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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.

U.S. adds another medal at cross-country skiing worlds

LAHTI, FINLAND - FEBRUARY 26:  Jessica Diggins (L) of USA celebrate with team mate Sadie Bjornsen winning 3rd place in the Men's and Women's Cross Country Team Sprint Final during the FIS Nordic World Ski Championship on February 26, 2017 in Lahti, Finland.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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Cross-country skiers Jessie Diggins and Sadie Bjornsen made it three medals for the U.S. at the world championships on Sunday.

Diggins and Bjornsen earned bronze in the team sprint event, 18.38 seconds behind winner Norway and 12.8 seconds behind silver medalist Russia. Diggins and Kikkan Randall previously earned silver and bronze in the individual sprint on Thursday.

It’s the first worlds where the U.S. has earned medals in multiple cross-country events.

On Sunday, Diggins lunged at the line to beat Sweden to third place by a fifth of a second.

“I was double poling like a maniac,” Diggins said, according to the U.S. Ski Team. “I skied the downhill the best I knew how and was able to draft her and get into my own lane with the best line — I took the inside lane so I knew I would be able to pick my track going into the final 100 meters. Then I just double poled my heart out.”

Bjornsen fell after completing the second exchange and was struck in the face by Russian Yulia Belorukova‘s ski, but was able to continue.

The team sprint is a 6×1.3km relay, with each country’s skiers alternating to race three legs each. It will be contested at the 2018 Olympics in the freestyle technique. Sunday’s event was classic skiing, marking the first American medal in worlds in the classic technique since the two disciplines were established.

Russia won the men’s team sprint after a dramatic last-lap crash wrecked the chances of the two leading teams.

Norway’s Emil Iversen was fighting for the lead with Finland’s Iivo Niskanen but they collided as the Finn moved to overtake on the inside of the final bend.

Sergei Ustyugov took the win for Russia, overtaking Italian Federico Pellegrino on the final stretch to win by 2.2 seconds. Niskanen recovered to take third, 6.5 seconds further back.

It was the second win in two days for Ustyugov, who also won Saturday’s skiathlon, and his third medal of the championships.

Ustyugov’s teammate for Sunday’s race, Nikita Kryukov, said the win was “revenge for Sochi,” a reference to the 2014 Winter Olympics, when Finland beat Russia to gold in the men’s team sprint in front of a Russian home crowd.

Also Sunday, Germany won the men’s team Nordic combined normal hill event. The Germans dominated the ski jumping to take a 44-second advantage into the 4x5km cross-country ski stage, and preserved that margin to win by 41.7 seconds from Norway.

Austria won a close battle with Japan to take third, 22 seconds behind the Norwegians.

It was Germany’s second gold medal in Nordic combined at the world championships after Johannes Rydzeck led a 1-2-3 finish in the men’s individual normal hill event Friday.

The Germans added another gold medal with a dominant victory in the mixed team ski jumping.

They led after each of the eight rounds and racked up a winning score of 1035.5 points, with strong jumps from Markus Eisenbichler, who set the longest jump at 99.5 meters, and the newly crowned women’s world champion Carina Vogt.

Austria was second on 999.3 and Japan third on 979.7.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Germany, with tie for gold, sweeps four-man bobsled medals to close worlds

INNSBRUCK, AUSTRIA - FEBRUARY 05:  Francesco Friedrich, Candy Bauer, Martin Grothkopp and Thorsten Margis of Germany compete during the final run of the 4-man Bobsleigh BMW IBSF World Cup at Olympiabobbahn Igls on February 5, 2017 in Innsbruck, Austria.  (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images For IBSF)
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With a tie for four-man gold, Germany notched the first-ever men’s bobsled medal sweep at an Olympics or world championships on Sunday.

Francesco Friedrich and Johannes Lochner tied for the four-man world title with identical times after four runs of 3:14.10 in Koenigssee, Germany. Countryman Nico Walther took bronze, .16 behind.

The top American was 2010 Olympic champion Steven Holcomb in fifth. Holcomb was .01 out of bronze going into the fourth and final run but ended up. 18 behind Walther.

“This is really hard to swallow for these guys,” U.S. coach Brian Shimer said, according to U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton. “Holcomb’s team is starting to show signs of greatness, and they’ve come a long way for such a young push crew, and Holcomb continues to get back to his old self after a couple of years of injuries. I know he’s got to be really disappointed, but this race showed we’re taking a big step in the right direction.”

Germany completed a dominant world bobsled and skeleton championships by taking eight of the 15 medals in Olympic-program events. Last weekend, Friedrich earned his fourth straight world title in two-man bobsled.

Earlier Sunday, Latvian Martins Dukurs won his fifth skeleton world title in the last six editions. Dukurs, who settled for silver at the 2010 and 2014 Olympics, beat German Axel Jungk by .37 after four runs in Koenigssee.

“I was really lucky, especially my fourth run was awful,” said Dukurs, who held on despite having the fourth-fastest third and fourth runs. “But that’s the past, luckily for me also the other guys made mistakes.”

Russian Olympian Nikita Tregybov took bronze. Olympic bronze medalist Matthew Antoine was the top American in seventh.

“I’m disappointed, seventh isn’t what I came here to achieve,” Antoine said, according to U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton. “I don’t think I slid all that poorly, but I didn’t push very well, and on a track like this, you can’t give up that much at the start and expect to have a good result. The reality is that I’m an Olympic medalist and results like this don’t mean anything to me.”

The race lacked one of the PyeongChang Olympic favorites, South Korean Yun Sung-bin, who skipped worlds to get more training time in South Korea.

The rest of the top bobsledders and skeleton sliders will join Yun in South Korea in March for training and the final World Cup stop at the 2018 Olympic venue.

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