VANCOUVER – Russian hockey has a rich history. Since first winning gold at the 1956 Olympics, the hockey program has experienced many glorious moments- including the most successful run in hockey history from 1964 to 1992. During those years, spanning eight Olympic tournaments, they lost only four games en route to seven gold medals and one silver medal.
Russia has also seen lean times, including a disappointing fourth place performance at the 1994 Olympics.
The last great Olympic hockey moment came in 1992 when an old Soviet dinosaur coached a team of talented youngsters to the gold medal.
But 1992 was different; some could call it special for what it was not. The Russian Olympic delegation was no longer the Soviet Union or yet known as Russia. Instead they did not have a country; they did not have a national anthem. The hockey team did not have a name or crest on the front of their jersey but played with the pride of former Soviets in winning the last Olympic gold medal to date in Soviet/Russian hockey history.
By 1991, the end of Communism and fall of the Berlin Wall led to the Soviet Union splintering into several republics. Athletes from those republics would quite naturally represent their native country from that point forward.
However, the Russian national team was united one last time at the 1992 Olympics. The Russian contingent was officially named the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), or the Unified Team.
With the NHL finally an option, former Soviet players were leaving their country for opportunities in North America, specifically the NHL. This began in 1989 when the first wave of stars, including Vyacheslav Fetisov, Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov and Vladimir Krutov who’d long petitioned to leave the national team and ply their talents abroad. These athletes opened the door for others to follow.
Nearly half the 1992 Olympic roster was comprised of players drafted by NHL teams, meaning many of them would be following in the footsteps of their predecessors in leaving the country for the NHL.
There was little the Soviet authorities could do to stem the exodus. With so many if its players on the Olympic team possibly NHL bound at some point, the Albertville Olympics was perhaps a last chance before authorities would lose any control regarding the movement and availability of players.
Once again, Viktor Tikhonov was behind the bench, as he had been in the past, vying for his third successive Olympic gold medal in his fourth tournament overall. After the 1980 disappointment, Tikhonov guided the Soviets to gold in 1984 and 1988.
Tikhonov had earned the reputation of being a taskmaster and a nemesis to his longtime national team members. Public feuds with Fetisov and Larionov did not help matters much. But Tikhonov was a venerable survivor and Albertville was his chance to show that he could still win, even with a lineup of youngsters.
Leading the way for the Unified Team were veterans and long-time national team stars Andrei Khomutov and Vyacheslav Bykov.
Bykov and Khomutov, both of whom at this time were playing for Fribourg in the Swiss League, had been pillars for their team since they first took to the ice in Switzerland in 1990. They were considered the best Russians not playing in the NHL. As one of the senior players with the most international experience, Bykov was named captain of the Unified team.
The rest of the team was comprised of youngsters. In fact this was the youngest collection of former Soviet Union skaters ever assembled. As the defending champions, this team wasn't counted out of the medal hunt, because some observers thought that no matter who was playing for the Unified Team, they would still be difficult to beat. The CIS skaters were highly talented and possessed a signature attacking style, which on the wide-open ice surface, made them dangerous.
Canada was among the contenders vying to win the gold medal. They had Eric Lindros, who was then the hottest prospect in the game. Lindros joined the Canadian national team as one of its leaders, along with seasoned NHL goaltender Sean Burke, Joe Juneau and Dave Tippett who would go on years later to coach the Dallas Stars.
The Unified Team finished second behind Canada in Group B competition with a 4-1 record. In Group A, the United States was unbeaten at 4-0-1 with Sweden on their heels finishing 3-0-2. In the medal round, the Unified Team beat Finland 6-1 and trounced the Americans 5-2 in the semifinals, setting up a showdown with Canada (who defeated Germany and Czechoslovakia).
Ultimately, the Unified Team clinched the gold medal with a 3-1 win over Team Canada. It was their seventh straight victory over Canada, which at the time added up to an 8-1 overall record in head-to-head Olympic competition. The last time Canada had beaten the Russians was at the 1960 Games in Squaw Valley. This was the country's eighth gold medal in the last ten attempts. The moment clearly belonged to the Unified "kids" and their coach.
“It's a joy I haven't experienced for a long time,” said Tikhonov. “We have many new players on this team and we didn't know the players for a long time. That's why there was some worry at the beginning of the tournament. But we're satisfied with the way the team performed”
The players participated in an on-ice celebration where Tikhonov rushed onto the ice to congratulate his players. He embraced each player and they responded by hoisting him in the air. Tikhonov reflected on this Olympic victory in post tournament interviews:
“At the start of this tournament we were not regarded as favourites. Maybe this brought confidence to our players. During the whole tournament, game-to-game, we managed to improve our style of play.”
Now it falls to Bykov to restore Olympic hockey pride to the Russians. His body of work since taking over as head coach of the national team has been impressive: He’s guided Russia to its first gold medal since 1993 with back-to-back titles at the 2008 and 2009 World Championships.
A gold medal in Vancouver would further demonstrate that the glory days for Russia have returned once again.