GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 25: Germany's Patrick Reimer #37 shakes hands with Olympic Athletes from Russia's Pavel Datsyuk #13 after an overtime win for Team Olympic Athletes from Russia during gold medal round action at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)
Russians celebrate, Germans proud
The Olympic Athletes from Russia celebrated the gold medals. On the German side the tears were followed by pride for the historic silver medal.
What is usually known as the Russian men’s national team in IIHF events played under a neutral flag as the Olympic Athletes from Russia men’s ice hockey team in PyeongChang 2018. It hasn’t always been easy for these athletes under these specific circumstances with the Russian Olympic Committee being suspended for doping violations and an alleged doping system in Sochi 2014 and the men’s ice hockey team being unaffected from the doping cases.
But the hockey players from Russia found exactly the answer they were looking for: winning the Olympic gold medals. It wasn’t easy though. The final against Germany, one of the lowest-seeded teams on paper, was the toughest game for the Russians, who tied it in the last minute and won it 4-3 in overtime.
“This match was the most important one in my life,” said head coach Oleg Znarok, who was seen on the phone after the game being congratulated by President Vladimir Putin. Znarok was celebrated on the ice by his players and confessed how nervous he was during the game despite the apparent calm. “It was a mask. I was nervous but I did not want to show it.”
Kirill Kaprizov was the man with the golden goal in overtime. He was full of happiness although he doesn’t feel like a hero. “When they (Germany) scored the third goal, I thought that was it. Thank God we managed to score. It was great it came out like that. I ran somewhere and started tearing things off me,” he said about the moment he scored the goal. “Our whole team will stay in the memory of the people as having won the gold medal.”
It was a special moment for veteran Pavel Datsyuk, who completed the Triple Gold Club criteria by winning Olympic gold after the World Championship and the Stanley Cup and received his Triple Gold Club pin from IIHF President René Fasel after the game. A game he will never forget.
“There are a lot of nice feelings now in my heart, but at the same time I can't believe it yet. It was a very emotional game and now there is a void, there is fatigue,” he said. “The hearts of all the players on the bench stopped. We were waiting for this. And when (Nikita Gusev) scored, our hearts started beating. Thank you everyone for the support and all the messages. It is not an easy time for us and it means a lot to us.”
Comparing the Olympic gold with the Stanley Cup win, Datsyuk said: “You play for your country, it is more important. It feels good but I have accomplished my dream. Now I have no dreams.”
“Since I was five years old, when I started to play hockey, this was the dream of my late father. This was my dream,” said Ilya Kovalchuk, who was voted as Most Valuable Player of the Olympic men’s ice hockey tournament by the media.
“I feel a great void inside me. I think we haven't quite realized what we did. I think that today's game put a lot of things back in their place. It showed that this is the Olympics. No matter who plays in the final, this is a great responsibility. For many of our guys it was their first time playing in the Olympics and they certainly never experienced a game like that before, including myself.
“It was the craziest game ever. We scored 2-1 (in the third period) and we thought everything is OK now, but then they scored quickly and we got a penalty. When we had the penalty with two minutes to go, I honestly thought we won't be Olympic champions.
“[Winning gold] means a lot. We got the Kontinental Hockey League. Now you can say that it’s the second-best league in the world. It's great. It's good for Russia. It's good for Russian hockey. It's good for everybody. I think that final was so exciting, unpredictable, and that's what these tournaments are all about.”
On being named MVP, Kovalchuk said: “You can choose any guy among us. Today Gusev got four points. In the semi-final, he scored the game winner. So that's questionable for MVP, but I'm thankful and it's a big honour for me, for sure.”
Russian praise for Germany
The Germans, who had to go through a qualification tournament in Riga to be back in the Olympic men’s ice hockey tournament for the first time since 2010, were the big surprise team and received a lot of praise from their opponents after the intense gold medal game.
“They are big guys, they were pushing and they are skating very well. Ice hockey is changing now, you cannot compare it with how it was in the past years. They are not easy to deal with and they proved it again today. A lot of respect to them and congratulations to them,” Kovalchuk said.
“The Germans showed a good game and it was very hard for us to play against them,” said Vyacheslav Voinov, who was named Best Defenceman of the tournament. “We got a very good, disciplined and strong opponent.”
“This team beat on the way to the final the Swedes and the Canadians. The German national team performed very well and was close to gold. The performance of the Germans shows that hockey in Europe is on the rise,” said legendary goalie and IIHF Council member Vladislav Tretiak in a Russian TV interview. “Our guys showed courage in the final. They are all heroes. We are very glad to have such a team.”
Storybook without happy ending for Germans
For the German players the final was the game of their lives. After starting with expected defeats against Finland and Sweden, the Germans beat Norway in the preliminary round and then eliminated Switzerland, Sweden and Canada in tight playoff games. Against the Olympic Athletes from Russia they were close to the sensation.
“It's a little tough right now because we all felt we could have won that game. But that's hockey. It's just the way it is. I think we all thought we'd sit there and watch the final on the couch at home but here we are. The boys are going to bring silver home and they should be very proud of that,” said head coach Marco Sturm. “This is a one-in-a-lifetime experience. These guys came so far. Unfortunately we didn't win the gold but to bring home a medal is something special.”
“Hollywood can make a movie of us. I just want that Brad Pitt plays me,” said goaltender Danny aus den Birken, despite not having the perfect happy ending on Sunday. “We cannot change it. As soon as the medal was around my neck, I noticed that we did it. It was a good game, that's hockey, every second counts. But what we did nobody expected. We're so proud of ourselves, Germany's proud of us, we played such a good tournament and had such a good group.”
Making it that far is nothing even the players had expected. “Nobody expected that we are going to make the final. We said we had a chance to do something here but to come here is more than fantastic,” he said.
Also for Marcel Noebels it’s a good feeling despite having missed gold by 56 seconds – that was the time left in regulation when Gusev scored the game-tying goal for the Russians, who eventually won in overtime. “In the previous games the Hockey God was on our side, today unfortunately not anymore. But we can still be proud of ourselves. In Germany at the moment everybody speaks about ice hockey, nobody about football. That’s great.”
That’s true. The Olympic men’s ice hockey tournament final had a market share of 59 per cent in Germany – numbers that only football can reach sometimes. Almost 3.7 million people watched the game early morning on public broadcaster ZDF and on Eurosport in Germany. The semi-final game at a later time slot was watched by even 5.33 million people with a market share of 36.7 per cent.
The tears after the heartbreaking loss against the favoured Russians was swept away by joy once the players had the medal. A bit unusual after a top-level hockey final, the Germans smiled and came together for a team photo after this historic moment. Germany had never been better than third at the Olympics ice hockey (in 1932 and 1976) before.
“It was a downer when we got the OT goal against. We kind of had a hand on the gold medal, but still, I'm so proud of my team and we played such a great Olympics,” said Christian Ehrhoff, who was selected as Germany’s flag bearer at the closing ceremony. “We're going home with a medal and it's just a great honour and we're so excited. You dream of it, but you think you're so far away, then everything comes together. What an amazing group of guys, just comes together and works so hard for it. We really deserved it and I'm so proud.”
To be in the final still sounds unreal to many, including veteran player Marcel Goc: “Once we get home and get off that plane and get the stories from friends and family, we will realize what happened and I think we can be proud. I don't think we have to go out of this game and say we lost. We won the silver medal here and can be proud of it.”
For the players there will be little time to celebrate. With the return later than foreseen, the next games of the German DEL will already be played on Wednesday. They did the best out of it at the Deutsche Haus until early morning, and with American ski star Lindsey Vonn getting a jersey from Patrick Reimer. Then the team left to Seoul early Monday morning and flew to Frankfurt.
“We believe we could do something great here - our dream, our miracle. I think this is big push for German hockey. We have never been in the finals before and I am really proud that I am a part of this group,” said Goc.
The players hope that the success will improve the perception of ice hockey in the country. And the medal comes in time as development and recruitment projects have been initiated in the last few years to add depth and make German hockey more competitive.
“It’s a dream for us. We’re almost overloaded. We’re the number-one news before politics, economy and other topics. That’s incredibly important for us. We’re ready for that. It gives us an additional push,” said German Ice Hockey Association President Franz Reindl mentioning the Powerplay 26 project and the recruitment campaign “Wir sind Eishockey” (we are ice hockey). “We have this project together with the IIHF to promote the sport, to tell the kids and parents to go to wir-sind-eishockey.de and find information on ice hockey and quick contacts to clubs. I hear from Germany that the clicks on our website and merchandise went up largely.
“With this concept we want that our sport grows and I’m sure it will.”