Conditioning, not referees, cost the Russians

WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- Somewhere, Viktor Tikhonov is laughing.

Somewhere, the tough-as-nails coach who built the Soviet hockey empire with passing, defense and discipline -- only to be forced into retirement by Glasnost and an insurgent named Slava Fetisov -- is slapping his knee in I-told-you-so righteousness.

Friday, the Russians lost a game that the Soviets surely would have won.

Yes, Team USA played superbly in a thrilling 3-2 semifinal victory, clogging up the neutral zone and shutting down the Russians' speed. Yes, the Russians roared back in the third period to give fans a spine-tingling ending. Yes, the refereeing was, at times, questionable. But make no mistake: A prepared Russian team would have advanced to Sunday's gold-medal game.

"One good period is not enough," Sergei Fedorov said.

So it's sadly appropriate that the Russians will meet Belarus in the bronze-medal matchup Saturday, as a Soviet house divided simply could not stand against either North American team Friday. Neither team passed crisply, the way the Soviets used to do. Neither team played smart defensively, the way the Red Army could. And neither played with the I-must-break-you anger that defined the hockey menace that was the CCCP. Blame Perestroika. Blame Gorbachev. Blame Fetisov. But don't blame Tikhonov.

Tikhonov's teams would never have allowed three power-play goals. Tikhonov's teams would never have allowed Bill Guerin to sneak into the high slot untouched and get a clean look at goalie-in-the-headlights Nikolai Khabibulin. And Tikhonov's teams would never -- ever -- have given up 38 shots in two periods.

"We did not play well in the first two periods," Igor Larionov said. "They outshot us 38-11. It was embarrassing."

Fetisov had excuses ready. He said the referees "didn't help us for sure." He suggested that NHL officials -- hired and paid by North Americans -- might have had difficulty staying impartial with the prospect of a USA vs. Canada final looming. And he complained about Chris Chelios' vicious check of Igor Kravchuk in the third period.

But it was Fetisov's fault that the referees even had a role on Saturday. The Russians looked awful in the first two periods, almost never gaining the Team USA zone as a unit. And even when the Russians rallied in the final stanza, they did it with speed and raw talent much more than teamwork. Their first goal, by Alexei Kovalev, came after a dump-in. Their second came on a salvo from the blue line by Vladimir Malakhov. Not exactly tic-tac-toe hockey. Still, the Russians could have won a 60-minute hockey game with 20 good minutes. But they didn't. They ran out of gas.

How ironic. Slava Fetisov -- who made his name and reputation by fighting the slave-driver Tikhonov and his 11-month prison-like workout program -- lost his chance at a gold medal because his team didn't have enough wind.

Now it basically comes down to this: The Russians have not won a major international competition since 1993 -- the last year Tikhonov manned the bench.

In the post-semifinal press conference, Team USA coach Herb Brooks was asked once again about the old days, when his club had to battle Tikhonov's vaunted Red Army squad.

"I don't want to go back that way," Brooks said.

Russian hockey fans might feel otherwise.

Eric Adelson writes for ESPN The Magazine.