BERN, Switzerland – For a few moments Saturday, it was tough to tell who was preparing to defend the IIHF World Hockey Championship.
The Canadians were more than willing to talk about last year’s overtime loss in the gold medal final while the Russians seemed intent on forgetting their country’s big victory in Quebec City.
Clearly, the teams are looking for motivation in different places heading into Sunday’s game (TSN, 2:30 p.m. ET). While the long, storied rivalry between hockey’s two superpowers is well documented, it’s the recent history that Canada hopes to change.
“For every Canadian, playing Russia is more than a game,” said coach Lindy Ruff. “It’s been for a long time. The history has always been there and I think it will continue to be there.
“Losing to Russia on Canadian ground last year was a big deal and I will not duck that point. For us it is an opportunity. The history is there.”
It was the Russians who seized the opportunity last spring at Le Colisee.
After erasing a two-goal lead in the third period, Ilya Kovalchuk touched off a wild celebration by scoring the overtime winner on a power play.
He’s back again and leads the Russian team in scoring with 14 points in eight games. However, he’s been in no mood to reminisce.
“Last year is history,” said Kovalchuk.
In some ways, he’s right.
There will be just 21 returning players – six for Canada, 15 for Russia – competing in the final, which will have a completely different atmosphere at PostFinance Arena. Thousands of Russian fans have made the trip here and should create a fairly hostile environment for the Canadians.
The teams chose different methods to prepare for the big game.
Ruff put the Canadian team through a fairly spirited practice Saturday while the Russians chose instead to do some off-ice training. The defending champs seem pretty loose.
“We are relaxed, the luck (is) on our side so far,” said Kovalchuk. “Hopefully the luck is going to be on our side tomorrow. Because it’s one game and two teams, almost perfect teams.
“A lot of talent, a lot of skills.”
The Canadian lineup features five of the tournament’s top seven scorers. Martin St. Louis leads with 15 points in eight games while Steven Stamkos is tied for the tournament lead with seven goals.
Shea Weber, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza have also contributed a fair bit offensively.
“They play great hockey,” said Kovalchuk. “We know almost all of the players from there so we know what to expect.”
Perhaps the Canadian team can benefit from some good omens.
It is staying about half an hour away from the arena in Spiez, the same picturesque town where the German soccer team slept when it won the 1954 World Cup. The Germans referred to the bond they created there as the “Spirit of Spiez” and believe it helped them to victory.
One way the Canadian players have chosen to develop some good spirit of their own is by taking a morning swim together in Lake Thun.
“It’s a great way to wake up,” said captain Shane Doan.
There have been times during this tournament where Canada appeared to be sleepwalking. While part of that was due to games against weaker competition, the players also had some trouble getting into sync.
Everything appeared to change during a confident semifinal victory over Sweden.
In addition to some tinkering by Ruff, the players also benefited from an emotional meeting behind closed doors. Some of the veterans felt a need to speak up.
“There’s an element of urgency that needed to be in our game that maybe necessarily wasn’t there the way that we wanted it,” said Doan, already a two-time world champion. “We wanted to kind of pick that up. We knew that as a group we could go to another level or urgency and desperation.
“When we do that, we’re going to have more success.”
It all comes down to a game between two hockey countries that have had more success than any other.
Many of the Russian players see themselves as following in the Soviet tradition and therefore believe that they have 24 world championship golds – the exact same number that Canada has won. A victory Sunday will put one country ahead.
In many ways, the rivalry has been renewed in recent years.
“Right now you’re kind of seeing a new wave,” said Heatley. “They’ve got a lot of good young players and so does Canada. It’s going to be fun.”
Well, for one team anyway.
Ruff has already pointed out that the only people who will be leaving Switzerland with fond memories are the ones with gold medals in their luggage.
That’s one reason why the Canadians feel the need to avenge last year’s loss on home ice – even the guys who didn’t experience it first-hand.
“You can’t ignore it,” said defenceman Chris Phillips. “It’s something you want to get back.”