There’s a term in international relations: “frozen conflict.” It refers to a situation in which military conflict has come to an end, but no peace treaty or formal resolution was adopted.
Discord between the United States and Russia remains frozen. But every time the two countries meet on the international stage—at the UN Summit or the G8 Conference or the Olympic games—the ice begins to thaw, reinvigorating old animosities.
When reporters arrived in Sochi and discovered unfinished hotel rooms, they began to tweet out details with the hashtag “sochiproblems.”
Some of these problems were legitimate issues—and some of them were just westerners being obnoxious. They arrived at the Olympics with the desire to win, more than any medal, a moral superiority.
Sarah Kaufman, over at PolicyMic, pled with journalists to “have a bit more respect for Russians, because while you might think you’re just ridiculing the Olympics, for many, this is their everyday life.”
“Think of the Russians” implies that things are, universally, better in the United States than in Russia. Fair enough, our water everywhere doesn’t emerge from the tap peach colored. But we are the country that only very recently poisoned water for 300,00 residents in West Virginia. And within the American media’s coverage of Russia’s anti-gay legislation, there’s been a lot of talk about how America is so open and trusting—and a lot of ignoring the fact that 8 states in the US have similar “gay propaganda” laws.
Julia Ioffe, senior editor at the New Republic reported that Russians were watching the “Sochi Problems” trend and calling it “zloradstvo,” which means “malicious glee.”
Such an attitude was evident during the Opening Ceremonies. The parade of nations was alphabetized according to the Cyrillic alphabet of the host country. The whole of the explanation of this from NBC and Meredith Vieira was “Google it.”
Russia has been working hard to improve the visibility of the KHL. It’s an effort that ramped up with Ilya Kovalchuk’s move to the KHL and it’s been working over time leading up to the games in Sochi.
Nine KHL players were on Russia’s Olympic team this year. Eleven were on the team in 2010 where, again, Russia failed to medal. The last time Russia medaled was when they took home the bronze in Salt Lake, in 2002. At that time the KHL was called the RSL, Russian Super League. The bronze medal winning Russian national team had zero RSL players on its roster.
An abundance of NHL talent doesn’t guarantee a winning team. Finland had a majority of non-NHL talent, and battled past early injuries to win the Bronze medal game against the United States (with a hundred percent NHL roster).
But Finland wasn’t burdened with glorious purpose the same way Team Russia was in Sochi. Team Russia carried the weight of a nation that saw medaling as a win for the homeland and the KHL. Very quickly it became apparent there was favoritism on the part of the coaching staff towards the KHL players. We can only assume Team Russia’s coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, who was handpicked by Putin, was pressured to give more ice time to the KHL players. If such favoritism was noticeable to viewers at home, and to sport reporters, you can bet it was obvious to the players on Team Russia.
One obvious oversight going into the games, that maybe should have been an indicator to how Russia would perform, was the omission of veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar. Gonchar has spent years playing in the NHL, where he often took younger Russian players—notably, national team forwards Evgeni Malkin and Valeri Nichsuskin—under his wing. Gonchar also has a corsi rating of +31 and is the top ranked Russian Defenseman in the NHL. Fedor Tyutin, who was on the team in Sochi, has a -30 rating, almost the mirror opposite of Gonchar. So why take Tyutin and not Gonchar? I can only guess that if Russia really is building up the KHL, they’re likely pressuring younger Russians playing in the NHL to “pull a Kovalchuk” and move to the KHL. It’s happened before. Gonchar isn’t young anymore, and is likely staring down the short road at retirement. Convincing him to return to Russia to play is a waste of time, as they’d likely only benefit from his talent for another handful of years. Fedor Tyutin is only 30 and, barring any serious injury, he could play another decade of hockey. So Gonchar is off the list, and Tyutin is on.
Favoring of the KHL players over the NHL players was obvious at several points throughout the tournament, but especially so during the final game against Finland. Bilyaletdinov opted to start Varlamov over Bobrovsky—even though Bobrovsky was the obvious, and more proven, choice. Varlamov was also the one who saw himself caught in the middle of a domestic abuse scandal that Russia denounced as an act of sabotage by the United States. Perhaps Russia was attempting to make a point, by playing Varlamov, a point that died rather quickly after Varlamov let in three goals. Bobrovsky was substituted in—and allowed no goals.
News came out after the Finland game that Evgeni Malkin had to tell Bilyaletdinov to pull Bobrovsky in the last minute of the game. Bobrovsky waffled—he started several times to make for the bench, only to skate back into the crease. At the time, I thought it was because of Finland’s final efforts to push the puck back into the Russian offensive zones that caused the stop and start. That it was actually a lack of direction speaks volumes to Russia’s coaching abilities—and lack thereof. Malkin should never have had to tell Bilyaletdinov to pull the goalie. And who knows if Malkin didn’t make the suggestion earlier, but was ignored, before finally Bobrovsky was waved on to the bench.
After the game Bilyaletdinov quickly threw Alexander Ovechkin under the bus. Why, I couldn’t tell you. I can only guess it’s because Ovechkin’s an NHL player known for his scoring who managed not to score much. But if a known scorer isn’t scoring, the true problem lies in your playmaking.
The United States media was not kind to Russia after the Finland game. NBC commentator Mike Milbury denounced the Russian national team for having too much ego and not enough heart.
This is an old narrative. We’ve seen it before. It’s another hold over from the Cold War, when the Soviet team was a collection of hockey-playing machines conditioned by communism to do one thing and one thing only: hate democracy and beat the United States.
It’s trite and not true, and to bring it up again during the Olympics is to belittle the efforts of the Russian hockey players. Milbury is showing his age and his bias.
There’s that quote from Herb Brooks that everyone knows.
“When you put on that jersey, you represent yourself and your teammates. And the name on the front is a whole hell of a lot more important than the one on the back.”
When he said that, Brooks was speaking to Team USA, and he was trying to get them to cast aside old collegiate rivalries and work together to represent their country. That’s the optimistic, patriotic, takeaway.
But there’s another, more insidious one, and it’s that who you are doesn’t matter. Your personal inclinations and desires and goals are second to those of the motherland and the nation—and this is something Russia and the United States are equally guilty of, a malicious form of nationalism. One that turns what ought to be an awe-inspiring display of international cooperation and competition into a tool for the politicians. The players stop being players, and become a case model. Something for Russia to point to, and say, “Those NHL players, they weren’t Russian enough, and we lost.” And for the United States to hold up and say, “We’re still better than the Russians.”
And who loses in this situation? The players. Hockey is no longer hockey; it’s a bitter staging of an international “frozen conflict.”
It’s a different world, now. Maybe not to the politicians and the news outlets, but to the athletes from Russia and Canada and Latvia and the US, it’s different. In an article for TIME.com, Gregg Krupa, a journalist for the Detroit News, said that today players on all sides “hang out in the States and Canada with each other, playing hockey and raising families together.”
To the hockey players, there’s no motivating factor to be found in the politics and the hyper-nationalism. That drum is being beaten by bitter politicians and sensationalizing journalists, alone.
After their final defeat, a forlorn Sergei Bobrovsky told journalists, “I don’t know what to say. There is only emptiness and sorrow inside of me.”
But, you know. Those Russians. No heart.