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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.

Brittany Bowe, Heather Richardson-Bergsma upset at World Championships

Brittany Bowe
AP
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Brittany Bowe and Heather Richardson-Bergsma are the two fastest women’s speed skaters in the 1000m all time, but the Netherlands’ Jorien ter Mors was faster on Friday.

Shani Davis, a two-time Olympic 1000m champion, also finished fifth in the 1500m, behind Russian winner Denis Yuskov.

Ter Mors, the Olympic 1500m champion, upset the Americans in the shorter event at the World Single Distance Championships in Kolomna, Russia.

Ter Mors clocked 1:14.73 in an early pair and then nervously watched, her hands gripping her face, as Richardson-Bergsma and Bowe skated in the final two pairs.

Richardson-Bergsma, the world-record holder for eight days until Bowe snatched it Nov. 22, crossed the finish line in 1:14.94 in the penultimate pair.

Then came Bowe, winner of four of the last five World Cup 1000m races. The former Florida Atlantic University basketball player clocked 1:15.01.

Richardson-Bergsma and Bowe earned silver and bronze, respectively. In 2015, Bowe took gold and Richardson-Bergsma silver.

Full results are here.

Bowe and Richardson-Bergsma, who combined to sweep the 500m, 1000m and 1500m World titles last year, could share the podium again in the 500m on Saturday and the 1500m on Sunday.

Bowe and Richardson-Bergsma were part of a disappointing, medal-less U.S. speed skating showing at the Sochi Winter Olympics. The best individual finish between the two was seventh in Sochi.

They’ve dominated since. In the 1000m alone, the Americans combined to win 10 of the last 11 World Cup races.

On the first day of Worlds on Thursday, the Netherlands’ Sven Kramer took the 10,000m and the Czech Republic’s Martina Sablikova captured the 3000m.

Kramer, 29, earned his 16th career World Single Distance Championships title, doubling the number of the No. 2 man all time, Davis. All 17 World champions in the 10,000m have been Dutch.

Sablikova, who reportedly qualified for the Rio Olympics in road cycling, earned her 11th career World Single Distance Championships title. She’s one behind retired German Anni Friesinger-Postma for the women’s record.

MORE: Two years to Pyeongchang: Updates on Sochi Olympic medalists

IOC president: ‘No intention’ by any countries to pull out of Rio Olympics

Thomas Bach
AP
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LILLEHAMMER, Norway (AP) — IOC President Thomas Bach said Friday that no countries intend to pull out of the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro over concerns about the Zika virus.

Bach, speaking ahead of the opening ceremony of the Winter Youth Olympics in Lillehammer, said he has “full confidence” in the actions being undertaken by the Brazilian authorities and global health organizations to combat the outbreak of the mosquito-borne virus.

“There is no intention by [any] national Olympic committee to pull out from the Rio Olympic Games,” Bach said. “This does not exclude that we are taking this situation very seriously.”

Brazil has been the epicenter of the Zika outbreak, which has spread across Latin America and been labeled a global health emergency by the World Health Organization.

Health authorities are investigating whether there is link between Zika infections in pregnant women and microcephaly, a rare condition in which children are born with abnormally small heads. The outbreak has raised concerns ahead of the Olympics, which are still six months away in August.

“We have full confidence in all the many actions being undertaken by the Brazilian and international authorities and health organizations,” Bach said. “We’re also very confident that the athletes and the spectators will enjoy safe conditions in Rio de Janeiro.”

Some athletes, most notably U.S. soccer goalkeeper Hope Solo, have expressed fears about going to the Olympics. Solo said earlier this week that if the games were being held today, she would not go.

Bach said the IOC was working with national Olympic committees and the World Health Organization to monitor the situation. He reiterated that, because the games are taking place during the Brazilian winter, the colder conditions should mitigate the threat from mosquitoes.

“The World Health Organization has not issued a travel ban,” Bach said. “All the experts agree that the temperatures in the Brazilian winter time when the games are taking place in August … will lead to a very different situation.”

Bach’s comments echoed those of the IOC’s medical director, Dr. Richard Budgett, who told The Associated Press on Thursday that “everything that can be done is being done” to contain Zika ahead of the games, stressing that health authorities have not issued any travel restrictions for Brazil.

Bach is in Lillehammer for the second Youth Winter Olympics, where more than 1,000 athletes from 70 countries between the ages of 15 and 18 will compete in 70 medal events over 10 days.

MORE: Youth Winter Olympics broadcast schedule