SOCHI, Russia — These days, Alex Ovechkin can barely swing his Russian-flag-themed hockey stick without encountering another reminder of both the legacy and the burden he carries here. His head coach, general manager and team president are all Olympic gold medal winners from the Soviet era, when the Big Red Machine dominated international ice hockey. His uniform for these Winter Games, the first on Russian soil, will feature eight stars on the shoulders, one for each of the country’s Olympic golds won between 1956 and 1992. Bronzes and silvers apparently aren’t worth the extra thread.
A few weeks ago, Russia’s hockey federation released on its Web site an open letter to its Olympic team from a group of gold-medal-winning Soviet-era veterans, including Vladislav Tretiak, the revered ex-goalie and current head of the federation. “The entire country will be looking at you,” it read. “In our time, we did everything for the victory. We glorified the USSR, our people and our sports. Don’t let Russia down, guys!”
Such is the atmosphere — filled more with anxiety than exhilaration — and such are the expectations on Ovechkin and his teammates when they take the ice Thursday against Slovenia for their opening game of the Sochi 2014 Olympic tournament. Because if one of the aims of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s hockey-loving president, in staging these Olympics is to reclaim some of the international prestige his country lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union, no group of Russian athletes carries a bigger burden in helping him achieve it than the men’s hockey team.
“The pressure is enormous, and it’s growing every day,” Russian team captain Pavel Datsyuk told the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Web site, breaking momentarily from the party line that generally seeks to play down the pressure. “Everyone is expecting only one thing from us. And we won’t have the right to make an error.”
By virtue of his fame, talent and fierce nationalism,Ovechkin, 28, has been designated the unofficial “Face of the Sochi Games.” His familiar, gap-toothed mug is grinning from Coca-Cola machines and billboards across Olympic Park. He has been pointing toward this moment since 2012, when the National Hockey League was waffling on whether to let its best players participate in another Olympics, and he threatened to violate his $124 million Washington Capitals contract by playing even if the league said no.
He has been pointing toward this moment since the 2010 Vancouver Games, when Russia’s humiliating 7-3 loss to Canada in the quarterfinals kept the country out of the medal round and sent Ovechkin into a mental tailspin that took months to correct.
He has been pointing toward this moment since 2007, when he watched on television as the International Olympic Committee awarded these Winter Games to Sochi, a resort town where he and his family once vacationed when he was a boy, and he understood immediately what it would mean to his country, the Russian national team and himself.
He has been pointing toward this moment, really, since 1985, when he was born on the north side of Moscow into a family of sports royalty, his mother, Tatyana, a former basketball star who won Olympic golds in 1976 and 1980. As a child prodigy, he came through the national hockey program as both the hockey dynasty and the Soviet Union itself had crumbled.
Now, as a man and as the undisputed most dangerous scorer in the world, he is perhaps the one most capable of restoring that legacy to glory.
They are referred to here sometimes as the Last Generation — Ovechkin, who is a third-time Olympian, and his fellow Russian veterans: Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and a handful of others.
They are the last children of the 1990s, the last who can still remember, if vaguely, the final Russian gold in 1992 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when the country played as the “Unified Team.” They are the last to have come through the Russian national hockey program during the ensuing transition out of the storied but notoriously demanding Soviet system.
“I think this is the last generation now who grew up with the traditional Soviet way,” said Team Russia General Manager Alexei Kasatonov, a former defenseman who won Olympic golds in 1984 and 1988, with a tinge of nostalgia in his voice. “The other guys are more the new generation, the new style. It’s a different philosophy. I don’t want to say it the wrong way — but we don’t have too many young superstars.”
And so, to the long list of pressure factors for the Russians this month — the home ice, the humiliation in Vancouver, the 22-year gold medal drought, the well-intended but overbearing incitements of the old Soviet vanguard — add another one: This could be the last chance at Olympic glory for this core.
In 2018, even if NHL players are again allowed to play, Datsyuk would be 39, Kovalchuk would be 34 and Ovechkin and Malkin would be 32 and 31.
It’s no wonder the Russian media have been racing to out-hype each other in describing the stakes in Sochi.
The gold medal in hockey “is more important than all the other medals taken together,” said Lev Rossoshik, a reporter for the Russian sports Web site championat.com. “You can have poor results in other sports, but if you win in hockey the whole country will be satisfied.”
“Hockey is the most important sport in Russia in any kind of winter competition,” said Vladimir Pozner, a prominent Russian news broadcast journalist and author. “And after really getting blown out in Vancouver . . . it was seen here in Russia as being shameful. There is a huge desire to set the record straight in Sochi.”
Ovechkin took the Vancouver loss harder than anyone. He was sullen and withdrawn in defeat. He refused interviews and infamously shoved a television camera that was thrust in his face. He then went back to Washington and alienated Capitals teammates and officials with his uninspired play. He was also 24 years old at the time.
“Maybe he wasn’t psychologically ready for that kind of disaster,” said Igor Rabiner, hockey columnist for championat.com. “He didn’t behave too well, and he received a lot of criticism in the media. But he is much more mature now in his comments, and he is more deep in his interviews. And of course, he is at the top of his form now.
“A player who was a superstar, who got in a professional crisis and came back from it is more mature than a young guy just starting out. That’s why I’m saying it will be his Olympics — Ovechkin’s moment.”
The video begins with the old Soviet flag, superimposed over a shot of those 1970s-era heroes lined up on the blue line. Under a bouncy, rock-and-roll track, black-and-white clips of the Soviet champions alternate with full-color ones of the current stars, and then come the shots of Ovechkin and a half-dozen teammates in a studio, arms wrapped around each other, singing the lyrics into a microphone, and of Tretiak and the old guard singing into another.
“We are Russian unit / We are Red Machine,” the lyrics go. “. . . Defend the honor of your motherland.”
The refrain and the title of the song are the same: “Shaybu! Shaybu!” Loosely translated, it means, “Score! Score!” — a popular chant at Russian hockey arenas — and it is certain to be heard thundering across the Bolshoy Ice Dome, where most of the Olympic men’s hockey tournament will be contested over 12 days.
The rock-star depiction of Russia’s players has seemed particularly apt this week, from the way television cameras swarmed around the team bus at the airport upon their arrival to the constant crush of autograph and photograph requests from Olympics volunteers and fellow Olympians any time they venture out of their apartments — as Ovechkin did with his fiancée, tennis star Maria Kirilenko, to watch pairs figure skating Wednesday night.
And what has become crystal clear is the fact Ovechkin is this band’s front man. Though he is officially an alternate captain, behind the more senior Datsyuk, at Russia’s practice Wednesday he was the one the others looked to for their cues. Before the drills began, he casually sent a puck down to the other end of the ice, where it clanged into the skate of Russian Coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov. As the latter glanced around for the culprit, Ovechkin looked away, feigning innocence, until he turned and grinned mischievously at his coach, who broke into laughter.
Once practice began, he took advantage of a pause in the action to skate over and engage Datsyuk in a one-sided, animated conversation — with the younger Ovechkin speaking and gesturing and Datsyuk mostly nodding. When others put their hands on their knees to catch their breath, Ovechkin screamed for someone to feed him the puck. There was no time to waste.
“Today, joy is finished,” said Kasatonov, the general manager, shifting between Russian and English. “It’s now hard work and discipline and direction and preparation. Sleep, eat, everything — it is about hockey. It’s not fun, you know. But it’s one way to win something.”
That’s how it would have been in the old days, when young Russians played hockey for nothing but the glory of the motherland and when the Big Red Machine of the Soviet Union came to a new city every four years and took away the gold, never imagining a day when that legacy, now pushed to the edges of memory, would be left to a band of millionaire rock stars to restore.
Natasha Abbakumova contributed to this report.