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‘Russia is in our hearts’: Singing banned anthem, hockey team celebrates a golden moment

Olympic athletes from Russia celebrates after winning the men's gold medal hockey game against Germany, 4-3, in overtime at the 2018 Winter Olympics, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2018, in Gangneung, South Korea.

Jae C. Hong/AP

Ilya Kovalchuk stood near centre ice after winning the gold medal and belted out his national anthem. He and the Russian hockey team didn't just sing the lyrics, they shouted them – along with a few thousand fans in attendance – intentionally trying to drown out the generic Olympic theme song playing in the arena.

And when they finally did – the bland Olympic jingle fading into the background – it was their second biggest victory of the day.

"It feels good," Kovalchuk said. "We knew that we would do it if we win, so it feels great."

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After the country was required by the International Olympic Committee to play as the "Olympic Athletes of Russia," as punishment for doping at the Sochi Olympics, many of the 168 athletes who were cleared by the IOC to compete came into Pyeongchang with a chip on their shoulder.

Though Russian fans waved dozens of flags inside the arena, and displayed their rallying cry "Russia in My Heart" on signs and T-shirts, the hockey players themselves could not play under their tricolour flag. They were also warned before the tournament not to refer to themselves in interviews as Team Russia and could be suspended if they did.

So when the gold medal was won, in a 4-3 win over Germany that nearly saw the latter pull off one of international hockey's greatest upsets, Kovalchuk and the others watched as the white Olympic flag was raised, and the Olympic anthem played. It was to be their penance for the doping scandal, but Kovalchuk & Co. were in no mood for contrition.

His father had told him when he was five years old that their singular goal would be to play for the national team and win gold at the Olympics. And with the NHL refusing to send players to Pyeongchang, the door was left wide open for Russia, which had by far the most talented team of the tournament, with former NHL all-stars like Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk.

Russian coach Oleg Znarok – a man of few words, most of them delivered in abrupt fashion – began his postgame press conference with a statement he hoped would eliminate the need for any further talking.

"This gold medal at the Olympic Games is the answer to all of your questions, ladies and gentlemen of the press," Znarok said.

But there were more, including a question about the IOC's decision earlier in the day to refuse Russia's request to march under its flag at the closing ceremonies. After two Russian athletes were caught doping over the past few weeks, the IOC said it couldn't lift the ban.

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Asked if he used that as motivation before the game, Znarok shrugged it off.

"We understood this was going to be the case and we took it calmly, the coach said. "Russia is in our hearts."

When the game ended, Znarok's cellphone rang as he stood on the bench surveying the celebration. It was Russian President Vladimir Putin and other top officials, congratulating him on the victory. "We serve for the benefit of Russia," Znarok said.

The medal is Russia's second gold of the Olympics and there were questions as to how the hockey players would react if they won, since the game was one of the last events being played. A few days earlier, when Russia dominated the women's figure skating, taking both gold and silver, the country's athletes were on their best behaviour, perhaps not wanting to cause any friction with the IOC on the chance the ban might be lifted for the closing ceremonies.

Though fans dangled Russian flags into the camera shot behind 15-year-old figure skating prodigy Alina Zagitova, the skater herself stood stoically atop the podium with none of the outward emotion displayed by the hockey players on Sunday. Asked later what it felt like to hear the Olympic theme song played in place of her anthem, Zagitova demurred: "Could I please not answer this question?"

The winner of the silver medal, Evgenia Medvedeva, who was part of a delegation to the IOC in December that made a successful plea to have the 186 Russian athletes reinstated for the Games, said the lack of a flag didn't change how the athletes or their fans felt.

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"It doesn't matter what the circumstances are," Medvedeva said. "People know who we are and the spectators in the stands proved that today."

The IOC has been criticized by Russia's rivals for offering up a largely symbolic punishment for the allegations that Russia operated a systemic doping program four years ago in Sochi. The main penalty it suffers as a result of the ruling is that the medals earned in Pyeongchang will not go towards its historic count. But that's largely a technicality, a mere game of semantics. Kovalchuk indicated as much when spoke of the jubilation back in Russia over the win.

"Today will be a holiday in Russia, I think," he said. "It was only 7 a.m. in Russia when we started playing, but now everybody is up and they're celebrating."

The grudge some players held was apparent. When defenceman Vyacheslav Voinov was asked about the win, he insisted reporters not address him in English.

"No, you have to speak Russian," said Voinov, who played nearly 200 games for the Los Angeles Kings and won a championship with them.

An American reporter asked if winning gold felt better than winning a Stanley Cup.

"You have to speak Russian," Voinov repeated. He then responded in Russian: "It's a different kind of feeling."

When the game ended, it was unclear if the players would grab flags from the stands to skate around the ice – something all teams do, but an act that would violate the IOC's sanctions. But the players saved their defiance for the anthem.

Several German players then lined up for photos with Kovalchuk and Datsyuk.

Russia hadn't won gold since 1992, when it played as the Unified Team, comprised of states that made up the former Soviet Union.

"It's special, this moment for Russia," Datsyuk said. We're all happy."

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