November will be a key month for Russian NHL players hoping to make the Sochi Olympic team.
Russian Hockey Federation president Vladislav Tretiak, the goaltender on the 1980 Soviet Union Olympic team, and Olympic coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov will scout North American professional players in person.
“I will definitely go to North America in November in order to cover as many players as possible, not only goaltenders,” Tretiak said, according to R-Sport. “Bilyaletdinov will also go, but I want to meet with the guys personally, talk to them, evaluate their level of readiness ahead of the Olympics.”
Russia has not won an Olympic hockey medal since a bronze at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, and it has never won Olympic gold. The Soviet Union won all but two Olympic hockey tournaments from 1956 through 1988, and the Unified Team won gold in 1992.
The men’s hockey gold might be the most coveted medal for the host nation come February, just as in the Vancouver Games. The home-ice advantage will certainly help Russia. Neither Canada nor the U.S. won medals at the last two Olympics held outside North America (1998 and 2006).
Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin is expected to lead the 25-man Russian Olympic team. He was the first Russian torchbearer during the torch relay that began Sunday (video here). Russia is stacked with star forwards, including Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk.
A big question for Russia is in goal. NHL starters Sergei Bobrovsky, Evgeni Nabokov and Semyon Varlamov were invited to their pre-Olympic camp. The enigmatic Ilya Bryzgalov, currently without a team but reportedly close to signing with Las Vegas of the ECHL, was not invited to that camp, but he is still eligible to be chosen.
Bryzgalov and Nabokov split time in goal at the 2010 Olympics, where Russia was eliminated by Canada in the quarterfinals.
“I think that Ilya is a good goaltender and if he plays fantastically, than why not?” Tretiak told R-Sport. “But it is the coaches’ business to decide who will go.”