GJOVIK, Norway -- The country struggles from the economi and social upheavals of the Soviet Union's breakup, but the Russians are trying to keep one empire intact.
"There can be no end to the Russian ice hockey era," said Viktor Tikhonov, Russia's 65-year-old head coach. "We must survive. We give motivation to a country that is struggling now."
The top-seeded Russians opened their Olympic competition with 5-1 win over Norway last night. In other games, Finland defeated the Czech Republic, 3-1, and Germany edged Austria, 4-3.
But this is far from the Big Red Machine that won seven golds, a silver and a bronze in nine Olympic Games.
Forget the score. The Norwegians were spurred on by the crowd that witnessed the grand opening of 5,500-seat Olympic Cavern Hall, a rink cut from red gneiss inside a mountain located in a city of 25,000 people on the shores of Lake Mjosa.
Its design and elegance, complete with wall-to-wall pictograms, statues and sculptures, captured the enthusiasm of a host country trying to win a medal for the first time in hockey.
But enthusiasm alone is no match for the Russians.
"When you play the Russians, you need more than an audience," said Norwegian coach Bengt Ohlson, whose team trailed 3-1 after two periods. "Any time you fall behind by two goals early in the first period,you are never in the hunt unless you rally quickly. We didn't do that."
Tikhonov said: "We did not play great, but we have not had a lot of time to prepare for these games. We have had problems getting people together."
The Russians have been together 19 days. It's a major contrast to the old Soviet teams that traveled and played together for years, 11 months of every year.
"A lot of our players are going elsewhere to find luxuries we can no longer offer in our country," said Tikhonov.
The economic problems in the countries of the old Soviet Union have forced a free market for their hockey players. Support money dried up with the collapse of communism, and the equipment became outdated. Attendance dropped as citizens struggled to survive.
Two former linemates, Pavel Bure and Alexander Mogilny, are also playing well in the NHL. Bure led the Vancouver Canucks in scoring with 60 goals last season, and Mogilny, with the Buffalo Sabres, tied for the league goal-scoring lead last season with 76.
Gone are the days when the Russians had players who competed in two or three Olympics, like defensive partners Viacheslav Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov, who won a silver medal in 1980 and golds in '84 and '88, or legendary goalie Vladislav Tretiak, who won gold medals on the '72 and '76 teams.
This year's Russian team has no players from the squad that competed in the '92 Games.