International Ice Hockey Federation

All smiles for Russia

All smiles for Russia

Newcomers revel in happy locker room

Published 15.05.2017 13:30 GMT+2 | Author Andy Potts
All smiles for Russia
Yevgeni Kuznetsov was part of the Russian team that won bronze on home ice in Moscow last year. Photo: Andre Ringuette
A relaxed Russian roster is looking forward to another tilt at the medals - and the new arrivals are enjoying the atmosphere on the team.

Russian hockey has a smile on its face right now. The national team, so often characterised as a ruthless machine, is showing a rather different face in practice.

Sunday’s session, a voluntary skate for players looking to feel the ice under their skates after joining the roster late or recovering from injury, was a happy reminder that – even at the highest level – hockey is, first and foremost, a game.

A three-on-three scrimmage, numbers bolstered by coaches Harijs Vitolins and Ilya Vorobyov, played out with all the boyish enthusiasm of an informal pick-up game. The exercise was intended to give useful acclimatization to several players: Yevgeni Kuznetsov and Dmitri Orlov after their arrival from Washington, Artemi Panarin after a knock that ruled him out of the game against Slovakia, Valeri Nichushkin following his late addition to the roster, and Ilya Sorokin ahead of his first start in the championship against Latvia on Sunday evening.

But, for a small crowd of reporters in the practice arena in Cologne, it was also a chance to get a glimpse of Russia’s players without the intimidating game face that they have donned during devastating, destructive performances like the 10-1 hammering of Italy and the 6-0 win over the Slovaks. Smiling and bantering among themselves, this looked like a team comfortable in each other's company. For Kuznetsov, the whole thing was a happy throwback.

“It’s a long time since I’ve played that kind of three-on-three hockey,” he smiled. “I think Russia might be the only country that does that in practice!

“There’s a really good atmosphere in the team. All the guys are laughing and joking among themselves, there’s no room for unhappy faces. I’m all for it, this way even a misfortune can turn into a positive.”

Vitolins, preparing to face the country he represented as a player at six World Championships and the 2002 Olympics and where he and Oleg Znarok worked in a coaching tandem from 2004-2011 was another who clearly thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing. The broad, boyish grin on his face as he forced home a rebound on Sorokin again told of the simple joys of playing the game and the 49-year-old bantered with reporters about resuming his playing career.

But he also had serious business to discuss, explaining that Kuznetsov was due to play as a centre against Latvia “and then we’ll see what happens”. He also confirmed that Panarin is fit again after missing the game with Slovakia but would not be drawn on whether Orlov would feature on the Russian power play.

Meanwhile, the assistant coach is keen to finish the group phase with two tough games against the playoff chasing Latvians and Russia's old foes from the USA.

"It's good to finish with two big games against strong opposition," he said. "That helps us to hit top form when we get to the knock-out games."

Orlov himself, meanwhile, was looking forward to adapting quickly to life with the national team following another playoff disappointment in Washington. Once again, that good mood in the locker room has a role to play.

“Losing to Pittsburgh was a blow and I’m getting over that,” he said. “But you can’t be down when you join up with these guys. Sunday, I got some sleep and had a skate, because I’d not been on the ice for a couple of days. We’ll see how it goes tomorrow. In the past I’ve adapted quickly to the big ice, so hopefully everything will be fine.”


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