Tim Wharnsby - Thursday Feb. 6, 2014 09:36

Russia's success at Sochi Olympics rests with men’s hockey

Alex Ovechkin faces same pressure Crosby endured in Vancouver

Hockey star Alex Ovechkin has been on several Russian billboard ads for Coca-Cola accompanied by his usual gap-toothed grin smile. (Photo courtesy @WharnsbyCBC on Twitter)

SOCHI, Russia – Alex Ovechkin and the Russian hockey team will face the same amount of Olympic-sized pressure that Sidney Crosby and the Canadians endured in Vancouver four years ago.

It’s not fair to the other athletes on the Russian side, just like it wasn’t to Alex Bilodeau, Maëlle Ricker, Tessa Virtue, Scott Moir and others in Vancouver, but the Russian Olympics will be determined a success or failure based on whether the men’s hockey team wins.

That goes for Ovechkin, too. He’s won at the world junior level and has three world championship titles tucked away inside his crowded trophy case, but his performance will play a massive part in defining his hockey career up to this point.

"Everybody wants to win a gold medal, especially when playing at home," Ovechkin told NBC’s Today Show on Monday. "I'm sure every hockey player, every fan in Russia, wants us to win. But it's going to be hard because every team has a strong team. It's going to be a battle.

"I'm very excited. It's a big honour for me, for my country."

Ovechkin is the face of the Sochi Games. Everywhere you go there are billboards for Coca-Cola with his gap-toothed grin smiling back at you. When asked about security concerns in the Today Show interview, Ovechkin revealed that he was being updated daily by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Olympic spirit burns

Ovechkin would like to win a Stanley Cup, but his Olympic spirit burns more. His mother Tatyana was a double gold-medal winner with the Soviet women’s basketball team in 1976 and 1980. From courtside, he cheered on his fiancée Maria Kirilenko at the London Olympics when she won a bronze in women’s tennis doubles.

Before the NHL signed off to participate in Sochi, Ovechkin stated he planned to play no matter what. He later received the blessing to do so from Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis. He also got permission to jet off to Greece a few days before the Capitals season opener to carry the Olympic torch.

No player took Russia’s quarter-final drubbing from the Canadians harder than Ovechkin in Vancouver four years ago. He had such high hopes after helping Russia to back-to-back world championships in 2008 and 2009.

2010 Olympics a flop

But the 2010 Olympic tournament was a flop. The heartbreak continued a few months later when the Montreal Canadiens upset Ovechkin and his Capitals in the first round.

He then scurried over to the 2010 world championship, did his best to help Russia advance to the final. But again, upset city. The Czech Republic scored a 2-1 win. The winning goal was scored in the second period as a result of Ovechkin’s collision with teammate Sergei Fedorov that took both of them out of the play.

Ovechkin contributed offensively in the series against Montreal and at the 2010 world championship. But all of a sudden his play dropped off by his standards. He scored a career-worst 32 goals in 2010-11. He checked in with a career-worst 65 points in 2011-12.

But as swiftly as his play suffered, he rediscovered his form after a slow start in the lockout-shortened season last winter with the Sochi Olympics less than a year away. He has continued that strong play with 39 goals in 53 games this season.

There is no doubt he is ready to go to Sochi. There have been some whispers over here that he will secretly arrive early to carry the Russian flag or light the Olympic cauldron in the opening ceremony on Friday. But as unlikely as that seems, he may play a role through the magic of technology.

Rock star

These sorts of experiences are important to No. 8. He is a rock star in a hockey player’s body. He draws on inspiration from disappointing events like Vancouver and deaths to important people in his life.

He still honours his older brother Sergei, who died in a car crash when the two were kids, by having his name etched on his left glove. When his former world junior teammate Alex Galimov survived and then passed away a few days after the tragic Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash in 2011, he began to wear a patch stitched onto the chest portion of his shoulder pads that read “In Memory of Lokomotiv.”

But like Ovechkin remarked earlier in the week, winning men’s Olympic gold is difficult because of the tournament’s depth. There only have been two countries that have won men’s Olympic hockey gold at home – the United States in 1960 and 1980, and Canada in 2010.

It burned Ovechkin to see his nemesis Crosby score the golden goal in Vancouver. Now it burns inside him to deliver a special moment to his country.

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