7, killing 44 people. Urychev wasn’t supposed to be on the flight to Minsk. He was injured and wasn’t going to play in Lokomotiv’s season opener. Still, he wanted to be with his friends so he went with them; he was a teammate to the end.
Such are the memories that hover over this year’s Russian entry, which has only a single returning player, its captain, Evgeni Kuznetsov, a 2010 first-round pick of the Washington Capitals. At the last world juniors, Kuznetsov helped set up three of his side’s five goals against Canada and was named a tournament all-star. This time around, he sees a different collection of players and knows it’s up to him to make them believe in one another and produce when it counts.
“The goal for us to become a real team,” Kuznetsov said. “Last year our strength was team spirit. In terms of talent, this team is better. Last year after two losses, the team grew up.”
And what can the captain do to help this new team mature over two weeks?
“Just try to bring all the guys together, just support each other.”
There is plenty of head-snapping talent at coach Bragin’s call. The top line could feature Kuznetsov, Vladislav Namestnikov and Nail Yakupov, possibly the first pick overall in the 2012 NHL entry draft. All three are skilled and able to score. They’re also new-era Russian hockey players: Namestnikov was raised for eight years in the United States and plays in the Ontario Hockey League for the London Knights; Yakupov plays for the rival Sarnia Sting. Like Kuznetsov, they are acutely aware of what playing for Russia means, the achievements and history of it all.
“I watch every national team – girls, men. It’s Team Russia; I’m from Russia. I love my jersey,” said Yakupov, who was asked what it feels like to wear his country’s colours. “Just smile every time. You have fun in practice. You just play.”
And yes, there is much to play for at this tournament.
“I wake up and I was told [about the Yaroslavl plane crash]and I was, ‘No.’ I watched TV. It was on every TV,” Yakupov said. “We were crying.”
“I played against some of the guys growing up [in Russia]” Namestnikov added. “It’s awful. … Everyone in the world knew about it.”
Within the current Russian junior team there is no plan to memorialize Sobchenko and Urychev, at least not yet. According to a team official, it may be left as a personal matter, something for each player to consider on his own, in private. As a group, though, the objective is clear: win the gold medal. Enhance the legacy.
It’s the best they can do for their country and fallen countrymen.