Friday may have been Valentine’s Day, but it felt more like Christmas Eve to me. The sooner I got to bed in Sochi, I thought, the sooner I could wake up on Saturday for one of the most highly anticipated events at these Olympics: the USA-Russia men’s hockey game. It didn’t really matter that it didn’t really matter. Yes, the outcome affected qualification-round seedings, but it’s not like the two teams were playing for the gold this weekend. It sure did feel that way, though.
In the hours before puck drop, Olympic Park was awash with folks draped in Russian flags, many of which carried the names of their owners’ hometowns printed in Cyrillic. Back in the United States, bars in New York and Nashville and Columbus were opening their doors at the crack of dawn so fans could gather to watch this latter-day Cold War.
Comparisons with the 1980 matchup in Lake Placid were unavoidable yet irrelevant: None of the Americans on this roster (and only two of the Russians) were even alive back then, and this was not an elimination game. American defenseman Ryan Suter said his dad, Bob, who was on that 1980 team, told him to win a gold medal so everyone would stop talking about the damn Miracle on Ice.
The NHL has sent its players to the Olympics since the 1998 Games in Nagano, but it’s never been particularly happy about it. General managers worry about injuries to their stars, and owners frown upon two weeks’ worth of empty arenas. The league had no choice, really, but to green-light participation this time around — I wouldn’t want to be the person to tell Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin they couldn’t play for Russia in Russia — but going forward, with the 2018 Games in South Korea, the picture is more unclear. The league is reportedly considering restarting the World Cup of Hockey instead of allowing its players to participate in the Games, but Saturday’s game showed the unparalleled power and potential of Olympic competition.
With no pesky TV timeouts over-punctuating play, the pace was fast and the fans were frenzied. Rare was the moment there wasn’t some kind of chant or cheer going on: “RO! SSI! YA!” was the most popular, but as the first period came and went in a scoreless tie, “Shaybu! Shaybu!” began to take hold, too.1 Occasionally, some brave American fans scattered around the arena gamely tried a “U! S! A!” but they were always drowned right out. Still, the mood was more happy than hostile. Everyone in the building understood how lucky they were to be at this game.
Halfway through the second period, Pavel Datsyuk, the 35-year-old Russian captain, scored his first of two goals. The place erupted — you could feel the floors shake. Behind me was a guy with an enormous gonglike drum, which he pounded on with gleeful abandon. When Cam Fowler tied it up on a scramble in front of the net during a U.S. power play, there were stone faces all around.
Patrick Kane wasn’t having his best night, but in the third period, he threaded a pass through just about the entire Russian team to Joe Pavelski, who buried it from the left side, and the U.S. led, 2-1. Both goals came with Alexander Radulov — the mercurial player who tantalizingly ping-ponged between Russia and the Nashville Predators and whose missing front teeth make him appear fanged — in the penalty box. I imagined Team USA general manager David Poile back at home in Tennessee, tenting his fingers with Monty Burns–style satisfaction. It was a short-lived lead, though. Again, Datsyuk beat Jonathan Quick, this time through a screen, to tie the game at 2. The drumming commenced once more.
With 4:40 remaining, an attempt by Russia’s Fedor Tyutin ricocheted off the inside of the goal and shot straight back out with almost the same velocity with which it had entered. Again, pandemonium. But the officials began to huddle, and there was no replay on the JumboTron. I thought maybe the puck had hit the crossbar instead of the inner netting; others theorized there might have been a high stick.
It turned out the net was slightly off its moorings — Quick had made a sliding move on an earlier play that dislodged it — so the goal didn’t count. (In the NHL, this situation would be at the officials’ discretion, but in international play the rules are black-and-white.) Conspiracy theories abounded — one of the referees was an American, and the linesmen Canadian — but it’s worth noting that Konstantin Komissarov, the referee supervisor who confirmed the call, is from Russia. In Moscow, students protested the officials. Others felt that Quick had intentionally jostled the net. “I play with him,” said Russia’s Slava Voynov, Quick’s teammate on the Kings. “I know that’s his style.”
When neither team could score in a five-minute overtime (Kane had the best chance, a breakaway that Sergei Bobrovsky stuffed), the game went to a shootout — or, as it was officially termed, to “game-winning shots.” NHL fans are conditioned to despise what they write off as “the skills competition,” and I understand. It seems unfair and silly for epic games to be decided by a random one-on-one situation. On the other hand, catch a game that goes to a shootout with a casual fan sometime, and it’s easier to understand the appeal.2
In this case, it turned into one part chess match, one part game of chicken, and one part Groundhog Day. International Ice Hockey Federation rules allow teams to repeat shooters after sending out their first three. And that’s how T.J. Oshie suddenly became a household name.
Oshie’s shootout style is contemplative, almost casual: He sort of dawdles in and coolly surveys the scene. (On his first attempt, which was ultimately successful, he almost lost control of the puck near the blue line.) The world became intimately familiar with this strategy when Team USA coach Dan Bylsma put him on the ice five more times in a row to counter Russia’s alternating selections of Ilya Kovalchuk and Datsyuk.3 My ears are still ringing from the decibel levels inside the arena, which peaked and fell in a sine wave of elation and anguish.
Twice, a miss by Oshie would have meant the game, and twice, he converted to send it to yet another round. Between deployments, he was smiling on the bench. Finally, after Kovalchuk hit the goalpost, Oshie sidled in again and scored. He pointed down the ice at Quick.
“Someone asked me what kind of dog he would be if he was a dog,” his St. Louis Blues teammate David Backes said afterward, “and I said he’s a Jack Russell terrier. He needs his attention directed or else he gets into a little mischief.”
The roof of the Bolshoy Ice Dome is embedded with programmable lights, and during games, it displays the two flags of the teams competing inside and the score. (There’s even a little animation whenever someone gets a goal.) Usually these images remain lit up for hours after the game ends, but when I walked outside Saturday, alongside dazed Russian fans, the roof had already been reset.
I started getting emails from friends back home, some of whom don’t know icing from offsides. “TJ FOR PREZ!” read one subject line. The words “American hero” turned up quite a bit. (After the game, Oshie was asked how it felt to get that moniker. “American heroes are wearing camo,” he said. “That’s not me.”) Hey, NHL: You know who would wake up at 7 a.m., or even four on the West Coast, to watch a World Cup of Hockey game? Existing fans. You know who does it during the Olympics? Pretty much everyone. The ratings on NBC Sports Network were its highest ever for a hockey game.
On Sunday night, I returned to Bolshoy to catch the third period of Canada vs. Finland, which was mired in a 1-1 tie thanks to the Finn’s trappy shutdown efforts — and to its goalie, the Bruins’ outstanding Tuukka Rask, who made 25 saves that night. Eventually, Canadian defenseman Drew Doughty, who along with Phil Kessel of the U.S. (and the entire neon-green-bedecked and highly lovable Slovenian team) has been one of the tournament’s top performers, scored in overtime. Walking out, I overheard a guy in a Team Canada jersey admit to his friend that he had kind of been looking forward to a shootout.
Canada will now face the winner of Switzerland and Latvia in the quarterfinals, while the U.S. will play either the Czech Republic or Slovakia. The two North American rivals could conceivably meet in the semifinals Friday, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.
This might be hard to believe, but there was some non-hockey competition in Sochi this weekend, too. (One of the best pearls of wisdom I heard in the media center: “If you want to watch the Olympics, don’t cover it.”)
The ice dancers compete for the gold medal tonight, and rest assured that, in the grand tradition of the event, the proceedings are already clouded by intrigue and drama. In the men’s program, 19-year-old Japanese skater Yuzuru Hanyu won gold on a Friday night of figure skating that featured so many wipeouts, it looked more like short track speedskating. Canada’s Patrick Chan was one of several guys to fall; he had to settle for silver.4 America’s Jason Brown failed to live up to his free skate at nationals — he looked tentative and shaky on his jumps — but warmed the heart when he saw his scores and happily exclaimed, “I’m in the top 10?!” He’ll be back.
Jeremy Abbott, who had a disastrous spill in the short program, won’t be back; he’s due to retire soon. His parting shot at his critics who called him a choker, though, was a wonder to behold:
I just want to put my middle finger in the air and say a big ‘F-you’ to everyone who has ever said that to me because they’ve never stood in my shoes and they’ve never had to do what I’ve had to do. Nobody has to stand center ice in front of a million people and put an entire career on the line for eight minutes of their life when they’ve been doing it for 20-some years. And if you think that that’s not hard, then you’re a damn idiot.
Up in the mountains, there were delight and devastation on the skeleton track. Noelle Pikus-Pace, a 31-year-old mother of two who came back from retirement for one more go, clinched the silver medal as her family watched, while Katie Uhlaender missed the bronze by four-hundredths of a second. “I put my heart out there,” she told ESPN.com’s Wayne Drehs. “The reason I’m crying is because it broke a bit.”
Tears also came for Bode Miller, who at 36 became the oldest medalist in an Alpine event when he tied for third place in the super-G.5 (The gold went to Norway’s Kjetil Jansrud, while American Andrew Weibrecht surprised just about everyone, his own parents included, with the silver.) During an uncomfortable interview with NBC in which he was repeatedly asked about his brother Chelone, who died last year at 29, Miller broke down.
Viktor Ahn — né Ahn Hyun-Soo, back in the day before disputes with the South Korean skating federation caused him to move to Russia and change his citizenship and name — won the men’s 1,000-meter event in short track speedskating Saturday, pissing off his former country’s fans. (So many tried to log on to the skating union’s website to register their discontent that it crashed.) The Dutch swept another podium, this time in the women’s 1,500-meter, and increased their Olympic-leading medal count to 17. Hup Holland Hup! The Americans, meanwhile, shed their controversial new Under Armour/Lockheed Martin suits, but fared no better in their old duds.
Just when I think I’ve settled into a routine here, I meet a new person — like Sasha, the crinkly-eyed Sochi native who works the 24-hour hockey-themed hotel lobby bar and spent a month in Yonkers as an exchange student in the late ’90s — or attend a singular event like the USA-Russia game, and it makes me never want to leave. (I feel like Max in Kicking and Screaming — “I’m reminiscing this right now!”) The Olympics is my happy place. I can even decipher Cyrillic now.6 Last Monday, I thought I would never last for 15 more days here; today, I’m preemptively devastated that I’ve only got one week left.