GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA — The Olympic Athletes of Russia won the gold medal in the Olympics men’s ice hockey tournament and it was a bittersweet moment for the team after athletes from Russia were denied the chance to participate in this year’s Winter Games.
OAR’s victory over Germany in the gold medal match came in dramatic fashion as the team won 4-3 in overtime at Gangneung Ice Arena on Feb. 25 thanks to Kirill Kaprizov’s golden goal which gave OAR the victory and ended Germany’s dream march to the Olympic gold medal.
OAR’s win wasn’t just about a gold medal. It was a statement following the banning of numerous Russian athletes and the forced punishment of the non-banned participants to be known collectively as the OAR. The medal presentation was so powerful for the OAR team that the team belted out the Russian national anthem while its non-descript, Olympic theme was played.
Assistant captain Ilya Kovalchuk said the OAR had previously discussed beforehand whether to sing the anthem if they were to win — and they agreed they would.
“We knew that we will do it if we win,” Kovalchuk, Russia’s all-time leading goal-scorer in Olympic play, said.
The gold medal win marked the first time Russia had won the hockey championship in 26 years. When the country won gold in 1992, its athletes competed as “Unified Team” following the collapse of the U.S.S.R.
“When you play for your country and I win this medal, this special time it’s more important,” two-time Stanley Cup winner Pavel Datsyuk said. “I have accomplished my dream. Now I have no dream.”
Not one but two clouds will hang over the OAR’s victory, however.
Of course, the doping scandal that has rocked Russian athletes for months is one. The scandal isn’t about to go away either as the FIFA World Cup will be played in Russia this summer. But the second is the exclusion of NHL players as the OAR team was able to avoid the United States and Canada in the knockout stages of the tournament.
So many questions will remain over the men’s ice hockey tournament due to players from the KHL taking to the ice while the NHL’s stars remained back in North America.
A Dramatic Final
It wasn’t smooth sailing through the men’s ice hockey final for the OAR team. Down 3-2 in the third period, Nikita Gusev tied the game in the final minute. It was a crushing blow to Germany, who had been labeled as a “Cinderella Team” when the final took center ice.
When the puck was dropped in overtime, it took less than 10 minutes for Kaprizov to find the back of the net.
While it was an ecstatic moment for a team that felt it had been persecuted, the loss was devastating to Germany. A team made up of players from all over the world – AHL, KHL and European leagues – nearly did the unthinkable.
The Germans weren’t just underdogs going into the Gold Medal Final, but they had all the odds stacked against them. Without the stars of the NHL playing in South Korea, the Russians had the best from the KHL. Widely seen as the second-best ice hockey league in the world, the OAR’s KHL players were expected to skate to gold easily. But with minutes remaining in regulation, it was Germany was on pace to win the gold medal. Gusev’s goal saved the OAR’s blushes and allowed Karpizov the opportunity to become a Russian hero.
“It means a lot. We didn’t win Olympics since ‘92,” Kovalchuk said. “It was a while ago. That was our dream. That was my dream for when I was five years old, when I started playing. It’s great and it feels good.”
Despite the overtime loss, the Germans can still hold their heads high as silver medal winners.
“I thought we had them,” Germany forward Marcel Goc said. “We got the gold. But they didn’t stop, they kept coming.”
“We all thought we would be sitting at home watching that final on the couch at home, but here we are,” Germany coach Marco Sturm said. “The boys are going to bring silver home, and they should be very proud.”
Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament Legacy
The legacy of the 2018 men’s ice hockey tournament will be one of exclusion. The OAR team’s formation came from the banning of so many athletes and sanctions leveled at Russia. It led to 160 Russian athletes, who proved they hadn’t doped in the lead up to the Winter Games, to band together to fight for a common sporting cause. In the end, it was far more than sports as the OAR’s athletes attempted to prove their innocents.
The other part of the legacy has to do with the NHL. The top ice hockey league in the world doomed the United States in its attempt to win gold. The U.S., made up of AHL, college, KHL and DEL players, were behind the 8-ball from the start compared to the Russians.
One newspaper alleged the ice hockey tournament was “rigged” for the OAR team to win. Perhaps a consolation for the banning of so many of Russia’s athletes.
Canada finished with the bronze medal, but like the U.S., its team lacked the stars of the NHL. Of course, the team did well and finished third, but with a full-strength team of NHL stars, the Canadians would have almost certainly been in contention for gold.
“The medal is the same with or without the NHL,” OAR defenseman Slava Voynov said. “Maybe the tournament was a little different, but the emotions and happiness are the same.”
While Russia and the OAR athletes will agree, it is doubtful the rest of the ice hockey world will. The 2018 Olympics will be go down as somewhat tainted in the men’s ice hockey tournament.
Written by Drew Farmer / @DrewMFarmer
Special to HockeyClan
Main Image: GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA – FEBRUARY 25, 2018: Gold medalists, the Olympic Athletes from Russia pose for a group photo at a victory ceremony for the men’s ice hockey event at Gangneung Hockey Centre at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. The Olympic Athletes from Russia won 4-3 in overtime. (Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images)
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