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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

At the Winter Olympics, hockey is about to take over the spotlight. The men's tournament started yesterday. Team USA and the Russians have games today and that means that the richest and most famous hockey players in the world find themselves on unfamiliar ice with brand new teammates. NPR's Robert Smith has a preview.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: There is this weird contradiction in Olympic hockey. On the one hand, these professional players from the NHL arrive in this small town like movie stars. They show up a week late trailed by TV cameras, Russians begging for autographs, and then they have to go back to basics. Early this morning, members of Team USA were on the ice doing the kind of simple drills you'd expect to see in a pee-wee hockey league.

Derek Stepan of the New York Rangers was practicing his passes over and over with Justin Faulk of the Carolina Hurricanes. For these stars who have been busy all winter long in the NHL, they've got to start over. Unfamiliar teammates, new coach, on an Olympic ice rink that is larger than the one they play on at home. Sergei Crabbou(ph) is a hockey commentator on Russian TV and he says even though Team USA has had very little practice, they look pretty good.

SERGEI CRABBOU: Very mobile, very good goalies, young team, and I would say hungry.

SMITH: The great thing about Olympic hockey, he says, is you never know. Ever since the Olympics allowed in professional NHL players, it's changed the calculus. The winner is the team that has the most talent that can learn to work together in the fewest possible games. Team USA coach Dan Bylsma knows this. He's normally the coach of the Pittsburg Penguins and he says they didn't simply choose all the best scorers in the NHL.

They chose guys who have worked together before, that match up well.

DAN BYLSMA: We thought we could be a good skating team. We needed to be a good skating team on the bigger ice surface. We thought we could be a smart, intelligent team.

SMITH: It's not all brains. Team USA does have some great physical talent. Zach Parise from the Minnesota Wild is the team captain. Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks, is the go-to guy. But the team doesn't have as many great players as the Canadians. I mean, how could they?

CRABBOU: Canada has the best team here, the best players, bigger, more physical, almost no weak points about the team.

SMITH: That's Sergei Crabbou again. The joke going around Sochi is that if you rounded up all the Canadian players that didn't make the Olympic team, they would probably medal also. But Crabbou says Canada isn't the only threat to the U.S. Sweden, for instance, works better as a unit.

CRABBOU: They have common background. They have the same hockey education so they know how to play with each other.

SMITH: A Swede always knows how to pass to another Swede.

CRABBOU: Yeah, I would say so.

SMITH: And what about the home team? What about the Russians? Crabbou says there is tremendous pressure to win here.

CRABBOU: One thing that could work for the team and against the team, you can handle pressure and it may help you, like it helped Canadians in Vancouver, and on the other hand, if you do not handle it properly, it may destroy you.

SMITH: The most pressure is on the shoulders of Team Russia's Alexander Ovechkin. The Washington Capitals player is the single biggest thing here in Sochi. His face is on every Coca-Cola billboard and ad and you know Coca-Cola does not skimp on the ad budget. He started down at reporters at a press conference with his tough face, his trademark missing tooth, his booming voice, as translated by a young female Russian...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We understand what we have to do and we will fight for the results in every match.

SMITH: I know that sounds less intimidating in translation, but listening to Ovechkin, you can tell how much Team Russia is animated by history. They talk constantly of the 1980 miracle on ice upset when they were beaten by Team USA, and their loss four years ago in Vancouver. Once again, try to imagine this as spoken by a 6'3" tough guy.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: When we lost to the Canadians, it was a big blow to us. It was a big failure. It was a big blow to everyone in Russia.

SMITH: And the fans want revenge. Already the Russia hockey games are the hottest ticket in Sochi. And the first big moment? Russia versus Team USA this Saturday. Robert Smith, NPR News, Sochi.

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