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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pros Can't Stop Dream Team Meltdown

When they opened the World Ice Hockey Championships in St. Petersburg on April 29 with an 8-1 thrashing of France, they were the new "Dream Team." Boasting 14 players from the National Hockey League and led by Pavel the "Russian Rocket" Bure, the Russians were hot favorites for the gold medal.

But local dreams of glory soon turned into a sickeningly real nightmare. As Russia strung together four losses in a row, the effusive welcome that Bure and his fellow NHLers had received from the nation's success-starved hockey public turned rancid with bitter grief.

After a 0-3 capitulation to the United States, the home side shambled its way to increasingly embarrassing defeats against ever-lowlier minnows. Once losses to Switzerland, Latvia and then Belarus were out of the way, Russia rallied to a 4-2 win Tuesday night that allowed them to pip Italy for 11th place. For the first time since the Soviet Union debuted at the 1954 championships, the country's team missed the quarterfinals, a result that left Swedish coach Stephan Lundh perplexed.

"The Russians played as good as their team is," Lundh said after Tuesday's game. "When they play as well as they did tonight, it is strange not to see them going through to the next round."

The St. Petersburg fans who had cheered, whistled and screamed to the rooftops for the opening win were soon greeting the home side with toilet paper rolls and bottles on the ice, relegating their heroes to the status of jeeroes as the star-studded line-up turned the latest chapter of the nation's storied hockey history into a series of bad jokes.

"Peter[sburg] hasn't seen such a disaster since 1917," groaned national daily Sport Express in a front page lament on Saturday, a day after the team practically lost all hope of making the last eight with a 3-2 loss to Latvia.

"Our national team has managed to do the impossible," wrote Vladimir Mozgovoi in Sport Express when humiliation was completed Saturday, with a 1-0 loss to hockey nonentities Belarus, another first. Belarus ended up ninth, just beating out Norway, who finished 10th.

When the wheels first started to come loose against the U.S. team, a motley of NHL mediocrities cobbled together 10 days before the tournament began, there was little sense of panic.

As Bure said after the match, the 3-0 loss "was only a game." Sport Express commented that the team had played beautifully and that there was plenty of time for them to actually win games.

Even though the team kept those beautiful hockey moments coming, the results kept on getting uglier and uglier.

Four defeats and only four goals sent the team tumbling out amid a wailing postmortem that overwhelmed even the lamentations that accompanied the hockey side's medal-less performances in the past seven World Championships.

Even the national football team's failures to qualify for either this year's European Championships or the 1998 World Cup in France, did not meet with this level of disillusionment. But memories of the all-conquering Soviet teams of the 1960s, '70s and '80s are still too fresh for anything less than victory to be acceptable. With 22 gold medals, the team is one ahead of Canada on the all time medals list.

On Monday the whole of the Russian team - dollar millionaires and home-based ruble millionaire players alike - lined up to say sorry.

"I want to apologize to the fans and to Russians in general for the miserable performance and this year's tournament," said head coach Alexander Yakushev.

Few could offer any explanation as to what went wrong.

"It's one thing to play for a club and another to play for one's country," said Bure, who managed just four goals in six games at the championships, a far cry from his 59 NHL goals this season for Florida. "I know you are disappointed, but we're also disappointed. We came here to play and win for Russia."

Others were more than happy to provide explanations, with the NHLers taking the brunt of the blame for playing for themselves and not for the team.

Fans laid into the players on the Internet discussion board set up by the The St. Petersburg Times (, sister paper to The Moscow Times.

"The Russian team (the NHL players) is nothing but a joke," wrote one anonymous contributor. "Next championship they should not get any NHL players."

Indeed the team's best play came not from their stable of NHL talent, but from their domestic stars: Avangard Omsk's Maxim Sushinsky, who battled ferociously every second he was on the ice and had a hat trick in the 8-1 win in the opener against France. The five players from Dynamo Moscow, including Alexander Kharitonov, Alexander Prokopiev and Alexander Khavanov, played so well compared to their colleagues from across the Atlantic that they had the prestige of making up the first line in Tuesday's win over Sweden.

"There is no way that we are not a team," said New York Rangers left wing Valery Kamensky, responding to accusations of individualism. "Everyone believes in us but this is hockey, one team wins and one team loses."

Alexander Steblin, president of the Russian Hockey Federation, said Sunday that the championships showed that the NHL players were not worth having, though he later backtracked.

"The stars have their own approach, their own game. We should use our own boys for the worlds championships,'' said Steblin, as reported by the AP.

By Monday, Steblin was declining to stand by his earlier criticisms, placing most of the blame on Lady Luck.

"There was an impression our team was cursed,'' Steblin said. "The puck just wouldn't go into the opponent's net. There are high points and low points in sports.''

Others were both more detached and a touch more whimsical. "I understood that for all our bright NHL hockey - it's not sport. Sport is not a beautiful thing. It's a tough fight," wrote Sergei Rodichenko in Sport Express. "The NHL-based players have begun to believe in Hollywood hockey ... not the dry, Chekhov hockey of their childhoods."

Mike Scollon and Christopher Hamilton contributed to this report.