ADLER, Russia — Alex Ovechkin is a 6-foot-3 hockey player with broad shoulders. But over the next two weeks, those shoulders might not be broad enough. He needs to carry around an entire nation.
Ovechkin is literally everywhere here at the Winter Olympics. Not the real Ovechkin. The billboard Ovechkin. As the biggest star in Russia's most popular indoor spectator sport, his image is featured on Coca-Cola advertisements on city streets, neighborhood kiosks and soft drink machines. Sochi is watched over by him benevolently. He is the Big Brother of Local Carbonation.
In the advertisement, Ovechkin holds a Coke bottle and smiles his missing-tooth smile, accompanied by large block lettering with a bold Russian phrase.
“It means, 'Join, join!' the real flesh-and-blood Ovechkin translated here to reporters.
Among the Russian citizenry, it might as well also mean: 'Don't choke, don't choke!' ''
Make no mistake. The local hockey team has the toughest gig in the Caucasus when the Olympic hockey tournament begins Wednesday. At the 2010 Vancouver Games, the Canadian hockey team was under huge pressure to win on home ice. And it did win. But the pressure on the Russians to win here might be even more intense, because the Russians seem to take hockey even more seriously than Canadians.
Some of that might have to do with their leader. The other night on Russian television, a program showed president Vladimir Putin—who doubles as the country's power play coach—suiting up in full hockey gear to take part in a charity game. The footage also showed him scoring a goal or two. Smart goalie.
“You know, this is Putin's team, Putin's sport,” said NBC hockey analyst Jeremy Roenick, here to broadcast the tournament. “I'll be interested to see how the Russian team reacts and performs.”
With sticks gripped very tight, one would guess. Nobody ever wants to be sent to Vlad The Man's penalty box.
Get ready, then, for some motivated Russian effort. Ovechkin, who plays for the Washington Capitals, is here along with other NHL players to complete the mission, along with a batch of players from the country's own Kontinental League. The team held a mass press conference Tuesday. Some 300 journalists attended. Most were from Russia.
First question to Ovechkin: Where do you plan to be on February 23? That's the day of the gold medal hockey game.
“I hope we fight for the gold,” Ovechkin said, straight-faced. “We'll see what happens.”
So. Enjoy the tournament, guys!
The previous night, Ovechkin was in a more relaxed mood when he chatted with the reporters who showed up for Russia's first practice. An American writer asked himto describe what a gold medal here might mean to the country.
“The gold will cost $50 billion, probably,” Ovechkin answered with a grin, quoting the amount that the government has spent on these Games.
For a country with such a storied hockey history, it comes as a shock to realize that the last time Russia won an Olympic gold in the sport was way back in 1992. Since the NHL began allowing its players to participate in 1998, the Russians have earned just one silver medal and one bronze medal. Four years ago, the team barely showed up in a 7-3 quarterfinal loss to Canada, considered a national disgrace along the lines of the 1980 “Miracle On Ice” upset to the USA.
“In Vancouver, we lost to Canada and saw the country celebrate,” Ovechkin said. “You can ask any Canadian player how that felt for them. So this tournament is probably my biggest moment for me.”
Undeniably, it will be the biggest moment for another player on the Russian team, one with a Bay Area connection. Viktor Tikhonov grew up in San Jose when his father was a Sharks assistant coach. Viktor still lives in Los Gatos during the summer. But during the winter, he plays defenseman here in Russia for St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League. The 25-year-old Tikhonov is also the grandson of the country's most famous hockey coach, also named Viktor Tikhonov — best known in America as the losing USSR coach in 1980.
“Honestly, it's tough to explain how I feel right now,” said the younger Tikhonov here. “I heard that I'd made the national team when my KHL team's plane had just landed in Siberia for a game. My wife sent me a text. I think I screamed. It's a huge honor for me.”
The younger Tikhonov is a California kid with no Russian accent whatsoever when he speaks English. But there's no question where his hockey loyalty lies. He has refused to ever watch the “Miracle On Ice” movie about the 1980 USSR defeat, or even a replay of the game broadcast itself. Every summer, Tikahnov works out at the Sharks' practice rink and has a running bet with a friend there.
The friend is a goalie. So the bet goes this way: If the goalie can ever stop Tikhanov on 10 straight penalty shots, Tikhanov will finally watch “Miracle On Ice.” So far, Tikhanov is winning the bet. Remember that information if he is called upon to make a penalty shot in an Olympic overtime.
On paper, Canada or Sweden should probably win the gold here. But the larger international ice surface could boost Russia's chances. So should the home crowd. Putin will be watching from the stands on most nights. The emotion might help generate an upset Russian victory.
If that occurs, Ovechkin's image won't merely be plastered all over Sochi. The country might commission a mural of him in Red Square. And when the gold medal party starts, Ovechkin won't have any trouble getting people to join, join.