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.

Rio Olympic equestrian may be moved outside Brazil

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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The head of the Brazilian Equestrian Confederation has warned that equestrian events at next year’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics might have to take place outside Brazil.

Luiz Roberto Giugni blasted the country’s Agriculture Ministry for delays in issuing documentation needed to allow horses brought into Brazil from Europe, the United States and Canada to leave the country.

He warned that if the ministry doesn’t act before the end of the month, “we run the risk of not having the event in Brazil.”

Regulations for bringing horses to and from Brazil are strict. The country is still subject to diseases affecting horses, including glanders, a lethal bacterial infection recently diagnosed in several horses here.

Guigni was speaking on Wednesday at an event in Sao Paulo.

Shaun White talks Olympic skateboarding, Air & Style at Forbes summit

Shaun White
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What do the next five years look like for Shaun White the businessman?

“I heard they just accepted skateboarding at the Olympics, so if I wasn’t busy enough,” White joked, rubbing his right ear while gripping an Aquafina water bottle, sitting in a white chair on a stage across from Forbes senior editor Kurt Badenhausen.

“I don’t know. Maybe there’s a summer medal in my future. Maybe another Winter Olympics. I’m hoping to go to [Pyeongchang, South] Korea [for the 2018 Winter Games], which would be great. I’ve still got to do the qualifying and everything. I’m going to grow Air & Style into the next big thing. Music, you’ll see me on the road. Record a new single. I think that’s what’s so great is the unknown.”

White took questions from Badenhausen for 28 minutes at the Forbes Under 30 Summit on Tuesday, discussing his business ventures and his snowboarding.

White mentioned skateboarding, which is among five sports that are finalists to be added to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic program. It’s not in the Olympics yet, but the International Olympic Committee will decide in August. White, a two-time Olympic snowboard halfpipe champion, won Summer X Games skateboard vert as recently as 2011.

Since finishing fourth in the 2014 Olympic halfpipe, White has said he’s hoping to be at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics, which would be his fourth Winter Games.

White, now 29, was the oldest U.S. Olympic men’s halfpipe snowboarder at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics and, in 2018, would be older than any previous U.S. Olympic men’s halfpipe snowboarder. The sport debuted at the Olympics in 1998.

He’s barely competed since Sochi, also finishing fourth at last January’s Winter X Games halfpipe. He has said he will spend part of October training in New Zealand and plans to compete at this season’s Winter X Games, but it’s not locked in.

White’s relationship with the X Games changed when, before the Sochi Olympics, he purchased a majority share in Air & Style, a touring big air ski and snowboard event that also includes music. Air & Style events have been held in Europe, Beijing and, debuting last February, Los Angeles.

White laughed when Badenhausen said he had read that White put up $5 million to put on the Los Angeles event.

“I wish it was just five,” White responded.

White expanded on Air & Style on Tuesday, saying his acquisition came after his conversations with X Games organizers for a similar plan fell apart (part of his answer in a video here):

“That was a huge turning point to do this event,” White said. “I mean, it was like, wow, OK, you guys don’t want to do this. Then I’m going to have to run with this idea, do it myself.”

The Winter X Games made their European debut in 2010 with events in Tignes, France, for four straight years, as well as having Summer X Games events in Brazil and Europe. It all stopped after 2013, but an Oslo event is scheduled for this February.

“They [X Games] actually expanded globally, it was a huge failure [laughs], to be honest, a couple things happened, I think,” White said. “They didn’t really change their marketing platform. They used the same announcers, the same people, the same competitors, all the things every time around the world, which didn’t exactly translate in the foreign markets. And then again, it did another thing where it diluted the brand in the U.S. because X Games was on TV every day. It’s kind of like, oh wow, I get to see this all the time, what’s so special about it?”

White announced Air & Style’s debut in Los Angeles in late 2014, after he said agents and accountants advised against it.

“It’s something I felt like I had to do, win or lose,” White said.

White said Air & Style’s event in Los Angeles was boosted by the X Games’ decision in 2013 to shift its summer event from Los Angeles to Austin, Texas.

“That left a really nice opening in the market for people that like to attend this type of event — families, younger-aged kids that would attend and then, obviously, a huge market for music-goers,” White said. “So it was kind of that win-win of people that we would get at that event. Not just the hardcore music-goers.”

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