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Russian Hockey Early Exit Sparks Backlash

Canada's Ennis Tyler scores against Russia during the ice hockey world championship game in Prague on May 17.
Canada's Ennis Tyler scores against Russia during the ice hockey world championship game in Prague on May 17.

The Russians continue to generate headlines for all the wrong reasons after reaching the final of the ice hockey world championship.

Loaded with top talent like Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeny Malkin, the Russians made the gold-medal game before losing to Canada 6-1 in Prague on May 17.

But it wasn’t the lopsided loss that humiliated the Russians as much as their behavior after the game. In what is considered a major protocol no-no in the world of hockey, the players skated off the ice before the Canadian national anthem was played to honor the gold-medal-winning team.

Russian players leave the ice after losing the gold-medal match against Canada on May 17.
Russian players leave the ice after losing the gold-medal match against Canada on May 17.

Former NHL coach, ice hockey commentator Don Cherry -- well known for his dislike of European players -- put it bluntly.

"We were the ones that stayed there...we stood while they won [in previous games], and they walked off the ice," Cherry said on Canadian TV on May 18. "They've got no class whatsoever."

Even at home, the Russian team came under fire for the postgame snub.

The players were met by journalists -- but virtually no fans -- when they touched down at Vnukovo 3 airport in Moscow on May 18, suggesting that many Russians were less-than pleased with their team's behavior -- after all, a silver medal is nothing to be embarrassed about.

A poll adds credence to that suggestion, with some 95 percent of the more than 18,000 surveyed in the online poll saying they did not support the players walking off before the Canadian national anthem was played.

The editors at the liberal-leaning suggested that the players’ action reflected the behavior of Russia’s current leadership.

"We constantly demand respect from others for our values and victories, but often forget to give this respect to others," they wrote.

Russian hockey honchos and official media have scrambled to put the best possible spin on the incident.

TASS noted that not all the players skated off after receiving their silver medals, with Ovechkin, Malkin, Viktor Tichonov, and Dmitry Kulikov briefly staying on the ice before exiting as well.

Former NHL star Ilya Kovalchuk -- who walked away from the NHL and joined the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League -- reportedly waved his teammates off the ice, according to Russian sports writer Slava Malamud.

Russian Ice Hockey Federation President Vyacheslav Tretyak said the players’ action was not a sign of disrespect, rather the result of an "organizational mistake," which he failed to specify.

"Of course we respect the winners. We congratulated them, shook hands with them," said Tretyak, a legendary former goalie.

The Kremlin took a different tack, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov claiming President Vladimir Putin had seen only the game and not the aftermath.

The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) is set to look into the matter.

IIHF President Rene Fasel said the Russian ice hockey federation would likely face a fine.

"What the Russian team did was completely out of order," Fasel told TASS.

It wasn’t the only off-ice controversy to hound the Russians.

According to Czech media, the team tested the patience of organizers when they moved from Ostrava, where they played their round-robin games, to Prague for the knock-out rounds.

Among other things, the Russian demanded limited access to their dressing room at O2 Arena, causing problems for the other teams.

"They brought with them to Prague a lot of problems that we hadn’t seen," explained Petr Briza of the Czech organizing committee. "Eight teams had stayed here in a friendly atmosphere, but as soon as [the Russians] came, they blocked the training hall, and picked another hotel."

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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