NHL snub, Russian league becomes springboard to Olympics
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[October 12, 2017]
By Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Often seen as a
destination for veterans or those struggling for ice-time in North
America's National Hockey League (NHL), the Kontinental Hockey
League (KHL) has suddenly become a haven for Russians with Olympic
Following the NHL's decision to bar its players from competing at
the 2018 Winter Games, several Russians have ended talks with teams
in the league, extended contracts with KHL clubs or returned home in
the hope of making the Olympic roster.
Defenceman Andrei Markov, who had 572 points in 990 games over 16
seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, told Reuters he signed with KHL
club Ak Bars Kazan over the summer for family reasons and not
because of next year's Pyeongchang Games.
However, the 38-year-old finds himself among a pool of Russians in
the KHL, widely considered the world's second best international
league, who could compete at the Olympics.
"We can't hide that Russia wants to win gold," the three-time
Olympian said. "I've always taken pride in playing for Russia. It's
a big responsibility."
The NHL announced in April that it would not halt its season to
accommodate next February's Olympics, infuriating those wishing to
participate and ending a run of five consecutive Winter Games with
players from the league.
The Russian men's hockey team have won only two medals -- a silver
in 1998 and bronze in 2002 -- in the past five Olympics, while
Finland, a country of 5.5 million, have won one silver and three
bronzes during the same period.
Despite having some of the world's leading talent, Russia have
suffered humiliating defeats in recent Games, including a 3-1
quarter-final loss to Finland at the 2014 Sochi Games and a 7-3 rout
to Canada in the last eight at Vancouver 2010.
The KHL, whose 27 teams are spread out between Bratislava, Slovakia,
and the far eastern Russian city of Khabarovsk, has accommodated
players hoping to play in Pyeongchang, declaring a lengthy break in
its schedule to cover the Games.
Player agent Shumi Babaev told Reuters that four of his clients had
chosen to remain in the KHL because of the NHL's decision and that
another had returned to Russia.
These include Chicago Blackhawks draft pick Maxim Shalunov and
winger Stanislav Galiev, who signed with Ak Bars Kazan from the
Washington Capitals' farm team for a chance to play in South Korea.
"The Russian mentality makes players want to play for the national
team," Babaev said. "Everything else is secondary. The NHL is not
The prospect of playing in the Winter Olympics has also affected
well-established Russian players.
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Canadiens defenseman Andrei Markov (79) celebrates after scoring a
goal in the first period against the Columbus Blue Jackets at
Nationwide Arena. Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports/File Photo
Left winger Ilya Kovalchuk, who had 816 points in as many NHL games,
this summer re-signed with SKA St Petersburg for another year after
having pondered an NHL comeback, saying the Olympics had been "one
of the key factors" in his decision.
Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin had said he would defy the
boycott, before last month begrudgingly conceding that he could not
challenge the NHL's decision.
Meanwhile, the Russian government has been mulling the adoption of a
hockey development program next year in a bid to return to the
Last year, President Vladimir Putin hosted a televised meeting with
government and sports officials in which they admitted Russia had
been surpassed by rival hockey powers.
"We haven't won in a long time," Kazan's Markov said.
"The leadership, the league, coaches and players are doing
everything to make that happen."
With NHL players out of the equation, the Russians in the KHL with
experience in the North American league, who are well versed with
the larger rinks used in international tournaments, could give the
country an edge in Pyeongchang.
However, Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretyak, now president of the
Russian hockey federation, insists that Russia did not view
themselves as the favorites.
Tretyak was on the accomplished Soviet team that lost to an American
squad filled with amateur players at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics,
an upset dubbed the "Miracle on Ice".
If Russia did not take their opponents seriously -- be they
non-Russian KHL players, minor leaguers or university players --
history could repeat itself, Tretyak warned.
"We must respect every opponent. We shouldn't think our medal has
already been won," he told Reuters. "In 1980, American students came
out to play and they beat us."
(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by John O'Brien)
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