U.S.S.R. so good in its heydey, its play ‘wasn’t even hockey. It was like ballet or something’

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SOCHI, Russia – A feeling lingers in Russia. In the moments after Russia’s occasionally brilliant and often sloppy 5-2 victory over Slovenia Thursday, reporters peppered coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov with somewhat indignant questions that seemed just a little bit out of step with the moment. After all, this was only the Russians’ first game, a virtual warm-up against an over-matched team, and they did win pretty comfortably …

Bam: Why did the team decline so much in the second period?

Bam: If you could not stop the Slovenian line, all due respect, how can you stop the Americans?

Bam: What are you going to do about the struggling first line?

The Russians have not won a gold medal in hockey in more than 20 years. Officially, they have never even won a gold medal as Russia – their eight Olympic gold medals came under the banner of the Soviet Union and the Unified Team.

And still, a feeling lingers – a feeling that this sport is conclusively Russian, a feeling that the nation’s greatest traits come out in ballet, literature and the hockey rink, a feeling that no many how many years of heartbreak go by, Russia is supposed to win the hockey gold medal.

VIDEO: Watch U.S.-Russia (Saturday, 7:30 am ET) live online

There was, for all intents and purposes, no ice hockey in Russia before World War II ended. There were a few fledgling efforts to get hockey started, and these generally died before they were born. Instead, there was a popular ice sport called bandy, and it helped define a Russian style of hockey unlike anything that came before.

Bandy is a lot like soccer on ice – the outdoor rink is roughly the same size as a soccer pitch, there are 11 players on each team, the ball used is small and round and so on. Success in bandy depends on speed and precise passing and angles – there is not much player contact – so this was the perspective the Russians brought to ice hockey. The Canadians and Americans would rough you up. The Russians were too refined for that kind of game.

The father of Russian hockey was a fascinating man named Anatoli Tarasov who seems like he was sort of a Bear Bryant type of coach. In 1946, in the wake of more than 20 million Russian deaths during the war, there was an effort to start the first Russian hockey league. Legend goes that the first championship was basically formed based on a couple of old hockey rulebooks.

Tarasov was soon taking the lead in creating a Russian style of hockey. He wanted to make it different from the rough-and-tumble Canadian version of the game – he never did like those physical Canadians.

“A hockey player,” he once said, “must have the wisdom of a chess player, the accuracy of a sniper and the rhythm of a musician.” This was how he saw the game. As art. As expression. And to a startling degree, he was able to bring that vision to the ice. The Soviet team played in its first world championships in 1954 – just eight years after the sport essentially began. And the Soviets won it, going undefeated and crushing Canada 7-2 in the final game.

Tarasov had instilled his hockey vision just that quickly. He was forceful man, exuberant, irrepressible, exceedingly harsh one minute, positively jovial the next. His players loved him and despised him in equal measure (which made him different from the other giant of Russian hockey, Viktor Tikhonov, who was unanimously hated).

His love was for the strategies of the game, the angles, the methods of attack. He wanted his players to know each other so well that they would sense, instinctively, without looking, where everyone stood on the ice. He saw the beautiful geometry of the rink and was thrilled with a pass that seemed headed for nowhere only to have a teammate materialize and take the puck in full stride.

The Russian style of hockey awed the world, much in the same way that the Brazilian style of soccer or the American style of basketball did. The Soviet Union took its sports very seriously during the Cold War. Each gold medal, each world record, each triumph was seen as just that, a triumph of Soviet dominance. It was that way in space. It was that way in the arts. And it was particularly that way in hockey. The Soviets won 22 world championships and eight Olympic gold medals and, even more, won them with style and finesse and a flair that was exclusively Russian.

VIDEO: Introducing Russian hockey sensation Viktor Tikhonov

“When they got it going,” American Mike Eruzione would say, “it wasn’t even hockey. It was like ballet or something. You would be on the ice watching them just like the fans.”

It has been a long time since Russian hockey was like that. The breakup of the Soviet Union badly hurt the team. Between 2002 and 2010, Belarus, Latvia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine each fielded a hockey team that qualified for the Olympics. All four countries were part of the Soviet Union before the break.

And with the addition of NHL players to the Olympics, Russia’s ability to field a brilliantly honed team that can make art – the way Tarasov’s teams did – is basically at zero. Olympic hockey now is more about individual skill and the ability to make quick adjustments than it is about building a finely tuned team that moves as one.

But a feeling lingers in Russia. Also, there’s a tremendous amount of talent on this year’s Russian team. Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk probably go on most fans 10 best players in the world list. And with the advantage of home ice and some goaltending questions among the other favorites, there’s a feeling that this is the year for Russia to capture some old glory.

There really wasn’t a lot to learn from Thursday’s game. The Russians scored two goals in the first five minutes and peppered Slovenia goalie Robert Kristan with shot after shot in the first period. The Russians promptly lost their edge in the second period against a game Slovenian team. They regained their footing in the third.

VIDEO: U.S. ready for its showdown with Russia

It was the sort of game, frankly, where you probably saw what you expected to see, and what Russian journalists saw, predictably, was doom. You could almost hear the minds whirring away as they tried to figure out the conversion rate for a 5-2 win over Slovenia against Saturday’s game against the loaded U.S. team.

There’s so much pressure on this Russian hockey team. The Sochi Olympic cost $50 billion and countless hours of frustration to create … and for what? There are other gold medals, of course. Russia won the pair figure skating, for instance – Russia has an unprecedented record in pairs figure skating.

But, in Russia, realistically, there are no other gold medals.

“What would gold mean here?” Ovechkin was asked in what has already become the most talked about exchange of the Olympics. Ovechkin had clearly prepared his answer.

“It means gold only cost $50 billion,” he said and he smiled. It was a joke. Sort of.

Aly Raisman announces book details

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Aly Raisman will become the fourth member of the Final Five to publish a book. It’s titled “Fierce” and is out Nov. 14.

The title conjures the name of Raisman’s first Olympic team — the Fierce Five in 2012 — and will be about her path to Olympic titles in 2012 and 2016.

She follows teammates Gabby DouglasSimone Biles and Laurie Hernandez in putting out books.

None of the Final Five (or the Fierce Five) are expected to compete at the P&G Championships in August or the world championships in October.

Raisman said last September that she planned to take a year off and then return to training with an eye on the 2020 Tokyo Games at age 26. The last woman to make three U.S. Olympic gymnastics teams was Dominique Dawes in 2000.

A synopsis of “Fierce” from bookselling websites:

Discover Aly Raisman’s inspiring story of dedication, perseverance, and learning to think positive even in the toughest times on her path to gold medal success in two Olympic Games–and beyond.

Aly Raisman first stepped onto a gymnastics mat as a toddler in a “mommy & me” gymnastics class. No one could have predicted then that sixteen years later, she’d be standing on an Olympic podium, having achieved her dreams.

But it wasn’t an easy road to success. Aly faced obstacle after obstacle, including naysayers who claimed that she didn’t have the talent to compete at an elite level and classmates who shamed Aly for her athletic body. Through it all, Aly surrounded herself with supportive family, friends, and teammates and found the inner strength to believe in herself and prove her doubters wrong. In her own words, Aly shows what it takes to be a champion on and off the floor, and takes readers on a behind-the-scenes journey before, during, and after her remarkable achievements in two Olympic Games–through her highest highs, lowest lows, and all the moments in between.

Honest and heartfelt, frank and funny, Aly’s story is enhanced with never-before-published photos, excerpts from the personal journals she’s kept since childhood that chronicle memorable moments with her teammates, and hard-won advice for readers striving to rise above challenges, learn to love themselves, and make their own dreams come true.

MORE: Hernandez sets return to gymnastics training

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Katie Ledecky reacts to Olympics adding 1500m freestyle

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Katie Ledecky is focused on qualifying for the world championships this week, but the sport’s biggest recent story, regarding the 2020 Olympic program, greatly impacts the five-time Olympic champion.

The IOC added three swimming events for the Tokyo Games — a mixed-gender 4x100m freestyle relay, the men’s 800m freestyle and the women’s 1500m freestyle — on June 9.

Ledecky holds the world record in the 1500m free — no other woman has swum within 13 seconds of it — and captured the last two world titles.

Many believed the women’s 1500m free should have been on the Olympic program years ago, since the men have been contesting the event at the Games since 1908.

The women have swum the 800m freestyle at the Olympics (which the men do not) since 1968. Of course, Ledecky won the last two Olympic golds in that event.

Last year, Ledecky advocated for adding the men’s 800m free and women’s 1500m free to the Olympics. She also stressed not wanting to drop the women’s 800m free for the women’s 1500m free.

Now, she can swim both in Tokyo, granted she wants to and finishes top two in those events at the Olympic Trials. Both are to be determined.

“Adding the 1500m was a long time coming,” Ledecky said Monday in Indianapolis, ahead of the USA Swimming National Championships, part of the TeamUSA Summer Champions Series, presented by Comcast. “It’s good that there’s parity in the men’s and women’s distance events now.”

MORE: USA Swimming Nationals broadcast schedule

In a press conference, Ledecky spoke for nearly two minutes on the subject.

She hasn’t set any goals for the 2020 Olympics yet. Nor did she commit to wanting to swim the 1500m in Tokyo, where she could try to sweep the 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m frees, like she did at the 2015 Worlds.

“Obviously, the 1500m will have to be in the conversation now,” Ledecky said. “It’s good that the sport isn’t static. I mean, the world isn’t static. If you look at the history of swimming, events have been added over time. Women had a lot fewer races back in the day. I’ve met some female swimmers who swam in the ’60s and didn’t have the opportunities that we had in terms of the events. I think there was only a 100m and 400m free at one point [before 1968]. And then they added the 200m. Then they added the 50m in 1988, I think. So, over time, more events have been added. I think the 1500m fits right in there this year. It’s a good opportunity for swimmers moving forward. Hopefully, it will encourage some young kids to try out some distance swimming.”

Ledecky actually might not swim the 1500m free at nationals this week, where she could qualify for the 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m frees at worlds in Budapest next month. And earn a place on the 4x100m free relay.

She will start off with a 100m and 800m free double on Tuesday in Indianapolis.

The 1500m is on the last day of the meet Saturday, but Ledecky will earn a 1500m place on the worlds team if she wins the 800m.

The 100m free is the only event on her program this year that she did not swim at this meet four years ago.

Ledecky ranked No. 5 in the U.S. the last two years in the event, making it possible that she could qualify to swim it individually at worlds by finishing top two on Tuesday.

But she made no mention of that on Monday.

“I’m swimming the 100m because I like to contribute to that relay,” she said. “As long as I’m pushing the other girls, then we can get some good times up there. Hopefully whoever’s on that relay can compete for a top medal.”

MORE: Lilly King to be less vocal on Yuliya Efimova topic this summer

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