John Feinstein Blog: Catastrophe On Ice For Russia

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(Credit: JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/Getty Images)

(Credit: JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/Getty Images)

The Russian hockey team’s 3-1 loss to Finland on Wednesday morning in the quarterfinals of the Olympic hockey tournament in no way resembles the fabled Miracle on Ice that took place in Lake Placid 34 years ago.

But, in many ways, this loss might be more disastrous for the players, coaches and for the entire country than that loss to the U.S. was in 1980 for what was then The Soviet Union.

For one thing, many people in the Soviet Union never knew what happened on that February Friday night — the anniversary of the game is this coming Saturday — because none of the Soviet news agencies were allowed to report the outcome. As far as most people in the Soviet Union knew, the hockey team won the silver medal. They had no idea exactly WHY it didn’t win the gold medal. Baffling no doubt but there weren’t very many details to go around.

Plus, back then, the Soviets could label what happened a fluke — and with good reason. They were the dominant team in the world. They had won every gold medal in the Olympics dating to 1956, except in 1960 and 1980, when the U.S. won on home ice. They went on to win the next two Olympic gold medals and another one in 1992 as the “Unified Team,” after the breakup of the Soviet Union. That made eight gold medals in 10 Olympics.

Since then, nothing. In fact, this will be the third straight Olympics in which the Russians have failed to even medal. This is worse for the Russians than the Canadians failing in an Olympics because for European hockey players the Olympics matter more than the Stanley Cup. As much as the Canadians want to win a gold medal, as important as it was for their Olympic team to win playing at home in Vancouver four years ago, there isn’t a Canadian hockey player alive who would trade carrying the Stanley Cup around a rink for being presented with an Olympic medal.

The opposite is true in Russia.

In fact, after the Russians were embarrassed, 7-3, by the Canadians in the quarterfinals four years ago, it was clear that Alexander Ovechkin — the Russians star then as now — was not the same player when he returned to the Washington Capitals.

“It definitely affected him,” said George McPhee, the Capitals general manager. “You could see it. For the Russians and for him, losing that way was a national humiliation. I think it took all the Russian players awhile to recover from that loss.”

The memory of that Olympic hangover must be weighing on McPhee and the other general managers and coaches of the 16 NHL players who skated off the ice at The Bolshoy Ice Palace on Wednesday with their heads down. The one NHL GM who probably had a smile on his face at game’s end is the New Jersey Devils Lou Lamoriello, who had to watch Ilya Kovulchuk walk away from the 12 years and $77 million he had left on his Devils contract this past summer to sign with a team in the Russian KHL. Lamoriello doesn’t have to worry about how the loss will affect Kovulchuk.

In fact, the loss to the Finns will no doubt be tougher on Kovulchuk and the other eight Russian players who play in the KHL than it will be on the NHLers who will be able to flee the country and return to the U.S. and Canada and their multi-million dollar contracts.

But that doesn’t mean they’ll be able to escape. The fact that Finland is a very good team with an excellent goalie (Tuukka Rask) and has had a good deal of international success isn’t going to matter in mother Russia. THIS was the Olympic gold medal that had to be won: it was on home ice with President/Dictator/Thug Vladimir Putin making it clear how important it was to HIM by showing up for the round-robin game between the Russians and the United States.

And, unlike 1980, there won’t be any doubt in the minds of the Russian people about what happened. They saw the game, live on national TV. They will see, hear and read reports about the game. Within minutes of shaking hands with the Finnish players, Ovechkin had put out a tweet: “What can I say?” it read. “This sucks.”

Eloquent — and true.

There will, of course, be jokes about what Putin will do to the players and coaches. He will do nothing, of course, but the way these players will be treated — probably for the rest of their lives — when they are in Russia will no doubt be affected. If they had won the gold medal, they would have been kings forever, treated LIKE gold wherever they went.

Now, there will be snickers and whispers and there won’t be the kind of lavish treatment often afforded Russian sports heroes.

“Reservation for Mr. Ovechkin? We’re running a little late. Your table will be ready in about 20 minutes. Perhaps you’d like to wait in the bar.”

For the U.S. and Canadian teams there must also be a small sense of disappointment. The goal is to win the gold medal and there’s no doubt that either Sweden or Finland will be a formidable opponent in the gold medal game for whichever team reaches the final on Sunday morning.

But beating either will NOT be the same as beating the Russians on their home ice would be. Given a choice between beating Finland or Sweden or losing to the Russians, there’s no doubt the Americans or Canadians would take the win in a heartbeat. But in a perfect world, you beat the home team on its home ice in front of its dictatorial president and force him stand there during the playing of YOUR national anthem.

That can’t happen now. At least the U.S. team had the pleasure of beating the Russians in Russia this past Saturday in about as dramatic a hockey game that decided very little as anyone has ever seen played.

Someone will win the gold medal on Sunday and there will be tears shed when the flags are raised and the winning anthem is played. But Putin won’t be there. Neither will any of the Russian players.

If 1980 was the Miracle on Ice for the United States, this was the Catastrophe on Ice for Russia.

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