Scott Russell - Wednesday Feb. 12, 2014 17:38

The big show is about to begin in Sochi

Field of Play blog: Men’s hockey puts Sochi over the top

Bands playing while fans enjoy the show at Olympic Park in Sochi
Bands playing while fans enjoy the show at Olympic Park in Sochi. (Scott Russell/CBC Sports)

In the midst of Olympic Games which have already exceeded the expectations of many, the big show is about to begin.

It’s anticipated that dropping the puck on men’s hockey will put Sochi 2014 over the top. And no rivalry is more anticipated than the one which historically exists between Canada and host Russia.

The legend of the 1972 Summit Series involving Canada and the stars of the Soviet Union is no longer a whisper in these parts. Instead it is on the minds of many as one travels around the grandiose Olympic Plaza.

“In the Soviet days all people who watched TV only watched hockey,” said Aleksei Aicindinov, one of our drivers here in Sochi. He’s from St. Petersburg but after the Soviet Union collapsed he spent five years in Los Angeles and managed a waste disposal company. He’s also a former member of the Russian army and played hockey in a veteran’s league in St. Petersburg as well as some pickup in California.

“I’m not old enough to remember the [72] series, but I watched the video tapes of all of the games,” he said. “They were the best games ever.”

Even Mike Milbury, former NHLer and NBC analyst here in Sochi who is often critical of the European brand of the game was buoyant when I encountered him after his morning walk along the Black Sea.

“It’s a strange tournament because everybody makes it,” Milbury said wide eyed. “But those last games are going to be very interesting.”

Wonderful vibe 

Already in the Olympic Park the bands are playing and folks are sporting their colours.

Still, the only two sweaters I’ve seen so far belong to the home team and Canada. Sometimes it’s Russian people who are wearing the red and white jerseys bearing the maple leaf and on occasion I’ve noticed that a Canuck has donned Alex Ovechkin’s familiar number 8.

It suddenly becomes apparent that in this place there is a fervent and simmering hope that the cherished rivalry has a chance to boil over.

As it is with many Canadian fans, the character players have a special place in the Russian people’s hearts. When I asked Aleksei who he admired most on the Russian side he shook his head at the suggestion of Ovechkin or Evgeni Malkin.

“It’s Pavel Datsyuk,” he said. “He has lots in his head, good moves and big experience. Plus he’s a good guy.”

Sounds very much like a Canadian line of thinking.

The Canadian men come into these Games as the defending Olympic champions. Meanwhile, the Russians have not won a hockey medal since 2002 in Salt Lake City when Alexi Yashin helped them claim bronze.

Yashin is now the general manager of the Russian women’s team which is hoping to break through here and win a medal for the first time at the Olympics.

Gold or nothing

Still, it’s the men who all of Russia are counting on. This is the gold medal the country desperately wants.

Some observers like Igor Kuperman, who was an assistant manager with that Salt Lake City team, claims the success of the Games is resting on hockey supremacy.

“It’s the only medal that really matters,” Kuperman told me. “Russia could win every other medal at the Games and not win hockey but many would feel we had lost the Olympics.”

Aicindinov agreed with that assessment.

“People will be very upset if Russia doesn’t win,” he concluded. “It will be a tragedy, believe me.”

And then as he went to work to drive some of our people to the mountains, Aleksei asked me a question of his own. “Can you get me a ticket to the game?” he pleaded. “It doesn’t matter… any game will do.”

It seems to be the prevailing sentiment at the Sochi 2014 Olympics.

Regardless who wins we’re all in for a heaping good measure of hockey heaven.

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