SOCHI, Russia -- For many North American sports fans, the Winter Olympics mainly revolves around two sports: women’s figure skating and men’s ice hockey. While the ladies’ short program gets underway next Wednesday, group play is in full swing for hockey, and perhaps the most intriguing matchup of the 2014 Winter Olympics is set to take place on Saturday afternoon at Bolshoy Ice Dome.
The U.S. will face host-nation Russia, immediately conjuring the memory of the “Miracle on Ice.” Arguably the most important victory in American hockey history, the U.S. defeated the Soviet Union in Lake Placid, N.Y., at the 1980 Winter Olympics in what was considered one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history.
Though both nations are expected to advance out of group play, this game means a great deal for both countries. A victory would be a major momentum builder for the U.S., especially if the two nations meet again in the medal round. The Americans have a 3-8-1 all-time record against Russia/Soviet Union.
Both the American and Russian squads would be disappointed with anything less than a gold medal in Sochi. For the U.S., the heartbreaking loss to Canada in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver in the gold medal game still lingers, and this talented roster is a serious contender to win their first gold since 1980.
Russia might be more desperate to win gold. The Russians have failed to win gold since 1992, and there is a considerable amount of pressure from their fans to win on home ice.
On Thursday, Russia defeated heavy underdog Slovenia at Bolshoy Ice Dome, 5-2. In the second period, Slovenia scored two goals to cut Russia’s lead to 3-2, but the Russians responded with two third-period goals to put Slovenia away.
The U.S. victory over Slovakia at Shayba Arena was even more lopsided, as the Americans responded to a second-period goal by Slovakia that tied the game, 1-1, with six unanswered goals, 7-1. But there is little time for the Americans to congratulate themselves with their Saturday date with Russia looming large.
“We’ve got 36 hours to get ready, and get our plan right,” U.S. forward David Backes told reporters about the U.S.’s upcoming game. “We’re not nervous. We play with a lot of these guys in the NHL, but there are some guys who play for the KHL that we don’t know.”
With a wider ice than the NHL, there was some adjusting for the U.S. to do, Backes said.
“'Comfortable?’ I don’t think I would use that adjective quite yet,” the St. Louis Blues star added.
When the two nations face off, the American supporters will be dwarfed by the number of Russian fans, making for a perhaps hostile environment for the U.S.
More than 4,000 were in attendance at Shayba, with American fans noticeably outnumbered by Slovakian fans and Russian fans, who perhaps decided to show up to scout their next opponent. It didn’t seem to bother Team USA much in the second period, though.
But in the rare moments when the Slovaks had reason to cheer, they were quite boisterous. It’s somewhat understandable that there would be a disparity in fans. Though Slovakia is a nation of nearly 5.5 million and the U.S. has well over 300 million, the distance from New York to Sochi is more than three times farther than the distance from Bratislava to Sochi.
If the Slovaks were loud, the host-nation Russians will likely be much louder. It is a daunting thought for a U.S. team that already has to contend with superstar forward Alexander Ovechkin.
But the small number of Americans who were in attendance made sure to make their presence felt, though the chants of “USA!” became less frequent midway through the second period with the outcome in little doubt.
Backes, whose parents will attend the Russia match, appreciated the support from the contingent of Americans on hand against Slovakia. They could help bolster the U.S. effort on Saturday at the 12,000-seat capacity Bolshoy Ice Dome, in what should be an overwhelmingly pro-Russia atmosphere.
“It’s nice to have,” Backes said. “There were a few American flags up there, and American jerseys. They traveled a long way. Hopefully, it wasn’t disappointing today. I think they got a good show. It’s going to probably be a little more hostile at the Bolshoy against the home crowd here.”
Ask the Americans in attendance at Shayba why they think there aren’t more of their countrymen in Sochi to support the U.S. hockey team, and they rattle off a litany of the obvious reasons: difficulty taking time off of work, negative reports about Russian public policies, a long and expensive flight, overpriced tickets, the hassle of getting a visa.
Those factors meant little to Keith Doan, a Dallas resident who works as a managing general agent for Lloyds of London. Doan, who has dual citizenship in the U.S. and Canada, made the trip to Sochi just to watch international hockey.
Doan traveled by himself to the Black Sea resort town, and paid more than $5,000 for 16 hockey games. He was seated next to other Americans like him, who all seemed to feel quite fortunate to be in Sochi to watch U.S. hockey.
Doan made sure to show up wearing a replica U.S. Mike Eruzione jersey, honoring the captain of the U.S. team in 1980. Doan plans to wear the jersey for all the U.S. games. It’s hard for him not to gush over the U.S. victory over the Soviet Union 34 years ago.
“Eruzione knew when to score the biggest goal of his lifetime. It’s still the greatest moment in U.S. history.
“That game… I was 13 years old. And you’re watching it, and those amateurs came through against the big, bad Russians.”
The Russians aren’t nearly as big and bad as they once were, and the U.S. has a far more talented roster than in 1980, so a U.S. victory probably won’t be considered a “miracle.”
Doan knows all that won’t dampen the mood on Saturday in what is expected to be a spirited and competitive contest.
“I think the U.S. will beat Russia,” Doan said with just a hint of doubt.