Wayne Gretzky doesn’t believe home ice pressure will make the Russian men’s hockey team somewhat beatable in Sochi.
Gretzky said the Russians will be “very difficult for anybody to beat” but stopped short of declaring them winners.
“There’s a number of teams that can win,” Gretzky said, according to The Associated Press. “It comes down to the same thing all the time: Best goaltender, and if your best player is the best player on the ice and the best line on the ice, your team is ultimately going to be the gold medal winner.”
Gretzky knows that well. He played in one Olympics, 1998 in Nagano, where his powerhouse Canadian team ran into Czech fortress Dominik Hasek in the semifinals and lost 2-1 in a shootout. Hasek stopped all five Canada shots in the shootout, in which Gretzky did not take part.
Russia’s top goalie this year is Semyon Varlamov, whose NHL numbers are comparable with the top U.S. and Canadian goalies.
Gretzky constructed the 2002 Canada Olympic Team that won gold in Salt Lake City and was on hand at the 2010 Olympic gold-medal game also won by Canada over the U.S.
The Soviet Union captured all but one Olympic men’s hockey title from 1964 through 1988. The Unified Team won in 1992, but Russia has never taken an Olympic hockey gold medal since.
“The pressure is enormous and it’s growing every day,” Russian captain Pavel Datsyuk said, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). “Everyone is expecting only one thing from us. And we won’t have the right to make an error.”
The pressure falls on Alex Ovechkin‘s shoulders more than anyone else.
“If Ovechkin is in top shape, there is no need to even put our skates on. He’ll just jump out and tear everyone apart,” forward Evgeni Malkin said, according to the IIHF, noting the Pittsburgh Penguins star’s dry humor. “As a matter of fact, it doesn’t matter what shape he is in. He’ll just drink a couple of cans of Coke and will run around like he just got scalded or something.”