Olympic Athletes from Russia enter the Stadium
Olympic Athletes from Russia enter the Stadium under the Olympic flag.

Wait, the Russians are here?

The casual fan of the Olympics likely heard that the Russian team was banned from the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. In actuality, the International Olympic Committee, based on reports of state-sponsored and systematic doping, decided to suspend the Russian National Olympic Committee, thus removing their eligibility to select and send their athletes to the Olympics.

Russians celebrate first OAR medal at 1500 mens short track finals
Russians celebrate first OAR medal at 1500 men’s short track finals.

However, the IOC still created a process to review individual athletes from Russia, and then make a decision to invite them if they passed “strict conditions.” As a result, while 47 coaches and athletes were banned from attending, there are actually 168 Russian athletes at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. By contrast, Russia had 179 at the 2010 Vancouver Games and 225 in Russia a the Sochi Olympics.

 

Russia Fans at Snowboading Slop style
Russia Fans at snowboarding Slope style

 

In other words, the Russian team, under the name IOC designation, “Olympic Athletes of Russia” (OAR), is in force in South Korea.

And so are their fans.

Fans donning the white, blue and red of Russia are omnipresent, visible and audible. Smiling and proud, they are happy and proud to cheer on their Russian, waving Russian flags.

Russia Fans at Pairs Figure Skating
Russian Fans at Pairs Figure Skating

The Russian athletes are also happy for the fan support, but have had to be careful, as they can’t be seen publicly with symbols that associate them to Russia. As the AP reported, former NHL #1 draft pick for the Atlanta Thrashers and star for the New Jersey Devils, Ilya Kovalchuk, has had to warn fans to put away their Russian flags if they want pictures with the star left wing for Team OAR.

Olympics: Ice Hockey-Men Team Group B - RUS-USA
Ilya Kovalchuk (71) celebrates with defenseman Vyacheslav Voinov (26) and forward Pavel Datsyuk (13) after scoring a goal. USATSI

“We won’t chase (fans) away” if they’re carrying Russian flags, Kovalchuk said Tuesday. “If there’s an IOC rule then we’ll talk to them, explain it and take a photograph without the flag.”

There is no Russia House, a venue at Olympiads where athletes, media, family and friends can gather. But according to Reuters, Russia did create a place called “Sports House” in Gangneung, near the ice hockey venues, where supporters can “celebrate the athletic success.”

So yes, the Russians are here, and their fans are happy they are.

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Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk of SKA Saint Petersburg

They all play for the National Hockey League (NHL) and in April, 2017, NHL Commissioner, Gary Bettman ended any sliver of hope by stating unequivocally:

 …in an effort to create clarity among conflicting reports and erroneous speculation, this will confirm our intention to proceed with finalizing our 2017-18 regular season schedule without any break to accommodate the Olympic Winter Games. We now consider the matter officially closed.

The NHL, in the end, did not want to take the 17-day break required in the NHL schedule, during a period when the American football and baseball leagues have no games on the schedule. Thus, the break would take revenue out of the franchise owners’ pockets. Despite the passionate player interest in playing for their nations, as they had done since the 1998 Nagano Olympics, and despite the IOC funding the travel and insurance costs of NHL players, we will not be seeing the very best ice hockey players from the NHL in PyeongChang in February, 2018.

So who will play, and who will win? National teams will look to universities, retired NHL players and members of their own ice hockey leagues, which are not going to suspend play for the Olympics. Chief among them is the Kontinental Hockey League, or the KHL.

Formed in 2008, the KHL is made up of teams from Belarus, China, Finland, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Russia and Slovakia, and is currently the second biggest professional ice hockey league after the NHL. So of all the national teams, Russia, via players in the KHL, will likely have the most NHL experience at the PyeongChang Winter Games. Based on this article from NBC Sports, here are some of the celebrated names who are in the KHL, and thus will likely play in the coming Olympic Games:

  • Pavel Datsyuk: two-time Stanley Cup champion, four-time Olympian, Russia’s team captain at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, 15-yer veteran of the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings, and currently member of the SKA Saint Petersburg club of the KHL, age 39
  • Ilya Kovalchuk: four-time Olympian for Russia, last played for the NHL’s New Jersey Devils, and currently member of the SKA Saint Petersburg club of the KHL, age 34
  • Andrei Markov: three-time Olympian for Russia, and two-time all-star with the Montreal Canadiens, now playing for Akk Bars Kazan of the KHL, age 38
  • Slava Voynov: a two-time NHL All-Star from Russia, Stanley Cup Champion with the Los Angeles Kings and Sochi Olympian, now playing for the SKA Saint Petersburg in the KHL after pleading no contest to a charge of domestic violence, age 27
  • Max Talbot: a Canadian who played on the Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburg Penguins and three other NHL teams for 12 years before moving to the Lokomotiv Yaroslavi club in the KHL, age 33
  • Ben Scrivens: a Canadian goalie who has over 140 games of NHL experience, and currently plays for the Salavat Yulaev Ufa of the KHL, age 31

Does an edge go to the Russian ice hockey team in PyeongChang? Does age and experience go before youth and enthusiasm? Will we re-visit those days of yesteryear when college students in the West went up against professionals in Russia?

Without the NHL players, ice hockey at the Olympic Games could prove very exciting.

Andrei Markov