Russia aims for Olympic hockey gold despite turmoil

Russia national ice hockey team captain Ilya Kovalchuk listens to a journalists question during a news conference followed an Russian Olympic committee meeting in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017. The Russian Olympic Committee formally gave its blessing Tuesday for the country's athletes to compete under a neutral flag at the upcoming Pyeongchang Games. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

MOSCOW (AP) Russia can’t win Olympic hockey gold in Pyeongchang, but the ”Olympic Athletes from Russia” will have a great shot at the title.

OAR is the moniker imposed by the International Olympic Committee as part of Russia’s punishment across all sports for doping at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.

That’s likely to mean neutral-colored jerseys – though Team Russia executives are battling to keep the traditional red – but still a roster boasting some of the best players outside the NHL.

Asked if the Russians consider themselves gold medal favorites in South Korea, captain Ilya Kovalchuk said: ”We always are.”

The OAR name is no big deal for Kovalchuk. ”Everyone knows where we’re from. It doesn’t matter. The flag is in our heart.”

Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings are among the stars available to Russia ahead of the first Olympics since 1994 without NHL players.

The commercial power of the Moscow-based Kontinental Hockey League – fueled by Russia’s state-run oil and gas companies – has allowed it to compete financially with NHL teams for Russian talent.

Along with Kovalchuk and Datsyuk, the Russian team has forward Vadim Shipachyov, who walked out on the Las Vegas Golden Knights last month, and two-time Stanley Cup-winning defenseman Slava Voynov, who is banned from the NHL indefinitely after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor charge of domestic violence.

Russia showed its potential Thursday with a 3-1 win over Sweden – a key Olympic rival – on two goals from Sergei Kalinin in a Moscow exhibition tournament game.

Russia recorded 34 shots against 22 for Sweden in front of a passionate home crowd, many in red shirts hailing the team as ”Red Machine Reloaded” in honor of the legendary Soviet rosters. Datsyuk sat out the tournament for fitness reasons.

”We just tried to play simple and hard,” defenseman Sergei Andronov said. ”We’re trying to play every game for a victory.”

The Russians haven’t won Olympic hockey gold since 1992, when an almost entirely Russian lineup of players from the recently collapsed Soviet Union competed as the Unified Team.

Under the Team Russia name, its best result is silver in 1998. The last Olympics on home ice in Sochi were a disappointment, as Finland beat Russia 3-1 in the quarterfinals.

The Sochi Games have come back to haunt Russia, with 31 athletes across six sports banned for doping and other sanctions from the IOC.

There’s no allegation of doping by the men’s hockey team, though six women’s team players were suspended.

The key Russian whistleblower, former laboratory director Grigory Rodchenkov, has stated in an affidavit that men’s hockey players were not included in a doping program as they would have been harder to keep track of across multiple clubs, and could have given the game away if they failed tests outside Russia.

Not everything has been smoothed out just yet though for Russia ahead of Pyeongchang.

The KHL leadership has yet to confirm it will release players, though any obstruction by the Russia-based league would face fierce opposition from the players and the Russian Hockey Federation leadership, which includes wealthy businessmen close to the Kremlin.

Months of uncertainty over whether Russia would be allowed to compete at all in Pyeongchang haven’t worn team morale down, coach Oleg Znarok insists.

”We’re feeling great and it’s always been great,” he said Wednesday. ”We’ve been working and getting ready. We had no doubts.”