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MOSCOW – After a week of turmoil for Olympic hockey, Russia thinks it is poised to be the big winner next February in South Korea.
Its fans have waited more than 25 years for an Olympic gold medal, and its top league wants to fight the NHL for international markets so the absence of NHL players in Pyeongchang could be, well, a golden opportunity.
The Olympics are "the biggest, most significant event in global sports," Vyacheslav Bykov, who won Olympic gold as a player in 1988 and 1992 and later coached Russia's national team, told The Associated Press on Friday. "Competing at the Olympics is much more important than the Stanley Cup."
The Russian hockey system is a tangled web of sports, government and commercial interests, but all see Olympic gold as a national priority. Since Bykov and the post-Soviet Unified Team won gold in Albertville 25 years ago, the best Olympic result for Russia has been a 1-0 loss to the Czechs in the gold medal game in 1998 — the first Olympic tournament with NHL participation. On home ice in Sochi in 2014, Russia lost 3-1 to Finland in the quarterfinals.
The NHL's announcement Monday that it won't shut down so its players can travel to Pyeongchang leaves Russia in a uniquely strong position. It is home to the Kontinental Hockey League, widely regarded as the strongest outside North America with talent including former NHL stars like Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk and Slava Voynov who are playing closer to home. And if some NHL players are allowed to play in the Olympics, Russians including Alex Ovechkin and his Washington Capitals teammates, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov, as well as Pittsburgh star Evgeni Malkin have all said they plan to participate.
That would make Russia a likely favorite even if Canada and the U.S. are able to count on a handful of NHL stars, too.
"They've got a huge advantage because they've got NHL guys, they've got guys that have gone home to play," said Corey Hirsch, goaltender for Canada's silver medal-winning team at Lillehammer. "They're going to have NHL players. But it's not going to be like we're going back to the 1980s. ... They'll have some good players, but they'll have some weaknesses, too."
Added Steve Duchene, a Canadian who plays for the Colorado Avalanche: "They have some career guys who've played in the KHL and put up huge numbers and are used to the big ice. I think Russia would probably the favorite just because of who they have playing over there."
Less well-known to North American fans are Russian players like Vadim Shipachyov, the top scorer at last year's world championships, and Evgeny Dadonov, who have both been widely reported in Russian media as considering moves from SKA St. Petersburg to the NHL this summer.
Whether they move could be a litmus test for Russia's Olympic hopes.
With players potentially facing a choice between NHL contracts and what could be the national team's first gold medal in a generation, the Russian Hockey Federation is trying to "bring home" stars from North America and stop emerging talent from leaving the KHL, chairman Arkady Rotenberg said Wednesday. If Russians want to go Pyeongchang despite holding valid NHL contracts, Rotenberg vowed to help with their legal costs.
Rotenberg typifies the close links between sports and the government in Russia.
A close friend of Vladimir Putin who became a billionaire in large part due to government contracts, he chairs the RHF board and sits on the KHL board. His nephew, Roman Rotenberg, is vice president of SKA St. Petersburg, the KHL team that signed Datsyuk, Kovalchuk and Voynov using money from state gas company Gazprom.
The KHL relies heavily on payments from Russian state companies and regional governments. With the Kremlin focused on controlling government spending, it has gone through some lean years recently — but KHL teams have a track record of finding money — and salary-cap exemptions — when a top Russian player wants to come home.
"I think all the fans in Russia will be happy if our players, Russian players, will come to the KHL and play here, represent the national team at the Olympics," Bykov said. "Yes, it's patriotic, but it's also each player's personal decision ... It's not an easy situation for any player."
Taking a schedule break for the Olympics is a no-brainer for the KHL, which already crafts its season to accommodate not only the world championships but national-team tuneups scattered through the year.
The KHL has been pushing to beat the NHL to the potentially lucrative Asian market, with a team in China since August. If its players become Olympic stars in South Korea while the NHL sits things out, it could help the Russia-based league cement its presence in Asia.
The KHL has tried to take advantage of NHL missteps in the past, particularly by attracting star players to come to Russia during the last lockout, but its attempts to expand outside the former Soviet Union have often become entangled in financial problems or lack of interest from local fans.
For many in Russia, though, the NHL-KHL intrigue is far less important than the Olympics.
"It's the top of the pyramid," Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko told state news agency Tass. "No business interests, no loss of earnings — though you can discuss those things — should restrict your opportunity to show what you can do at the Olympics."