Thursday, July 24, 2014

Time for Russian redemption

February 08. 2014 10:43PM

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During the 2006 Olympics, when the Russian ice hockey team defeated Canada 2-0 to advance to the semifinals, Anton Zlobin said the people in his hometown of Moscow went nuts.

So what’s going to happen if this year’s Russian squad wins gold in front of the home crowd in Sochi?

“It will just be crazy all over Russia,” said the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins rookie.

Zlobin’s Russian hometown is 1,000 miles away from the site of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Despite the distance, he has a good idea of what competitors can expect in the coastal town, which he describes as “old school.”

“I was there when I was young and it’s a pretty nice place to spend a summer,” Zlobin said. “They have a sea there and it can have pretty warm weather.”

Travel plans aside, the bigger story for Russians in this Olympics is all about redemption. The country hasn’t won a medal in ice hockey since 2002, and their last gold came in 1992, when they competed as the Unified Team.

In 2006, the Russian team had an inspiring win over Canada but faltered after that, losing 4-0 to Finland in the semifinals and 3-0 to the Czech team in the bronze medal game.

In the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Russia didn’t even make it out of the quarterfinals after a 7-3 loss to Canada.

Now, with the Olympic games on home ice, all of Russia is anxious for the hockey team to establish itself as an international powerhouse once again.

And they’d like to do it against a familiar foe.

“After what happened in Vancouver, they were shocked,” Zlobin said. “(Canada) beat them so bad. They’re probably going to want to play against Canada again.

“It’s very important for Russia this year.”

Aside from assembling a roster with players from the NHL and KHL who are among the best in the world, Zlobin said his home country has been working for years to improve its hockey program in anticipation of the Olympics.

The hockey schools across the country have been improved, Zlobin said, and rinks have been rebuilt. And even though hockey is Russia’s second major sport behind soccer, it’s still a pretty big deal.

“Even our president (Vladimir Putin) plays hockey,” Zlobin said. “Everyone in Russia cares about the sport right now.”

Participation in ice hockey by Russians has risen 5 percent from 2011 to 2013, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation. There were 66,551 registered hockey players in Russia last year. And to further drive home the importance of hockey, former goaltender and national hero Vladislav Tretiak was one of two Russian sport legends to light the Olympic torch during the Sochi Opening Ceremony.

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