QUEBEC CITY – In case you haven’t noticed, the Russian bear has spent the past 15 years hibernating in a cave of mediocrity. And if it’s ever going to stretch its legs and come out into the light, it will have to do so without one of its superstar players.
The Russians will definitely be without NHL 50-goal man Ilya Kovalchuk for their World Championship semifinal meeting against Finland Friday and he could be suspended for Russia’s following game after receiving his second game misconduct of the tournament in Wednesday night’s 6-0 pounding of Switzerland in the quarterfinal.
Kovalchuk, who has been guilty of the occasional angry outburst in the NHL, responded to a third-period hit from Julien Vauclair of Switzerland by decking Vauclair shortly after he shot the puck.
The hit left Vauclair injured and resulted in a game misconduct for Kovalchuk. Because he received a game misconduct earlier in the tournament for fighting, Kovalchuk faces an automatic one-game suspension, which could be extended after a hearing into the matter.
“We watched the video and the player Kovalchuk did not lift his arm, however maybe he did take a few extra steps,” Russian coach Slava Bykov said through an interpreter. “But we are not out there to hurt people. By no means is there any intention to hurt.”
Swiss coach Ralph Krueger said he hadn’t looked at the video of the play, but said it looked as though Kovalchuk had been hit “hard and clean by one of our players and he reacted to that.”
Krueger also said he didn’t know the extent of Vauclair’s injuries, but they could be extensive, which likely wouldn’t work in Kovalchuk’s favor when it comes to deciding whether he’ll miss the gold medal game Sunday or the bronze medal game Saturday, depending on which one the Russians play.
“Julien was walking around, but he was in a lot of pain,” Krueger said after the game. “And we have some internal injuries to look at. He’s getting an MRI right now.”
There was plenty of debate over whether or not Kovalchuk’s hit was clean, but there is little doubt it was a rather selfish play, something this team has gone a long way to try to discourage. The perception in the hockey world is the Russian team has struggled so much in international hockey in recent years partly because the players are not team-oriented enough and have been selfish.
Whatever the reason, the Russians have been generally brutal since the breakup of the Soviet Union. In fact, they’ve only won the World Championship once since the satellite republics broke away and the Russians haven’t won the tournament in 15 years.
There has been just one second-place finish and two thirds, but there has also been a dismal 11th-place finish (2000) and a 10-place showing (2004). Since last winning the championship in 1993, the Russians have averaged a fifth-place finish in the tournament.
Combine that with no Olympic titles since the breakup and just three World Junior Championships and you have a hockey superpower in decline. In fact, anyone under the age of 20 who doesn’t have an appreciation for the history of international hockey would likely see Russia as just another decent hockey country.
To be sure, it’s a long step down from a country that once basically just had to show up and throw its equipment on in order to win.
But Bykov, who played on the last Russian team to win the World Championship, is trying to change that. The Russians are a much younger team this time around and Bykov demands accountability from his players. It might seem preposterous, but he says he demands players always show up ready to practice and play, which is something that hasn’t been the case in the past.
To be sure, the world order has changed drastically since the days of domination by The Big Red Machine, but Bykov represents both a tie back to the glorious past and the more contemporary player. After playing much of his career in the repressive Soviet system for the Red Army club, Bykov left in 1990 and played eight seasons for Fribourg in the Swiss League, where he picked up his impeccable French.
“The team must play as one,” Bykov said. “It must be one team of players who are all there to play for each other, not for themselves.”
When asked whether that is the new philosophy for the Russian federation, Bykov said, “That’s my philosophy.”
Goalie Evgeni Nabokov, who is playing in his first World Championship for Russia, said he can’t speak about Russian teams from the past, but said it’s imperative to have a cohesive unit if it hopes to win a tournament on the world stage.
“We have all the talent in the world, but so does everybody else,” Nabokov said. “Right now it comes down to who is willing to pay attention to the details.”
Ken Campbell is at the World Championship in Quebec and will be filing daily reports through to the final day.