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.

Two-time Olympian becomes first woman to lead U.S. national swim team

AP
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Two-time Olympian Lindsay Mintenko has been picked to lead the U.S. national swimming team. She is the first woman to hold the title.

USA Swimming made the announcement Wednesday.

Mintenko replaces Frank Busch, who retired Oct. 1 as managing director. She has been a member of the national team staff since 2006.

During her swimming career, Mintenko won gold medals as a U.S. team captain at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics 800m freestyle relay and added a silver in 2004 on the 400m freestyle relay.

USA Swimming also announced an organizational restructuring that will place all technical divisions, including the national team, under the oversight of chief operating officer Mike Unger.

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Grand Prix figure skating: 10 female skaters to watch

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Ten women to watch this fall as the Grand Prix figure skating season starts this week …

Yevgenia Medvedeva
Russia
Two-time world champion
Grand Prix Starts: Russia, Japan

Undefeated in nearly two years and arguably on the most dominant run since Katarina Witt in the 1980s. Medvedeva rarely misses jumps and has feather-light elegance on the ice. Off of it, she enjoys Japanese anime and K-pop. She quickly surpassed older skaters after turning senior in 2015, but now younger teens are giving chase.

Kaetlyn Osmond
Canada
2017 World silver medalist
Grand Prix Starts: Canada, France

Osmond won a Grand Prix at age 16 in 2012, but injuries dogged her the next few years. Most of all, a broken leg suffered in September 2014. She came back and was the breakout woman last season, making her first Grand Prix Final and then grabbing second at worlds behind Medvedeva.

Gabrielle Daleman
Canada
2017 World bronze medalist
Grand Prix Starts: China, U.S.

Like Osmond, would not have been picked for a world medal at the start of last season. Daleman was 17th at the Sochi Olympics, with a foot injury and one month after turning 16. She was 13th, 21st and ninth in three worlds appearances before last year. She was fourth at each of her Grand Prix starts in 2016, failing to make the six-skater Grand Prix Final, but picked up her first top-level senior international medals at Four Continents in February and worlds in March.

Grand Prix Capsules: Men | Women | Pairs | Ice Dance | TV Schedule

Satoko Miyahara
Japan
2015 World silver medalist
Grand Prix Starts: Japan, U.S.

Miyahara’s hip injury last winter could not have come at a worse time for the Japanese federation. She missed worlds, and Japan ended up qualifying two rather than three spots for PyeongChang. Before that, Miyahara took second behind Medvedeva at the Grand Prix Final and was ranked No. 2 in the world. Now the Japanese Olympic picture is crowded with fellow teens Marin HondaMai Mihara and Wakaba Higuchi.

Karen Chen
U.S.
Fourth at 2017 Worlds
Grand Prix Starts: Canada, U.S.

Went from eighth at the 2016 U.S. Championships to winning the 2017 U.S. title and placing fourth at worlds. Chen’s clutch effort ensured the U.S. earned three women’s spots at the Olympics. The 18-year-old from the Bay Area has largely struggled in other international competitions. A best of fifth in four Grand Prix starts. Twelfth at a pair of Four Continents Championships. Already this season at two international events, she finished behind Mirai Nagasu, who was fourth at nationals.

Ashley Wagner
U.S.
2016 World silver medalist
Grand Prix Starts: Canada, U.S.

Wagner just missed the 2010 Olympic team, then made Sochi despite placing fourth at nationals. She has undoubtedly been the most consistent U.S. woman in this Olympic cycle. The 26-year-old ended a decade-long U.S. medal drought with the skate of her life at worlds in 2016. Her follow-up last season was not so memorable — her least successful campaign in six years. Still a favorite to become the oldest U.S. Olympic women’s singles skater since 1928.

Alina Zagitova
Russia
2017 World junior champion
Grand Prix Starts: China, France

Medvedeva’s training partner, in her first senior season, might be the skater with the best chance of dethroning her. Zagitova, born three months after the 2002 Olympics, has the highest free skate score in the world this season (.45 better than Medvedeva). Their duel(s) in December at Russian Nationals and possibly the Grand Prix Final should be appointment viewing.

Marin Honda
Japan
2016 World junior champion
Grand Prix Starts: Canada, China

Honda is the other first-year senior turning heads. She beat a field at the U.S. Classic last month that included three of the top four from last season’s U.S. Championships. Figure skating is the Winter Olympics’ marquee sport. The women’s event is its headliner. And nowhere is skating more popular than Japan. With Mao Asada‘s retirement, the spotlight will be on Honda, who already has 236,000 Instagram followers.

Carolina Kostner
Italy
2014 Olympic bronze medalist
Grand Prix Starts: Russia, Japan

The second-oldest Olympic women’s singles medalist since 1928 is the only one from the top six in Sochi who is competing this Grand Prix season. Kostner, now 30, took a break after the 2014 season, then served a backdated 21-month suspension for helping ex-boyfriend and Olympic race-walking champion Alex Schwazer evade drug testers in 2012. She finally returned in December and was sixth at worlds.

Mirai Nagasu
U.S.
Fourth at 2010 Olympics
Grand Prix Starts: Russia, Japan

Nagasu, left off the Olympic team in favor of Wagner in 2014, is arguably the best U.S. skater at the moment after topping Chen at both of her early season outings. She added the triple Axel this season, which could prime her to win her second national title, a full decade after her first at age 14. It could be an incredible comeback story, returning to the Olympics after finishing fourth in Vancouver in 2010.

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