Ex-Red Wing Datsyuk to lead Russian Olympic hockey team

James Ellingworth
Associated Press

Moscow — Former NHL players Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk will lead the hockey team of the “Olympic Athletes from Russia” at the Pyeongchang Games, wearing neutral uniforms strongly reminiscent of the Soviet “Red Machine.”

It will be the fifth Olympics for both Datsyuk and Kovalchuk. They will be on a team drawn entirely from the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League.

With NHL players absent from the Olympic hockey tournament for the first time since 1994, fans in Russia expect the team to challenge for gold. The country last won a men’s hockey medal in 2002 when it took bronze, while its players last won gold on the post-Soviet Unified Team in 1992.

The Russian roster — for a team which must play under the Olympic flag — was announced Thursday. It also features former Los Angeles Kings defenseman Slava Voynov, who left the NHL following his arrest on felony domestic violence charges in 2014.

Forward Vadim Shipachyov is also due to compete at the Olympics, three months after he walked out on a deal with the Vegas Golden Knights. The team had wanted Shipachyov to play in the minors to gain experience, but he opted to retire from the NHL, saying he felt betrayed by not being given a more prominent role.

Five Russian players failed to pass International Olympic Committee vetting imposed as part of Russia’s punishment for doping offenses at the 2014 Olympics. However, officials said only one of the five, former Pittsburgh Penguins winger Sergei Plotnikov, would have made the roster.

A similar Russian roster beat Finland, Sweden and Canada at an exhibition tournament in Moscow last month.

The Russian Hockey Federation said Thursday that Russia will be playing in Nike-made uniforms without any national crest, though the red and white colors and simply design echo the Soviet uniforms of decades past.

Instead of a crest, player numbers will be printed on the front and back. The phrase “Olympic Athlete from Russia” will be printed around the number on the front.

The KHL is widely considered the highest-quality league outside the NHL and its top clubs are flush with cash from Russian state energy companies. The league has used that wealth to tempt players like Kovalchuk and Datsyuk to play back home.

Thursday’s roster contains players from only three clubs, with 15 of the 25 coming from KHL champion SKA St. Petersburg — backed by Russian state gas company Gazprom. There are eight from CSKA Moscow, which has backing from state oil company Rosneft, and two from Metallurg Magnitogorsk.

The Russian Hockey Federation leadership has previously said the starting goaltender is likely to be Metallurg’s Vasily Koshechkin, who has a .931 save percentage in the KHL this season.

Russia’s players will have more time to prepare for the Pyeongchang Games than their Olympic rivals. The KHL has suspended its regular season for a month to accommodate the Olympics and give national team players extended training camps. The break doesn’t officially begin until Sunday, though all three teams which submitted players to the Russian roster have already played their final games.