Canada is the birthplace of hockey and the country most synonymous with the sport, which explains why everyone from Team Canada's GM to the Average Joe down at the Tim Hortons believes that the Olympic gold medal is rightfully theirs. But even with the expectations that go along with this sense of exceptionalism, the pressure on Team Canada is nothing compared to what the Russian team is facing during these Sochi Olympics. And on an individual level, no athlete in any sport, from any country, is under more pressure to perform during these Games than Alexander Ovechkin.
How much pressure is on Team Russia over the next two weeks? Consider the following:
- Russia has a long and storied history on the international hockey stage, thanks largely to the Soviet-era teams that dominated Olympic play for decades. From 1956 until the fall of the Soviet Union, the USSR won all but two gold medals in hockey, including every one from 1964 through 1976. The playing field wasn't exactly level at the time -- the Soviets were essentially putting out a team of professionals against amateurs from other countries -- but there's no arguing the strength of the USSR's hockey program during those years. And those teams haven't been forgotten in modern-day Russia: It should surprise exactly no one that legendary goaltender Vladislav Tretiak was one of two former athletes chosen to light the Olympic flame at the Opening Ceremonies last week. Any Russian hockey team, in any year, would be expected to carry on that tradition.
- The Russians, after all that Olympic success, have yet to win gold since NHL players have been allowed to compete in the Games, and they'll enter the Sochi tournament in a 22-year gold medal drought. (Their last gold came during the 1992 games, in which the former Soviet republics competed as the Unified Team.)
- Four years ago, the Russians were one of the favorites to win in Vancouver, but were embarrassed in the quarterfinals against Canada and failed to medal. These Olympics are a chance at redemption.
- Most significantly of all: These Olympics are taking place in Russia. Any country's team, obviously, feels more pressure to win on home ice, particularly since the conventional wisdom says that a home crowd (or as close to such a thing as you'll find in an international tournament) will help energize a team. But there's even more pressure on the home team during these Games, which organizers hope will show off the country's power. No single athletic achievement would mean more in Russia than a men's hockey gold.
- Vladimir Putin is watching the hockey team with particular interest, and he wants them to win gold. Would you want to disappoint the Russian president if you were a member of this hockey team?
Surely every member of Team Russia understands the importance of this tournament, and what winning a gold medal would mean not just to the players themselves but to the citizens watching from home. But Ovechkin, more than any other individual, carries the weight of all those expectations. The face of Russian hockey for nearly a decade now, Ovechkin is under pressure to produce during the Sochi tournament and to lead his team to gold. Doing so would be one of the defining moments of his career, no matter how the rest of his days in the NHL play out. But anything short of that, in the eyes of many of his countrymen, would be considered a failure.
Ovechkin has been fielding questions about the pressure to win in Sochi for so long that the tournament itself must come as something of a relief. Not that he needs the media to remind him about what it means to represent his country on home ice, but before the NHL officially announced it would be sending its players to Sochi, Ovechkin had said that he planned on going even if it missing Capitals games. He even had the blessing of the Capitals owner, Ted Leonsis, to do so, if it had come to that.
For what it's worth, Ovechkin is saying the right things as the tournament gets underway, explaining that the pressure to win can be a strength for the Russian team. ''Olympics are probably the most important thing for Russians than any other athletes in the whole world," he told the AP last month. "And since I was a little kid and since everybody was a little kid, their dream was playing in Olympic games, especially if we have a chance to represent our country in Sochi in Russia, it's unbelievable and it's going to a great thing. That's what I mean it's a strength. I don't think somebody (is) going to (think) their mission is done to be just on Olympic team. Our mission is to try to win gold medal."
Ovechkin's career, to this point, has been marked by tremendous individual success but also by routine team disappointments. His Capitals teams, despite so many regular season wins, have never advanced past the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. And he hasn't medaled in two tries at the Olympics, including a sixth place finish in 2010. Winning a gold medal in the Olympics -- at these Sochi Olympics, with the spotlight on him and the expectations so high -- would instantly become the biggest moment of his career to date.
Russia won't have it easy: They're in the same group in the preliminary round as the United States, one of the other elite teams in the tournament. And Slovakia, also in Group A, is among the better second-tier teams. But if Ovechkin and company flop as they did four years ago, a tough schedule will not be accepted as an excuse. It's been seven years since Sochi was awarded these Olympics, and for Team Russia, this hockey tournament means even more than the highly anticipated one four years ago in Vancouver. That disappointing finish will be forgiven if they win this time. These are the Olympics that really matter.
And for Ovechkin, it's a chance to become even more of a national hero, the way Sidney Crosby did four years ago when he scored the game-winning goal in overtime of the gold medal game. Ovechkin's rivalry with Crosby has always been somewhat media- and marketing-driven, but one imagines Ovechkin watched Crosby celebrate with his countrymen on home ice, and dreamed about what it would be like to do the same in Sochi. Now, after years of waiting and under even more pressure than any Canadian player faced in Vancouver, he finally gets his chance.