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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Scramble to Put Together a Winner

MTOvechkin arrived at training camp early to work with his new teammates.
It's been 14 years since the Russian national team last won the World Ice Hockey Championship, but with Moscow hosting this year's tournament there will never be a better time to end the drought.

From April 27 through May 13, the world's top 16 teams will hit the ice at Moscow's Khodynka Ice Palace and the Mytishchi arena, just north of the city, and while Sweden, the Czech Republic and Canada have dominated in recent years, Russia, Finland, the United States and Slovakia can all boast a reasonable chance of taking home gold.

For Russian fans, a championship would be especially sweet in a tournament the Soviet Union virtually owned for three decades.

From 1954, when it first took part, through to the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Soviets won 22 gold, seven silver and five bronze medals, failing to finish in the top 3 just once.

The international hockey scene has changed a lot since then, however, and Russia hasn't been able to dominate the way the Soviet Union once did.

With the country's best talent playing in the National Hockey League, the national team no longer enjoys the luxury of playing together virtually year-round, and many of the stars are unavailable as their club teams are still taking part in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Additionally, players that would once have suited up for the Soviet squad now take the ice wearing Latvia, Belarus or Ukraine on the front of their jerseys.

Russia fans are unlikely to want to listen to excuses, however, and coach Vyacheslav Bykov will be under intense pressure to win Russia's first world championship since 1993.


Christophe Ena / AP
Defending champs Sweden will be without Olympic team captain Sundin.
So far, omens have been good. With Bykov at the helm, the Russian squad won three of four Euro Tour hockey events, in the Czech Republic, Finland and Moscow. It's only loss came to world No. 1 Sweden in Stockholm.

Russia also lost to Sweden in the Hockey Tour final earlier in April, but while Bykov would have preferred to go into the championship on the back of a victory, neither side will be reading too much into the result.

For one thing, Russia's team for the Euro Tour included no NHL players, whereas at the World Championship players from the North American league will be taking part, so the squad will be very different from the one that enjoyed such success in Europe. Indeed, only Mytishchi forward Pyotr Shchastlivy, who scored seven goals this season on the Euro Tour, looks like a lock for a spot on the World Championship roster.

Furthermore, because the championship coincides with the Stanley Cup playoffs, the tricky job of roster management can play a big part in how the stronger teams perform in the tournament.

Coaches are faced with a choice between trying to cement their lineups as early as possible, or leaving spots open in the hope of picking up star players as NHL teams drop out of the playoffs.

Both options have their drawbacks. Coaches who go with a lineup built around domestic-based players run the risk of being outgunned by teams packed with NHL talent, but waiting for players eliminated from the Stanley Cup leaves little time for a team to gel. How well can players trade passes if they've only just traded handshakes?

To further complicate matters, not every player who is available decides to play, with some opting for a break after the grueling NHL schedule. Veteran forward Sergei Federov's Columbus Blue Jackets didn't make the playoffs, but he announced early that he wouldn't be making the trip to Moscow. Mats Sundin, who captained Sweden's victorious Olympic team in 2004, has also opted out.

"Teams like Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Belarus [with few or no NHL players] definitely have an advantage," said Szymon Szemberg, the information and media relations manager with the International Ice Hockey Federation, which governs the game worldwide and runs the tournament. "They can work during the entire preparation period with their core, adding just one or two players at the end."

Bykov will have been relieved that one of the NHL's most exciting talents, winger Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, was not involved in the playoffs and was already practicing with the Russian squad in mid-April.

Sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, of the Atlanta Thrashers and NHL rookie forward Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins will also be available after their teams made early exits from the playoffs. San Jose Sharks goaltender Evgeni Nabokov would likely be a welcome addition, but the national team coaching staff was still waiting a week ahead of the opening of the tournament to see whether he would be available, as his team moved on to the second round of the Stanley Cup chase.

It is a hectic time for Bykov and much of his most important work will have been done before the first face-off. He will have had to work hard to create some synergy from the influx of players arriving from over the ocean.

"The coach's job in the championship is basically to be a psychologist," said Federal Sports Agency spokesman Dmitry Tugarin. "He needs to create a good atmosphere in the team if it is to play well."

With this in mind, coaches will have to think carefully before taking advantage of a rule that allows teams to add two extra players after the preliminary round. Simply grafting extra players onto the squad can be counterproductive.

"Many teams are reluctant to tinker with team chemistry and seldom add new players," Szemberg said. "They only do it if they know that the player will help you and he fits right in."

Chemistry is hard to conjure up a week before a tournament, and Bykov must covet the team-continuity his predecessor's were able to count on.

Gone, however, are the days when the national team could count on a "Magnificent 5" like forwards Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov, with Alexei Kasatonov and Vyacheslav Fetisov on the blueline, who played together year-round on the Red Army team. Particularly in the 1980s, the national team was essentially the Red Army squad wearing the national uniforms, with just a few players added from other clubs.

Playing together week in, week out created a cohesion that cannot be replicated in the few days modern squads have to train together, and there are still calls to run the national program more in line with an approach that delivered such positive results in earlier decades.

"It's good for the atmosphere to have domestic-based players. Bringing in too many NHL players can be a big burden on the coach," said Tugarin.

"Sometimes domestic players can be better for the squad than two or three NHL stars who think they've come down from the sky -- proclaiming 'Here I am, I'll save you.' You saw what happened in 2000!" he said, referring to Russia's capitulation at the World Championships in St. Petersburg with a squad packed full of NHL stars.

Bykov sent a clear message that he wouldn't allow a repeat of the star mentality that surrounded that team when he dropped Ovechkin's NHL teammate, winger Alexander Semin, after he turned up late to the squad's training camp.

"Because he wasn't able to make it here on time, we on the coaching staff decided that we don't need him on the team," Bykov said following team practice on April 17. "This team will be built on discipline and that discipline will be the same for every player."

Few will argue with Bykov's decision. He, after all, knows what it takes to win a world championship. It was his goal, scored in the last minutes of the last game in Moscow in 1985 that won the gold medal for the Soviet Union.

It was the last time a host country won the competition and it also maintained Russia's perfect record on ice in Moscow. In the four world championships held here, the host has not lost a single game.

It is a proud record, but one that could also prove to be a burden.

"The fact that the tournament is held in Moscow, especially with the history this city has with hockey, puts extra pressure on the team and the manager," Tugarin said. "It could be difficult to deal with these expectations."

It will be difficult enough to deal with the opponents.

Russia begins its title bid with preliminary round matchups against Finland, Ukraine and Denmark. Finland claimed the bronze medal at last year's championships and plays an aggressive forechecking style that has often been a problem for the Russian defense and can disrupt the free-flowing offensive game in which the Russians are well-versed.

No one will give Denmark or Ukraine much of a chance to beat the Russians, but then no one thought Latvia or Switzerland stood a chance of upending them in 2000.

Bykov will have to make sure the team avoids complacency, as there are many strong contenders. Since the Soviet breakup in 1991, there has been six different gold medalists: the Czech Republic has won it five times, Canada and Sweden four times each, and Russia, Finland and Slovakia have all hoisted the trophy once.

The Czech Republic edged Russia with a dramatic 4-on-4 overtime goal in last year's quarterfinal and the rivalry between the two teams has a long history, which boiled over in the 1969 world championship in Stockholm.

Back-to-back victories by the then Czechoslovakian national team over the Soviets brought fans flooding into the streets of Prague. While the majority of the celebrations were peaceful, some of the revelers moved on to ransack the city's Aeroflot office in a show of defiance following the Soviet invasion of their country the year before.

This year, the attacks are likely to be kept on the ice.