They still are hockey's Big Red Machine, but if some team other than the comrades with the CCCP's on their sweaters winds up with the gold medal in Calgary, it will rank as something less than a miracle.
The world might not have caught up with the Soviet Union yet, but you can bet a garage full of Zambonis that the gap is closing.
When the Soviets take the ice this weekend in Calgary, they won't even rank as favorites to win their seventh gold medal in nine tries since their first Olympic appearance in 1956. The Swedes are top-seeded, by virtue of their beating out the Soviets in the World Championships last year. Sweden had gone 0-48-1 against the Soviets until winning in Stockholm last year.
That's not the only defeat the Soviets have absorbed lately. Last fall, they lost the Canada Cup for the second straight time to a team of National Hockey League all-stars.
Then, in December, playing on their home ice, they lost their own tournament, the Izvestia Cup in Moscow, to the Canadian national team that will be skating in the Olympics. The Canadian team won the world junior title, too, also in Moscow.
And the United States hockey team went 6-1-1 in a recent eight-game exhibition series against the visiting Selects, the Soviets' junior varsity team.
Suddenly, it seems, the chant in rinks around the globe is " Nyet, nyet, Soviet."
Not so fast, warns Art Berglund, general manager of the U.S. hockey team.
"There's nothing wrong with Soviet hockey," Berglund snapped. "They're as strong as ever."
That may be so. But there are factors suggesting that Team CCCP is encountering some rough skating:
The Soviets have yet to find an adequate replacement for Vladislav Tretiak, who from 1969 to 1984 was the starting goaltender on the national team and the most feared masked man of his time.
In Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, in 1984, two Soviet players were fooling around with a table hockey game that matched Team USA against the Soviets. When the U.S. team scored, the Soviet players laughingly pointed at the Soviet goalie and cried, "Myshkin, Myshkin."
Vladimir Myshkin, who replaced Tretiak during the Miracle on Ice game in 1980 at Lake Placid and allowed the final two U.S. goals, could not fill Tretiak's pads.
Neither have such successors as Evgeny Belosheikin and Sergei Mylnikov. Belosheikin was suspended for three games last season because of excessive drinking. Another young prospect, Igor Yazmikin, was banned for life for ignoring repeated warnings from Soviet authorities about alcohol consumption.
"If (Wayne) Gretzky suddenly retired, would Canadian hockey replace him easily?" asked former Soviet player Boris Mayarov, in a recent conversation with Frank Orr, the columnist for the Toronto Star.
"Of course the answer is no," Mayarov said. "Tretiak is our Gretzky."
Said Bob Johnson, president of the Amateur Hockey Assn. of the United States (AHAUS): "How many great goalies are there in the National Hockey League right now? Not many. Without Tretiak, at least you now have a chance."
There is some unprecedented grumbling within the Soviet Union, where glasnost apparently has opened a window of self-criticism not only in politics but in sports.
Alexander Yakushev, one of the stars of the 1972 team that played in the first celebrated Summit series between the Soviets and NHL all-stars, sounded just like one of his curmudgeonly Canadian counterparts when he groused:
"The Soviet team has far fewer top players today than it did back then. With the exception of today's first line, all the rest are far behind."
That first five-man unit--the Soviets play their forwards and defensemen in the same combinations--will be intact in Calgary: Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Makharov up front, Vyacheslav Fetisov and Aleksei Kasatanov on the blue line.
"They're as good as any unit in the world," said King forward Dave Taylor, who has played in three World Championships and also has faced the elite Soviet club team, the Central Army, in an exhibition game here at the Forum. "The forwards aren't very big, but they're powerful. And the defensemen are big and strong and mobile.
"In '83, Fetisov was really dominating--he scored a couple of goals where he picked up the puck and went end to end. He broke his leg after that and seems to be a little slower, but he's still the quarterback on the point."
But behind Fetisov and Co., there is a surprising lack of depth, especially for those who believed there was an assembly line somewhere in Vladivostok that mass-produced hockey players.
Koloski Viachelov, the head of the Soviet hockey federation, cited a lack of quality indoor ice arenas as a major problem, and said he has plans to build 300 rinks in the next five years. One skeptical Soviet official cracked to a reporter: "I hope he's got the money in his pocket."
The hockey program also is competing with the growing popularity of other sports, particularly basketball, soccer and volleyball.