SOCHI -- The organ music began before warmups at 3:32 p.m. Sochi time -- a string of familiar sounds in an unfamiliar place for most Americans. The set started with Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Karn Evil 9 and eventually found its way to Welcome to The Jungle when the Russian hockey team first skated onto the surface of the Bolshoy Ice Dome. Soon, the crowd filed in. Horns blared, drums sounded and Russian flags unfurled everywhere. The first chant of "Russ-ee-ya, Russ-ee-ya, Russ-ee-ya" officially came at 3:57 p.m., about 35 minutes before the puck dropped on one of the greatest games in Olympic hockey history that didn’t award a medal.
A couple of thrilling hours later it was over: a 3-2 victory for Team USA after eight rounds of a shootout, with T.J. Oshie scoring four times in the special session.
"It was like going into the craziest building on the road, Game Seven, Stanley Cup, all that plus more," said U.S. forward Max Pacioretty, who plays for the Montreal Canadiens.
"It was out of this world," added U.S. forward David Backes, the captain of the St. Louis Blues. "The Russian fans were making a ton of noise all game, though David heard a little 'Oshie Oshie' chant before that last one. I think everyone that was there, you can’t go away disappointed with the way that game was played. Maybe the finish was a little stinging for the Russian fans, but they played great and it could’ve easily gone either way."
This was true. While the atmosphere was tense and loud, this wasn’t exactly Miracle On Ice, redux. For starters, there was a polar bear mascot dancing in the aisles. The Jumbotron advised fans to make noise to Maroon 5’s Moves Like Jagger, and at one point Russian fans even did the wave (We apologize, Mr. Putin.) In between one of the intermissions, the in-game arena announcer interviewed a couple of magicians, none of whom were David Blaine thankfully. The Russian fans, in fact, showed mostly indifference (rather than boos) when the Americans were announced at the start of the game.
But as the teams started racing across the larger ice surface -- Russia's Ilya Kovalchuk and Russian captain Pavel Datsyuk, who scored both goals for the home team, looked faster than Aeroflot at times -- the enthusiasm and passion reached a fever pitch seen in European soccer rivalries. The crowd chanted "Shaybu! Shaybu! Shaybu!" which is the Russian word for puck, but fans use it to urge their players to score.
The crowd was announced at 11,678, and the Russian supporters easily outnumbered the U.S. by about 80-20. But there were pockets of American support throughout the crowd, including Megan Collins and Renee Gosselin -- a pair of George Washington University graduate students getting their masters degree in tourist administration. They were in Sochi learning about the different aspects on how to hold an Olympic Games, and said they paid $241 for tickets in Section 112, Row 13, which was a seat parallel to the goal line in the lowest section of the arena.
"It’s the most intense game I ever been at," said Collins, who was at her fourth Olympic Games. "We were surrounded by Russians and when started cheering, you could not cheer over them. It was crazy."
The third member of the George Washington University posse, Kristina Kaminskaya, was born in Moscow and was cheering for Russia in both English and Russian. She was enjoying the friendly rivalry (for them) with her classmates.
"They are cheering for their team," Kaminskaya said of Collins and Gosselin, "but we are all still friends."
Presumably, they still were after T.J. Oshie (call him T.J. Sochi from now on) scored the game-winner -- international rules allow the same player to take multiple shots after the first three rounds of a shootout and U.S. coach Dan Bylsma rode Oshie to the victory. No medals were decided on Saturday and the players, most of all, understood that.
"It was a great game, exciting for the fans, exciting for the players but at the end of the day, it’s just a couple of points,” said U.S. goaltender Jonathan Quick, who was splendid in goal with 29 saves in regulation and four saves in the shootout. “We have a game against Slovenia tomorrow."
The tournament moves on, of course, but the memory of this one is going to stick for some time.