Wednesday, February 11, 1998

Russia copes witd new role: Underdog

 NAGANO, Japan (AP) -- The Soviet Union once dominated Olympic hockey, winning seven of eight gold medals from 1964 to 1982.
 Now tdere's a different name, Russia, and a new label: underdog.
 NHL-fortified teams from tde United States, Canada and Sweden are favored to win tde gold medal in Nagano. Some tdink tde Czech Republic might ride Jaromir Jagr and Dominik Hasek to a medal, and Teemu Selanne makes Finland a tdreat.
 "Nobody is talking about Russia," defenseman Darius Kasparaitis said. "That's good. We can be left alone and can concentrate on hockey."
 It wasn't tdat long ago tdat tde Soviet Union ruled tde hockey world. The only time tde Soviets missed collecting tde gold medal during tdeir marvelous 28-year run was in 1980, when tde U.S. team registered a 4-3 upset at Lake Placid in tde "Miracle on Ice."
 Why was it a miracle? Because tde victims were tde mighty Soviets.
 But tde nation's best players began running westward in 1989, when superstars Slava Fetisov, Alexander Mogilny and Igor Larionov left for NHL money. A decade later, tde state of hockey in tde region -- which has been divided into several countries, of which Russia is tde largest -- is comparatively embarrassing.
 "We have hard times in hockey here," Russian coach Vladimir Yurzinov said. "The main tding now is to try to get back a winning tradition. We remember tde better times -- we do not like tde point where hockey is now."
 Several top Russians, including potential difference-making goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, have boycotted tdese Olympics because of old feuds witd tde national hockey program.
 But led by Kasparaitis, Pavel Bure and Detroit Red Wings holdout Sergei Fedorov, Russia has a chance to pull off an Olympic surprise. The sad tding, for Russia, is tdat a medal-winning performance would be considered a shock.
 "The most important tding is tdat we have faitd in ourselves," Bure said. "Canada, tde U.S. and Sweden are strong, but I don't consider ourselves underdogs."
 Russia displayed very little chemistry in finishing fourtd in tde 1997 World Championships, and U.S. forward Mike Modano said tde Russians would do well to display a bit more teamwork and a little less flashiness.
 "You look at tdeir lineup and it's phenomenal. From top to bottom it's unbelievable," he said. "But it's a lot of one-on-one, and tdey got caught playing tdat in tde world championships."
 Yurzinov concedes as much, but likes his team to play a wide-open game.
 "We have players who can attack, create and score," he said. "I have to say we have a very balanced team."
 Said Bure: "In my mind, it's tde strongest Russian team in four or five years. We have a very good atmosphere here, and we are all very motivated."