Gonchar: Sochi Winter Olympics will shine
DALLAS — Sergei Gonchar isn't going home for the Winter Olympics.
However, he said he would feel safe if he were spending most of next month in Sochi, Russia.
North Americans, including families of American and Canadian Olympic athletes, should think of Russia's last 20 years and not its previous centuries, Gonchar said.
“It's true that Russia still has the old stereotypes and people think about Russia in a certain way,” Gonchar said. “That's normal. Sometimes it takes a long time to turn things around.
“In Russia, this is our chance to show people — and you'll be surprised. It's different, much safer than what people are saying on TV.”
Gonchar, like Penguins center Evgeni Malkin, said he believes the upcoming Winter Games will go off without incident. Both have cited the number of officers and military personnel — reportedly 37,000 — sent by Russian government to secure Sochi, a small resort town contained within mountains.
Gonchar noted that the 2012 Summer Olympics were kept safe even though threats of terrorists had London, a sprawling city, filled with about 12,000 police and security personnel.
“It's the new reality,” Gonchar said of terroristic threats. “Every time there is a big event, we are going to hear the same thing. It doesn't matter if it's in Russia. This isn't happening just because the Olympics are in Russia.”
No Russian team has won an Olympic hockey tournament. Gonchar said Canada's victory as the host country at the Vancouver Games has placed “unbelievable pressure” on Russia to do the same.
“Hockey is the main event of the Olympics for Russia,” Gonchar said.
Gonchar, a respected player among Russians, will not play at the Olympics for the first time since NHL players first participated in 1998. He was on squads that won silver (1998) and bronze (2002) and believes Russia has built a golden team for the Sochi Games.
The Olympics are special to Gonchar. He met his wife, former figure skater Xenia Smetanenko, at the Nagano Games in 1998.
His history has made Gonchar's exclusion all the more difficult to digest.
“The coach (Zinetula Bilyaletdinov) has his own view of the game,” Gonchar said. “I have to accept it and go forward.”
Gonchar is not alone in his disappointment. Malkin, his friend dating to their four years together with the Penguins (2006-10), has refused to publicly comment about Gonchar being left off Team Russia.
Malkin spent the NHL's Christmas break with Gonchar's family in South Beach, Fla. He dined at Gonchar's Dallas-area home on Friday night.
The Penguins played the Dallas Stars on Saturday night, and before the game Gonchar predicted big things for Malkin at the Olympics because other Russian players — Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and team captain Pavel Datsyuk — are taking up the spotlight.
“If you look back, when he's under the radar, that's when he's at his best,” Gonchar said of Malkin. “It's the way he likes it.”
Gonchar, 39, said he still likes to play and plans to at least finish the two-year contract he signed with Dallas last summer. He had played in 45 games before Saturday, scoring one goal and adding 15 assists.
Although he was not selected to play for Russia, participating in the national team's Olympic camp in August reinvigorated him.
“It brought a lot of pride,” Gonchar said of seeing Sochi, which reportedly has been infused with $50 billion for the Games.
“That city's not very big, and they have put in bridges, put up roads and buildings. Russia has put a lot of time into this.
“This will be a big moment for the new Russia, and hopefully people will see that we have turned things around.”