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Rossi: Gonchar sees big year for Russians

| Sunday, Dec. 20, 2009

Buffalo-born Chicago Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane suggested recently the hockey gods may be on Team USA's side this February at the Olympic Games in Vancouver.

"There is great talk about the 'Miracle On Ice,'" he said of the United States' upset victory over heavily favored Russia in the semifinal round of the 1980 Olympic men's ice hockey tournament at Lake Placid, N.Y.

"It's the 30th anniversary of that... hopefully we can make that mean something."

Told of Kane's hope, Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar suggested that perhaps the hockey gods will pay the karmic favor of returning Russia to the top of a sport its citizens once cherished and make it the defending Olympic champion when the Winter Games debut at his home country in 2016.

"This is going to be a big year for Russian hockey," he said. "All of Russia will be watching, and it will be important for us to show our people something. It is important for Russia to remind everybody what we can do in hockey."

Counting the loss in 1980, the then-Soviet Union won seven of nine gold medals in Olympic ice hockey from 1956-1988; but Russia's best finish over the past four Games was second in 1998.

Russia and Canada will arrive at Vancouver as co-favorites to claim gold, and players for each country will face surreal external expectations to win. That pressure is also internal for Team Russia, which conceivably could deploy a top line centered by Penguins superstar Evgeni Malkin (the reigning NHL scoring champion and playoff MVP) and wingers Alex Ovechkin (two-time defending MVP) and Ilya Kovalchuk (a former 50-goal scorer).

Hockey will rule in Canada no matter what its men's ice hockey team does at these Games. That might not hold true in Russia, where Gonchar said soccer had ruled, especially in major cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, over the past few years.

Soccer's popularity and lucrative, tax-fee contracts offered by the second-year Kontinetal Hockey League are two big reasons, he guessed, that the final NHL season of this decade began with 64 fewer Russians playing in the sport's top league than at the turn of the century.

According to a USA Today report last week, only 23 Russians were currently on NHL rosters. Most of the Russians playing in the NHL are that country's elite players, including Malkin, Ovechkin and Kovalchuk — and they are ready to lead Team Russia in February, Gonchar said.

"They're old enough to recognize what is going on," he said. "They realize what is at stake."

Malkin stated that simply, and best.

"Pride for Russia," he said, "is to win gold.

"Nothing else."

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