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.

Final World Cup Alpine skiing races canceled

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ARE, Sweden (AP) — Viktoria Rebensburg won her third season title in the giant slalom on Sunday without hitting the slopes at the World Cup finals.

Strong winds forced the cancellation of the season-ending GS while the German skier led the standings by 92 points from world champion Tessa Worley of France, who won the title last season. With a win worth 100 points, Rebensburg was a strong pre-race favorite to wrap up the title.

The last men’s slalom was also canceled, but that didn’t affect the final standings because Marcel Hirscher had already locked up the overall and discipline titles two weeks ago.

Both races were called off shortly before their respective starts as gusts made conditions on the hill potentially unsafe for the skiers. According to FIS rules, events at World Cup finals cannot be rescheduled.

Rebensburg, the Olympic GS gold medalist in 2010, also won the World Cup GS title in 2010-11 and 2011-12.

“It’s really something special. It’s been a few years now since my last globe. I am very proud that I managed to win it again,” said Rebensburg, who struggled with injuries in recent seasons.

She ruptured ligaments in her left knee three years ago and fractured the tibial plateau in her right leg just before the start of last season.

“Every globe has a special meaning but this one is more emotional because of the time in-between,” Rebensburg said. “I know what’s behind winning a globe. You have to be consistent throughout a whole season.”

In the overall standings, Rebensburg finished third behind winner Mikaela Shiffrin and runner-up Wendy Holdener of Switzerland.

Shiffrin, who had secured her second straight overall title last week, wrote on Twitter that she agreed with the decision to call off the last event of the season.

“Ahhhhhhh shoot! The race is canceled! But it’s really windy up here so probably a good call,” the American said.

Shiffrin finished the season on 1,773 points, 130 more than last season when she won her maiden overall title. Holdener was the only other skier to gather more than 1,000 points this season — 1,168.

The men’s overall champion also applauded the cancellation.

“If you see the wind and how the slalom gates are moving, you don’t have to talk about a fair race or a quality race,” said Hirscher, who missed out on the chance to set a World Cup record by winning his 14th race of the season.

“That’s not the important thing,” he said. “It’s the right decision.”

After the cancellation of the women’s race, Manuela Moelgg announced her retirement after 18 seasons on the circuit. The Italian veteran secured 14 podiums, including three third-place finishes this season, but failed to win a race in 283 World Cup starts.

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Declan Farmer heroics lift U.S. to Paralympic hockey title in OT (video)

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Declan Farmer tied the Paralympic hockey final with 37.8 seconds to play, then scored the golden goal 3:30 into overtime to lift the U.S. over Canada 2-1 for gold on Sunday.

“It’s all a blur at the moment,” said Farmer, a 20-year-old Princeton student, “but when it comes back I will remember this day for the rest of my life.”

Farmer’s heroics gave the U.S. a third straight Paralympic title. No other nation has won two Paralympic golds in seven total tournaments.

The U.S. also finished the Winter Paralympics with the most medals (36) and most gold medals (13) for the first time since Albertville 1992.


When Farmer made a move seconds before scoring the tying goal, with the U.S. having pulled goalie Steve Cash, teammate and captain Josh Pauls thought to himself, “This is Declan Farmer time.” Farmer’s goal was the first allowed by Canada at the tournament, the shutout streak ending after 224 minutes.

Thirty seconds earlier, Canada’s Rob Armstrong had a chance to clinch gold on the empty net, but hit the post from an angle.

Farmer tallied a tournament-leading 11 goals and 17 points in his second Winter Games. His 14 career Paralympic goals are a U.S. record.

Last year, Farmer broke U.S. records for most goals (12) and points (18) at a world championship tournament, though Canada beat the U.S. in that final. He was born a bilateral amputee and started playing sled hockey at age 9.

Cash, who stopped 11 of 12 Canadian shots for his third Paralympic title, told Farmer after Sunday’s game that he was his hero.

“He’s the best overall sled hockey player to ever play the game,” Cash said, according to TeamUSA.org.

The U.S. dedicated its tournament to its 2014 Paralympic coach, Jeff Sauer, who died of pancreatic cancer in February 2017.

“Coach Sauer is watching over us,” Farmer said.

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