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RUSSIA'S OLYMPIC hockey team is a riddle wrapped in an enigma bound by duct tape. � The hockey machine might still be big and red--quick and quixotic, Russia has gifted scorers like Alexander Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk--but the tailpipe is falling off, the fender is dented, and oil is spewing. With a nod to Canada and the Czech Republic, this is the team to watch, and not necessarily in a good way. The Russians are either impending champions or an impending car wreck. As three-time Olympic defenseman Sergei Gonchar says, "In such a short tournament it all depends on the spirit of the team, how much guys are willing to sacrifice." � Good luck. For a decade Russia has been 20 players, 20 Ladas. � To restore the faded glory of a land that last won Olympic gold in 1992 (as the Unified Team), to foster altruism and camaraderie within this five-ringed circus, the Russian Ice Hockey Federation naturally turned to the most aloof and emotionally disengaged (albeit spectacular) former player in its recent history, Pavel Bure, as general manager. "[The federation is] trying to find another Gretzky in Russia," says sports minister Slava Fetisov, the Hall of Fame defenseman. "Pavel has a big name in hockey, and I hope it compensates for his [lack of] experience in running things." Clearly the template for Team Chaos is Team Canada, which tapped Wayne Gretzky as executive director, though the Great One had no previous management experience. Canada responded by ending a 50-year gold medal drought at the 2002 Olympics and added the 2004 World Cup to reinforce its status as the undisputed No. 1 hockey nation. The similarity between the G.M.'s is that both Gretzky and Bure are current, plugged into the NHL culture. The difference is that one has a wonderful infrastructure in Hockey Canada, while the other is saddled with a federation that's two arias shy of a comic opera. Also, Gretzky has one of the brightest minds in hockey. Bure ... well, he was the Russian Rocket, not the Russian Rocket Scientist.
At his introductory press conference in Moscow in November the 34-year-old Bure said, "I can promise you one thing: From now on you won't see such a mess with the national team that you've seen before." He has been good to his word unless you consider: 1) head coach Vladimir Krikunov's calling Bure "a figurehead" until Bure pulled an Alexander Haig I'm in Charge Here; 2) Bure's laxity in contacting some players--veteran Alexei Kovalev learned of his selection to the team by surfing the Net; 3) the frigid relationship between Fetisov and federation president Alexander Steblin; and 4) Steblin's Jan. 8 performance at the European Champions Cup in St. Petersburg, where, after being barred from the victory ceremony because of strong suspicions he was suffering from the 86-proof flu, he allegedly cursed International Ice Hockey Federation president Ren� Fasel, bloodied his own translator's face with a punch and heaved a plate of oranges at a tournament organizer. Sovetsky Sport trumpeted the incident as steblin's hat trick.
The logical G.M. for Russia was Igor Larionov. Steblin phoned Larionov in early March 2004 to ask him if he was interested in running the World Cup team. Larionov--who won three Stanley Cups, two Olympic gold medals and four world championships in a career that touched four decades and two political systems--said he might be interested if eight conditions were met, including the hiring of a foreigner, Larry Robinson, then of the New Jersey Devils, as coach. Given Russia's hockey superiority complex, it was a bold demand. When Steblin dithered, Larionov bowed out. "I told [the federation] not to ask me for anything else," Larionov says. According to a Russian hockey source, a few weeks after Larionov's rejection, during a 33rd-birthday bash for Bure in Moscow, Steblin approached the player with the same offer. Bure, who had a badly damaged knee, said he would be honored to run the national team but only after he was certain he could no longer play. Last Nov. 1, a mere 14 weeks before Russia's Olympic opener against Slovakia, he formally retired and took the job.
Of course, given the swerve toward individualism in Russian hockey, Bure might be the perfect guy after all. The upheavals in Russian society in the past 15 years have been mirrored in its hockey. The 1972 Summit Series team and the powerhouse the United States upset at the '80 Olympics supposedly were composed of automatons, cogs in a state-run puck machine. Indeed, the cohesion of the U.S.S.R.'s five-man units, the willingness to weave and wait for the shot instead of a shot, was more striking than even the teams' sublime skill. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, CCCP hockey also underwent a sea change. Mother Russia turned into a wet nurse for freelancers and mavericks like Kovalchuk and Ovechkin, for divas and divers. "Their famous combination play is not as prominent as it once was," says former Canadian Olympic and NHL coach Dave King, who now coaches Mettalurg Magnitogorsk of Russia's Superleague. "Even the intuitive play you see with club teams can be missing [on the national team]."
Russia is also missing goalie Nikolai Khabibulin (knee); forwards Sergei Fedorov (groin), Alex Zhamnov (ankle) and Alexander Mogilny (pulled out of consideration); and defenseman Sergei Zubov (who has not played internationally since 1996). "The guys who want to be on this team," Bure said last month, "are true patriots." Krikunov, of course, probably prefers goal scorers to flag wavers. The Dynamo Moscow coach is old-school Russian, rarely trying anything remotely as progressive as matching lines--although he will load up power plays, giving the bulk of time to his best unit. Not that Kovalev, captain of the 2005 world championship bronze medal team, cares. "I'm not focused on coaches or the G.M.," he says. "It's not going to help me play hockey." He is, however, concerned about his teammates and the federation. "One reason we've been struggling as a national team is that guys come in and try to show off," he says. "Play their own games, do their own things, but never really play as a team. The other thing is guys focus so much on what the federation does or doesn't do for them. Have they paid for the [airline] tickets? Have they done this or that? We have to stop worrying about it.... But when you have people going against each other in the federation, that tells you a lot. If everybody's pulling in their own direction there, what else can you expect?"
federation follies, a thin roster and a neophyte boss, Russia is eerily
confident about its Olympic chances. When asked which nation should be favored,
Kovalev smiles and says, "Us."