I’m a Russian hockey fan, and here’s an unpopular opinion that has received quite a few sweet words of criticism from some of my fellow Russians: I did not want the Olympic athletes from Russia men’s hockey team to win gold.
Before you call me unpatriotic, let me explain. I’m not saying Team OAR did not deserve to win; in fact, I have absolutely nothing against most of the guys who actually competed on the ice. (I’m very happy for Nikita Gusev, Kirill Kaprizov and Vasily Koshechkin, for example, and wish them all the best in their careers.) It’s all about the effect that these medals will have on the Russian hockey as a whole—or, in our case, lack thereof.
This gold basically validates the existing state of affairs in the Kontinental Hockey League and the monstrosity that is the Russian hockey system, sending a simple message: hey, we can win like this, so we’re fine! But we’re not fine.
It tricks the public into thinking that the Red Machine is working smoothly when the real situation is so far from smooth it’s almost physically painful to watch. What’s more, the Olympics are actually part of the reason why the system has been deformed into what it is, and it seems debatable to me whether or not the performance we have seen from the Olympic Athletes from Russia at the tournament was worth all the sacrifices.
If you’re wondering what kind of sacrifices I’m talking about, a quick look at the OAR Olympic roster is enough to notice that something’s off:
Hint: The KHL has 27 teams. Only two, SKA and CSKA, have strong representation on the Olympic team, kind of like if only the Oilers and Maple Leafs could send players for Team Canada. Basically, SKA and CSKA have had enough money to gather most of the league’s talented players under the pretense of helping the national team—and enough influence in the higher circles of the KHL to silence the potential complaints.
The scheme is exactly what the Russian Ice Hockey Federation had planned: SKA is officially regarded as the “base club of the national team”. This phrase has been said so many times it makes me flinch. I know I am not alone in the sentiment.
These days, if there’s an emerging young talent in the KHL, it is natural to expect Moscow or Saint Petersburg to take action as soon as possible. As a result, instead of building up their skill while playing against each other, promising players struggle to secure a roster spot they would undeniably have had on any other team. The two organisations aren’t just concentrating talent—they’re pulling part of it out of the KHL and into the minors, because when you have 40 KHL-ready guys, you can’t keep them all.
The smart move would have been to trade some of them away, somewhere they could actually belong; unfortunately, we haven’t seen a lot of that from SKA or CSKA in the past few years. This is pure greed, and it is obviously hurting the overall level of the league.
In the meantime, Metallurg Novokuznetsk, the home of Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky, Capitals defender Dmitry Orlov, and our Pyeongchang star Kirill Kaprizov, had to leave the Kontinental Hockey League after many years of financial struggles. A few other teams are on the line. There are already talks circulating around the league about completely removing the salary cap; indeed, when the poor teams can’t even dream of touching it and the rich teams have a “higher purpose” that can neatly cover up any questionable moves, what’s the point of a league?
It feels like everyone in the Russian hockey world, from fans to GMs, have worked (and suffered) for this one Olympic medal. Every ounce of our frustration was justified by the greater good of international success. For this reason, and especially considering the level of most teams at the tournament in the absence of the NHL, a blowout would have been the only appropriate ending to all of this.
What we got instead was slightly underwhelming at best, alarming at worst, and did not flatter the chosen strategy at all. The players did well, showed courage, determination and all, but everything else raised a few major questions.
If it had been so important to create a base club for the national team and pause the KHL championship for so long to prepare for the Olympics, why were most of our lines, including OAR’s best offensive trio of Nikita Gusev, Kirill Kaprizov and Pavel Datsyuk, created and tested during the tournament? What was so great about Artyom Zub or Yegor Yakovlev that Nikita Tryamkin couldn’t have delivered? What happened to Vadim Shipachyov? Why did the team win by the skin of their teeth when the amount of resources put in and their mastery compared to the opponent (no offense, I love Team Germany’s narrative!) had suggested that they should have dominated from the first second to the very last?
A victory, of course, is a victory, and it’s nice to join the nationwide celebration for a bit. But it’s not the kind of story that sets an example; it’s the kind of story that should become food for thought. Right now, it doesn’t seem to be teaching anyone anything: the changes in the championship structure and schedule have been deemed reasonable, and the Russian Ice Hockey Federation has expressed interest in continuing working with Oleg Znarok as the national team’s head coach.
Even though I’m not much of a pessimist, I try not to think about what else we might see happening to the KHL in the name of another medal if the federation board doesn’t reassess the game plan sooner rather than later.
Would a crushing defeat have changed things? I don’t think anyone could say for sure. Znarok’s resignation might have followed, but he told the press after the medal ceremony he’s thinking of leaving anyway. As for the bigger picture… Having spent all my life in Russia, I’ve learned not to expect any systemic positive change in anything. It’s just that where there was a non-zero chance, now remains only hope.