Sochi Winter Games: grey days for Putin as USA wins epic ice hockey match

Men in dark suits are talking into their sleeves and that can only mean one thing: the big man is in the house.

Then again, Vladimir Putin was never going to miss the chance to watch his Russian ice hockey team flex its supremacy against the USA in the preliminaries, before 12,500 besotted fans, at the Bolshoy Ice Dome.

Putin expects his country to win the gold medal in Sochi. Their sixth placing at the Vancouver Olympics embarrassed the nation.

“It was a big blow to us, a big failure, a big blow to everyone in Russia,” says Alex Ovechkin, the face of Russian hockey and one of the best players in the world.

As Soviet legend Slava Fetisov said pre-Games of the expectation this time around: “Can you imagine what it would have been like had Canada not won in Vancouver? If Russia loses, will everyone be sent to Siberia? Probably not".


This explains why Putin, sitting in the second tier of the stadium just above the press tribune, wore the grey expression of a widower as one of the greatest hockey matches of all time - according to the American journalist sitting next to me - unfolded before him but didn’t fall his way.

After the players warmed up to Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, the score and momentum swung back and forth, finishing 2-all at the end of three periods before America won in a shootout universally described as “epic".

There was a touch of controversy, too, after Russia/Putin had a goal disallowed that would’ve won them the game.

"It was electric,” beamed US forward Ryan Kesler afterwards. “Both teams were playing hard and it was a fun game to play in, especially when you basically have a whole building rooting against you except for those couple hundred fans who got pretty loud when we got it going."

Most of the players from both countries play against or with each other in the National Hockey League.

Yet it is impossible, even now, to still view any sporting event between Russia and the US through anything other than the prism of a Cold War that supposedly ended decades ago.

The Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid ensures that rivalry never slips away when it comes to hockey.

Not one of the players who took to the ice on Saturday night was born when a group of American amateurs stunned the Soviets and the world in one of the greatest upsets in Olympic and sports history.

“Do you believe in miracles?” asked sportscaster Al Michaels in his famous call in the dying seconds. “YES!"

It’s a result that still hurts the Russians.

Dmitry Chernyshenko, president of the Sochi Olympics Organising Committee, reckons three films scared him as a child: Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and The Miracle on Ice.

But it’s a result that still haunts the Americans.

They’ve been trying to chase down and replicate that special slice of history since. After being consigned to silver against Canada in Vancouver, they feel these games are their greatest chance of repeating the miracle.

Of course, The Miracle on Ice was only the pre-cursor to the mother of all Cold War sporting contests - when Rocky Balboa fought Ivan Drago in Rocky IV.

Killing Apollo Creed really pissed off Rocky. And America.

So Rocky (played by a juiced up Sylvestor Stallone) flew to the USSR to fight Drago (played by a blond, flat-topped Dolph Lundgren) to avenge his fellow American’s death.

As Drago prepared for the bout with cutting-edge high-tech equipment under the watchful eye of Brigitte Nielsen, Rocky chopped down trees and threw around logs, and gave the KGB men watching his every move something to ponder in snowy Krasnogourbinsk.

Drago promised “I must break you” but then, as Rocky started to rise from the canvas and get on top, declared he "is not human, he is like a piece of iron".

By the time the final round came around, the Russian crowd were chanting Rocky’s name.

America won, the USSR lost, and now there are McDonald’s everywhere you go in Sochi, and there are stars and stripes onesies in shopfront windows in downtown Rosa Khutor.

That was boxing. This is hockey.

There was every indication early into the game that remnants of the Cold War remain when Russian forward Yevgeni Medvedev threw a left hook at Ryan Callahan, and both sets of players came together and brawled as well as they can in chunky padding and helmets.

Ice hockey at the Olympics is supposedly sedate compared to its NHL equivalent. Drop the gloves in the NHL and get stuck in, you are fined. Drop them at the Olympics, you are suspended.

It’s also played on a larger rink, meaning those signature, bowel-shaking crashes into the boards are less frequent, although a Kesler shoulder charge midway through this game would’ve earned him a 12-match suspension in the NRL, and that’s with the early guilty plea.

It was at that precise moment when the brave souls representing the land of the free and home of the brave at the Bolshoy Dome started exalting their signature “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!”

The Russians might have cheered Rocky in the end, but they had no truck with cheering the Americans at the Olympics.

It was promptly drowned out with, “RUSS-SEE-A! RUSS-SEE-A! RUSS-SEE-A!”

Confirmation that Putin was in the house didn’t come through until the second period, when he was sighted on the balcony overlooking halfway with the scores locked 1-all.

Right on cue, as if pre-determined, Russian captain Pavel Datsyuk scored the equaliser. His joy was tempered soon after when Fydodor Tyutin was disallowed a goal in the third period.

In the shootout, Putin rode the wave with the rest of us, as American forward TJ Oshie scored the winner at the eighth attempt. An epic? You didn’t need to know ice hockey to know that’s what it was.

"There are probably always nerves, but overall we focused on the game,” Russian coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov said.

“I was in, what I would call, a working ecstasy. I wasn't shaking. As for Vladimir Vladimirovich, I only found out after the game (he was there)."

By then, Putin could not get out of there quick enough, led by a military general who had sat in front of him wearing a uniform adorned with medals.

The big man had left the house without the result he had wanted, while the Russian players walked through the mixed zone knowing that it might be hot as hell in Sochi but it is as cold as ice in Siberia.

This story Sochi Winter Games: grey days for Putin as USA wins epic ice hockey match first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.