— The Russian men's Olympic ice hockey team is hoping to atone for its poor showing four years ago at the Vancouver Olympics in Canada, while the Canadians will try to defend their title and the U.S. aims for gold after a silver medal in 2010.
Presumably in a show of solidarity, the entire Russian men's Olympic Ice Hockey team showed up for its pre-tournament news conference at the main Press Center in Sochi. And they drew the biggest media crowd for any of the formal sessions held with athletes.
Normally, it would just be the president or general manager of the team, the coach, the captain and a few other players. Like all the top teams here, the Russian squad is filled with professionals from North America's National Hockey League (NHL).
The Russians are aiming to win their first gold in the sport since 1992 when they played under a banner called the Unified Team, which was a joint team comprised of 15 former Soviet republics.
Four years ago in Vancouver the Russians were humiliated in the quarterfinals by host Canada, 7-3. It left a bitter taste in their mouths and was devastating to their fans.
And that is why the pressure will be even greater on them when they play before their home fans in Sochi.
Russian forward Alex Ovechkin, a star on the NHL's Washington Capitals, acknowledged that.
"Who[ever] is the host of the Olympic Games probably has the most pressure, and I'm pretty sure we're in the same position like Canada was four years ago," he said.
"But I'm pretty sure we have experience and old enough guys to handle that pressure. And I'm pretty sure everything is going to be fine. Like as soon as we step on the ice we're going to think about the game and think about how we're going to win the game and not about pressure and other stuff," Ovechkin added.
Vladislav Tretiak, a three-time Olympic gold medalist for the former Soviet Union, and President of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, offered his remarks.
"We know that we enjoy a lot of support here, but we also know we have a lot of responsibility. We have a lot to answer for, but sports is sports. Our team is going to try and show their best game. We will try to do our best, but how we perform, we will have to see. We will see the results later, but everyone on the team understands what they are expected to do," Tretiak said.
Canada, Sweden and the United States are expected to be the top challengers for the Russians.
In Vancouver, the U.S. team lost the gold medal to Canada, 3-2, in a heartbreaking defeat in sudden death.
U.S. team captain Zach Parise, a forward with the NHL's Minnesota Wild, had scored the tying goal against Canada that sent that game into overtime. He said the Americans have a hunger to get back to the gold medal match but they know it won't be easy.
"Coming so close in Vancouver was a special thing, but it was tough. It was a tough way for us to finish just because knowing we finished second last time is not guaranteeing anything. We know how hard it is to get back there. A lot of things have to go right," he said.
Parise said while the Canadians came through under the spotlight as Olympic host in Vancouver, now it's the Russians turn to try to equal that success.
"We all saw in Canada what pressure they had on them, and they ended up delivering, but it can be a hard thing with the expectation level with the talented players that they have," he noted. "But being at home ice definitely has its advantage, there's no question. But at the same time there's a little added pressure that the home team is going to have to deal with."
The Russians play their first preliminary round group match in the tournament on Thursday against Slovenia. On Saturday the hosts will take on the United States. Team USA opens against Slovakia Thursday.
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