What do Sergei Fedorov, Pavel Bure, Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin have in common? They’re all infinitely gifted hockey men from Russia — who’ve never won a gold medal at the Olympics. In fact, no Russian men’s hockey team has ever won gold at the Olympics.
That is, of course, slightly disingenuous — between those great Soviet teams of the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and the Unified Team (made up of players from the just-collapsed USSR) that reached hockey’s mountaintop in the French Alps in 1992, teams from what is now Russia have won an astounding eight Olympic golds. But the Russian Federation has never reached such great heights. In the last six Olympics, the country’s hockey teams have only won two medals: a silver at Nagano in 1998 and a bronze at Salt Lake City in 2002. And this year’s team won’t be the one to end the drought. Although Russian athletes have been playing great, they are officially competing as Olympic Athletes from Russia after a widespread doping scandal led to the country being formally banned from this year’s Winter Olympics. Since these athletes aren’t technically playing under the Russian flag, any medals they win can’t contribute to the country’s medal total. Whatever happens, the Russian anthem won’t be playing in Pyeongchang.
That one-in-three rate for acquiring medals of any color at the last six Olympics must be jarring — unacceptable? — for a national team so accustomed to slicing its opponents to bits at international ice hockey tournaments. The Soviets are rightly famous for their dominance at the Olympics, but they also cleaned up at the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Ice Hockey World Championships: Between 1954 and 1991, they won 22 championships, finishing in second on seven more occasions.1 And while the Russian Federation team has had some success in the same competition — they’ve won five World Championships2 — it doesn’t have the same luster as capturing gold on the world’s biggest winter athletics stage. This quadrennial shortfall must be a disappointment to Russian hockey fans (and their, uh, hockey role-playing president).
Russia’s multigenerational stretch of frustration at the Olympics looks more grim when it’s juxtaposed with the success of Canada and Sweden. The best players to come out of each of these two nations in the past two decades — for example, Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron and Jonathan Toews for Canada, and Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Lidstrom and Henrik Lundqvist for Sweden — have at least one shiny piece of golden hardware to show for their efforts at the Olympics. Even the Czechs, led by a 25-year-old Jaromir Jagr, grabbed gold at Nagano ’98. Back when the Olympics were played by amateurs, the Soviets were almost unbeatable3; not long after the tournament allowed NHL talents to participate, the Russians all but disappeared from the conversation.4
|3||Jaromir Jagr||RW||Czech Rep.||119.8||33.7||153.5||✓|
|10||Patrik Elias||C||Czech Rep.||89.9||34.8||124.7|
|16||Martin St. Louis||C||Canada||87.9||27.0||114.8||✓|
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that in the first Olympic hockey tournament devoid of NHL players since 1994, the Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR) are dominating. Buttressed by Datsyuk and Kovalchuk (who both left North American hockey in the last five years but are both still good enough to play on most top lines in the NHL), they’ve often decimated their opponents in Pyeongchang, and the OAR team looks as likely as any other to win the gold this weekend. But even if they win it all, it won’t truly count as the kind of Olympic dominance that Russia’s been lacking of late.
On top of the the fact that OAR medals don’t count in the national team’s tally, there’s also the matter of never beating the best hockey players the world had to offer. Remember, the Soviet and Unified teams only ever beat groups of amateurs, and although there are plenty of professionals and ex-NHL players skating in South Korea, it would be incorrect to say these Olympics are an exhibition of the globe’s top talent. If the Olympic Athletes from Russia go on to win gold this weekend, they’ll join a long line of champions who beat some pretty good hockey teams — but never quite had to face the best on the planet.
Who knows if the NHL and the International Olympic Committee will ever come to terms and allow the sport’s best players to return to the world’s most significant international ice hockey tournament. If not, all-time Russian greats like Ovechkin and Malkin could finish their illustrious careers without ever capturing Olympic gold. And if the NHL stays home again in four years, even a (presumably) restored Team Russia won’t really get a chance to measure itself against the world’s best players.
Perhaps Russia will just have to content itself with basking in the on-ice brilliance of president Vladimir Putin: Eight goals by one team might be impressive, but who needs Olympic gold when you have a player who’s capable of netting eight goals by himself?