Putin Seeks His Own Miracle on Ice as He Boosts Russian Hockey

Sochi Olympics head Dmitry Chernyshenko knew three Western horror films when he was a child: “Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Friday the 13th” and “Miracle on Ice,” a film about the U.S.’s 4-3 defeat of the Soviet Union men’s hockey team at the 1980 Games.

That game in Lake Placid, New York, left a scar on the Russians, even though the Soviets won the gold in the next three Winter Games. In recent Olympics, the squad once known as the Red Machine has struggled, and here in Sochi is where the country -- and President Vladimir Putin -- wants success. The Americans and Russians meet again tomorrow.

“We all grew up in the culture that hockey is religious in our country,” Chernyshenko, 45, said today. “Hockey in our country has passed through the different turbulences and we are now happy that it is back to that stage.”

Putin, who may attend the game, has overseen the $44 billion spent on facilities and infrastructure for the games as a way to project Russian power both at home and abroad. Winning medals is an important part of that, and men’s hockey is one of the events where the hosts expect positive results.

The teams have played four times since the Soviet Union split, with Russia winning two, tying one and the U.S. winning the other.

Millions of Russians will watch on television and the crowd will be partisan, with almost 75 percent of tickets to the Sochi Games going to locals.

Hockey, figure skating and biathlon are Russia’s most watched Olympic sports, pollsters say.

Kremlin Importance

Putin sees the preliminary-round match as “an interesting game with two really strong teams playing,” his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said by phone, adding that an Olympic medal in hockey means for as much for the Kremlin as it does for every citizen of Russia.

The Russians have won eight gold medals in Olympic hockey, a mark that Canada tied in its home Vancouver Games in 2010. A sixth-place finish in Vancouver was the worst result by a Russian or Soviet hockey team since the country’s first appearance on Olympic ice in 1956. The Russians’ most recent Olympic gold came in 1992 in Albertville, France.

“Russians and Americans have this old history of confronting each other,” Sergei Seliverstov, 33, a military officer from Astrakhan said after he watched Russia beat Slovenia 5-2 yesterday. “So that’s a bit of a political issue here. I wish we have the same score with the U.S. first and then with Canada.”

The U.S. won 7-1 against Slovakia in its first preliminary match this week, while Canada defeated Sweden 3-1.

Another Country

Some Russians, including former Soviet captain Boris Mikhailov, said it is time to move on from the 1980 upset loss to the U.S. In that game, a U.S. team of amateur and collegiate players defeated the heavily favored Soviet squad that had won the gold medal in six of the seven previous Olympics. The U.S. then defeated Finland to clinch the gold.

“I’ve already forgotten about that Miracle on Ice game,” Mikhailov, 69, said by phone. “We live in another country. And we need to be in the finals now.”

Former Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak now runs hockey’s governing body in Russia, and said the country improved after the loss in 1980.

“The Americans taught us a good lesson,” he said at a news conference in Sochi. “The lesson was that one should respect the competitor ahead of the game.”

Tretiak wants to turn the current squad into a Red Machine again, but the players will feel pressure playing at home, he said.

NHL Players

Sixteen of the 25 athletes on the Russian squad play in the National Hockey League, including Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk.

“They have a handful of the best players in the world,” U.S. captain Zach Parise told reporters in Sochi. “You have to play one of your best games to beat them.”

Russia will have to defend more aggressively than the team has done in the past against the U.S. and play a simple, yet powerful game, said Sergei Gersonsky, former executive coach for the Russian youth hockey team, who added that defeating the Americans would give the home team a “big psychological advantage.”

“Our rounds with U.S. and Canada will be for the last drop of blood,” said Viktor Shikanov, 55, a boxing coach, who’d just arrived in Sochi. He came to see at least one hockey round from Magadan, a city 7,000 kilometers (4,350 miles) from Sochi in Russia’s Far East. “Victory is the only thing we expect in Sochi. This will show Russia is a great country again.”

Number 11

Hockey is the second most popular winter sport in Russia, with more than 420,000 people playing, putting it just after cross-country skiing, according to 2012 data from the Ministry of Sport. The number grew by 30 percent from 2009, and Putin, 61, is a recent convert.

“I wanted to support it somehow, to give new birth to it,” Putin said during a documentary on Russian state TV. He was shown playing, scoring and falling in a red jersey with number 11. In 2012 Putin went to play hockey after his inauguration ceremony. He now plays hockey several times a month, Peskov said.

Putin visited USA House, the Americans’ official Sochi base for sponsors, athletes and officials, where he shared a drink with Larry Probst, chairman of the American Olympic committee and Scott Blackmun, the chief executive officer.

Putin could get a boost should Russian athletes do well, especially if the hockey team has success, said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin adviser who heads the Moscow-based Effective Policy Foundation.

Mismanagement Legacy

“Athletic Russia is his new ideology, a part of his program of re-education of Russia that should become traditionalist, disciplined and athletic,” Pavlovsky said. “In this sense, Olympics in general and game against the U.S. in particular are very important for him. He needs this victory.”

Putin’s interest comes as the nation tries to correct years of mismanagement of its hockey development program that led to no gold medals for 22 years, Gersonsky said.

Six years ago, the country set up the Kontinental Hockey League to try to compete with the NHL. Putin lured allies, including oil trader Gunvor co-owner Gennady Timchenko, billionaire Arkady Rotenberg and Igor Sechin, CEO of oil company Rosneft, to invest in hockey infrastructure and training. There are now more than 440 ice arenas in Russia, according to 2012 data from the Ministry of Sport.

“Of course, a miracle for us is quite possible in Sochi,” Gersonsky said. “As we say, miracles happen, they just cost a lot.”

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