SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, ice hockey’s two biggest names, arrived at the Sochi Winter Games on Monday, adding their considerable star power to the Olympic buzz.
With the men’s ice hockey tournament starting on Wednesday, Crosby and Ovechkin joined their respective team mates to shake off the jet lag after their flights from North America.
“We figured if we got some exercise this time of night we would have a better chance of staying up until midnight, have opportunity to see how big the ice was and go through some things,” said Team Canada coach Mike Babcock.
“We had some fun, we competed a little bit, tried some combinations but we’ll really get started for all intents and purposes tomorrow.
“We understand what it takes, how hard the Olympic Games is to win a medal. Our preparation has to be equal to the opportunity and the opportunity is great.”
The men’s tournament starts four days later than the women’s because the top players were still involved in the National Hockey League, which is now on a two week break for the Olympics.
The competition kicks off with Czech Republic taking on Sweden and Latvia going against Switzerland but the marquee matchup of the preliminary round will come on Saturday when Russia plays the United States in a clash that will harken back to the 1980 Lake Placid Olympic ‘Miracle on Ice’.
At those Winter Games, it was a group of American college players going up against Russia’s imposing Big Red Machine, but Sochi will feature the world’s highest-paid professionals going toe-to-toe for gold.
Russia, led by Ovechkin, come to Sochi on a mission to restore the country’s battered hockey reputation.
Once international hockey’s undisputed superpower, Russia’s dominance has faded following the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Winners of six-of-seven Olympic titles between 1964 and 1988, the last traces of the mighty Russian hockey empire were seen at the 1992 Albertville Games when the “Unified Team” took the gold.
In the five Winter Olympics since, Russia has had to settle for one silver and a bronze while slumping to a new low in Vancouver with a sixth-place finish.
“The pressure is going to come, 100 percent,” admitted Ovechkin. “But right now we have jet lag you don’t realise what is going on.
“But I’m pretty sure after tomorrow it’s going to be different.”
The Russians gathered for a light practise and team picture at the Bolshoy Arena on Monday but will quickly be back to work with only a handful of practises before a punishing, pressure-packed 12-day tournament gets underway.
Canada also wasted no time getting onto the ice for a brisk skate on Monday evening as they prepare to open the defense of their gold medal on Thursday against Norway.
Crosby, who scored the overtime goal that decided the gold medal in Vancouver, returns as captain but said the added responsibility will not change his approach.
“I don’t feel any different aside from the fact you know a lot more guys, you’re more familiar with what’s going on, what to expect,” said Crosby.
“You just try to get a handle on everything and find out what your schedule is, get an idea how things are going to work.
“In a short term event like this, the more you can get some consistency, get to know the guys, the more you can gel the better.”
Editing by Julian Linden