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And now, a round of applause for Russia’s hockey heroes

Alexander Ovechkin (right) and forward Alexander Radulov of Team Russia. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Tuesday’s press conference with the Russian men’s hockey team did not seem to do much to energize the players and team officials, who gave mostly rote answers to a series of mostly predictable questions. Members of the Russian media, on the other hand, appeared as if they were ready to lace up their skates and drop their gloves with anyone who dared challenge the pride of the nation.

The entire Russian team — 25 players, coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov and two front-office officials — entered the Pushkin conference room at the Sochi 2014 media center to a rousing round of applause from the standing-room-only crowd of reporters. The ovation highlighted a stark cultural difference between American journalists, who would rather catch a puck with their teeth than be caught cheering while on duty, and those from other countries, where it’s fairly normal. When the news conference ended after perhaps half an hour, the assembled media gave the team another hearty ovation.

Another telling moment came a few questions in, when an American reporter from the Associated Press asked Vladislav Tretiak — the revered ex-goalie from the great Soviet Red Machine teams of the 1970s and ’80s, and now the president of the Russian hockey federation — how long it took him to get over the Soviets’ loss to the U.S. in the 1980 Lake Placid Games. As soon as the question was asked, an audible buzz went up from the crowd. Up on the stage, Washington Capitals and Team Russia superstar Alex Ovechkin, who was two seats over from Tretiak, began giggling with teammate Ilya Kovalchuk.  Perhaps they could sense what was coming.

“Well,” Tretiak began his reply, “in ’84 we managed to rectify our mistake. It took us four years to reclaim our gold.”

With that reminder of the Soviets’ gold in the 1984 Sarajevo Games, a smattering of applause broke out across the auditorium. It didn’t appear to be Tretiak’s intention to light the flame of Russian nationalism, as he continued, “It [the loss in 1980] was a good lesson for us. You have to respect your competition. We did not have respect for our competition at that time.”

The Russians gave little insight into their strategy for the Olympic tournament, which begins Wednesday. Bilyaletdinov, for example, declined to name a starting goalie for Team Russia’s Thursday opener. As for the lineup, there has been no official word, but Ovechkin has been skating in practice as the left wing on a line centered by Pittsburgh Penguins star Evgeny Malkin, and with Carolina Hurricanes winger Alexander Semin — Ovechkin’s former Washington teammate — on the right side. Meantime, Detroit Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk, who has been nursing a lower-body injury that kept him out of a month’s worth of NHL games, skated at Russia’s Tuesday morning practice and pronounced himself ready to play in games.

That, undoubtedly, was welcome news for the Russian hockey media.

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