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Toews knows pressure Team Russia faces to win gold at home

Updated: February 10, 2014 9:58PM



SOCHI, Russia — Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews lay in bed in Vancouver on the night of Feb. 27, 2010, and tried to put it all out of his mind, tried to relax, tried to sleep.

But how could he? At high noon the next day, Toews faced the biggest game of his career — hell, the biggest game of anyone’s career. It was the biggest hockey game in the history of his country, as nearly any Canadian will tell you without equivocation.

The unflappable embodiment of cool? The unshakable picture of poise? Not on this night. It was all in Toews’ head: the expectation — no, the demand — to win the Olympic gold medal on his home soil, the pressure to not let his entire
nation down. Even the deli-
rious noise from a buzzing downtown Vancouver permeated his walls and his psyche.

The first day in Vancouver? Tough.

‘‘I remember the first practice, pucks were flying off my stick,’’ Toews said. ‘‘I was nervous.’’

The last night in Vancouver? Unbearable.

‘‘That last night was a long one,’’ Toews said.

It all worked out in the end, of course. Canada beat the United States 3-2 on
Penguins star Sidney Crosby’s golden goal in overtime. The joy — and the relief — was palpable across the Great White North. The pressure was more than anything anyone on the Canadian team had faced — or will face again.

And now it’s Russia’s turn.

Nearly 150 NHL players arrived Monday in Sochi to relatively little fanfare. Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bob-
rovsky didn’t know what to expect. It wasn’t much.

‘‘The greeting wasn’t anything special,’’ he said. ‘‘Just the usual, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ ’’

Just wait. There’s no bigger gold medal to host Russia than this one. What would hockey gold mean after Vladimir Putin put so much effort and money into hosting the Winter Games?

‘‘Means gold only costs $50 billion, probably,’’ Capitals star Alex Ovechkin joked.

The atmosphere at the 12,000-seat Bolshoy Ice Dome is expected to be
unlike anything most of these players have witnessed. The Russia-United States game Saturday has been circled by both sides for months. The crowd will be ‘‘off the charts,’’ in U.S. coach Dan Bylsma’s words, rabidly chanting ‘‘Shaybu! Shaybu!’’ — the Russian demand for a goal.

And they’ll be demanding a lot of them. Enough to beat the stacked Canadians, the surging Americans, the superb Swedes. Considering nine of Russia’s 25 players play in the Kontinental Hockey League, the Russians are hardly the favorites. And captain Pavel Datsyuk has a balky left knee that kept him out of practice Monday (he’s still expected to play).

It doesn’t matter. It’s gold or bust.

‘‘Russia hasn’t won a gold medal in hockey [since the unified team won in 1992],’’ said former NHL star Ilya Kovalchuk, now in the KHL. ‘‘You can see how much our president and all of those guys have put in to host the Olympics, and they are very proud of it.’’

The expectations can overwhelm, but they also can inspire.

‘‘Of course, you feel
the pressure,’’ Canadiens defenseman Andrei Markov said. ‘‘But you’re also going to feel the support from all Russian people. That’ll have to help us.’’

Most of the Russian players said variations on the same theme: They feel the pressure, they know it’s there, but they’re not dwelling on it. Of course, that’s easy to say in an empty rink two days before the tournament starts. As Toews and the rest of Team Canada found out four years ago, it’s quite another thing once the puck drops, the flags wave and the fans roar.

‘‘The pressure’s pretty big, but, as athletes, it’s something we’ve been handling our whole careers,’’ said Viktor Tikhonov, grandson of the legendary coach of the former Soviet Union. ‘‘Didn’t really mess up Canada the last Olympics, so hopefully we’re going to have the same success this time.’’

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus



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