By Frank Pingue
SOCHI, Russia, Feb 9 (Reuters) - Russian forward Ilya Kovalchuk is banking on the support of local ice hockey fans to help the host-nation win the gold medal in the men's competition at the Sochi Olympics.
Less than a year ago, Kovalchuk walked away from a multi-million dollar contract in the United States to play at home in the lead-up to Sochi and now the speedy winger wants something in return.
Four years ago, Kovalchuk witnessed first hand the rabid support that Canadian fans gave their team. He believes it was a factor in helping Canada win the gold medal and he expects Russian fans to do the same for their team.
"We remember the game against Canada when all the fans were on their feet all game long," Kovalchuk told reporters on Sunday.
"It gives you a little advantage and we are really looking forward to that.
"Now we're at home and the home crowd is going to help."
Kovalchuk is a key member of a powerful Russian squad that features some of the top players from the North American National Hockey League, including Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk.
The 30-year-old forward boasts a deadly combination of skills, strength and speed which have been on display for SKA St. Petersburg, one of the top Kontinental Hockey League teams, where he now plays.
Before that, he spent 11 years in the NHL, with the Atlanta Thrashers and New Jersey Devils, scoring 40 or more goals in a season on six occasions.
Last July, Kovalchuk stunned the ice hockey world when he abruptly walked away from the remaining $77 million on a 15-year contract he signed in 2010 with New Jersey and returned to his homeland.
A veteran on the international ice hockey scene, Kovalchuk has won two world championships with Russia but never an Olympic gold. In his three previous Olympic appearances, the only medal he won was a bronze at Salt Lake City in 2002
Russia plays its first game on Feb. 13 against Slovenia and Kovalchuk is well aware of the expectations being placed on the team.
"We are playing at home with a lot of pressure but it's a great pressure." he said.
"It's the same as every other Olympics. For sure it's special to play at home but it's a great feeling under pressure."
The Feb 12-23 men's ice hockey tournament will be played on an international-sized ice rink rather than the smaller NHL-sized one used at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
The larger surface means a different brand of ice hockey will be on display in Sochi compared to the version played in North America.
While European teams could hold an advantage on the larger ice, due partly to North American players having to adapt to larger defensive zones and deeper corners, Kovalchuk expects all the teams will quickly adapt.
"It's just going to take a couple games (for everyone) to adjust and it's not going to be a problem for anybody," said Kovalchuk.
"Any team can beat anybody. It's only one game, it's not a best-of-seven, you have to prepare as best as you can for every game." (Reporting by Frank Pingue; editing by Julian Linden)