Russia’s dreams of winning Olympic gold on home ice came to an early end in Sochi. On Wednesday, the host nation was bounced from the tournament by a largely overlooked Finnish team in the quarterfinals. The 3–1 loss ensures that the Russian team will, at best, finish in fifth place, its second-worst result since the Soviet Union made its first appearance in the Olympic hockey tournament nearly six decades ago. “You can’t overstate what a disappointment this is for a country that for so long was the dominant power in this sport,” Al Michaels observed in the NBC studio following the game.
It’s difficult to #slatepitch this one. Michaels, a man who knows something about Russian hockey disappointment, is right: This one stings. Hockey is the second most-popular sport in Russia in terms of participation, behind only cross-country skiing, a fact that the Ministry of Sport was hyping in the lead-up to the games. And the game seems to be only growing in popularity thanks to Russia’s oligarch-funded pro league, the KHL.
And, of course, there was President Vladimir Putin, who served as the team’s high-profile hype man before and during the tournament. During a trip last week to Canada’s Olympic headquarters in Sochi, the Russian strongman talked openly of a finals match-up with the defending gold medalists, who during the last Olympics managed to do what Team Russia ultimately could not: win the gold medal at home. Even after American T.J. Oshie’s shootout heroics handed Russia its only loss in group play, Putin was unbowed, noting that he had been expecting “that we would win by a big margin,” a not-so-subtle shaming of a squad that he still expected to be standing atop the podium this Sunday.
But disappointment aside, was Russia’s loss an embarrassment and/or a choke, as many talking heads are already proclaiming? Hardly. The current Russian team entered the tournament as a gold-medal favorite, yes, but only one among several. Given the best-of-one elimination format and the relative depth of the international field, no team—not the home Russians, the hockey-mad Canadians, nor anyone else, for that matter—entered Sochi assured of even reaching the medal round.
Recent history suggested that was particularly true for the host country. Russia has never won Olympic gold as an independent nation. Gone are the days of the Big Red Machine, the nearly unbeatable Soviet squad that claimed every gold medal but two during an absurd 36-year run between 1956 and 1992. The wrench that brought those gears to a halt was the NHL’s decision to allow its players to represent their countries. Since the world’s best players began showing up at the Olympics in 1998, the Russians have slowly but surely slipped down the final standings every four years, from second place in Nagano to sixth in Vancouver. Along the way they’ve suffered elimination or medal-round losses to Finland (twice, counting today), the Czech Republic (twice), Canada, and the United States. But there’s no particular shame in those losses: Since 1998, only Finland has managed to bring home more than two medals.
Mike Milbury, an ex-NHL player and coach who’s working the Olympics for NBC, offered this typically breathless assessment of the Russians following their elimination: “I just don’t think they ever came together, and I never saw the effort, I never saw the cohesiveness that’s needed to be an efficient team. The Russians are going to hang their hands over this one for a long time to come.”
Milbury is no doubt correct on the second half of that assessment, but I’m not so sure that Alex Ovechkin and co. should beat themselves up over this one. Remember, they came within a disallowed goal of beating the Americans in regulation this past weekend, a result that likely would have left them undefeated in group play. Their only other loss occurred today, to a Finnish team that took Team Canada to overtime over the weekend and one that is the most decorated Olympic team in the NHL era. The Russians had a bad day against one of the most successful international teams and one of the world’s best goalies. Let’s keep things in perspective: It’s not like they were just bounced from the Olympics by a bunch of American college kids.