Finding meaning of hockey in Sochi

SOCHI, Russia -- It was another perfect day at the summery Sochi Winter Olympics, pushing 70 degrees outside. Locals strolled the sunny lanes of central Sochi. The city center stands a 45-minute train ride from the Olympic skating venues, north along the Black Sea coast.

The Olympics have temporarily altered life here. A long line led to the entrance of the train station, as riders plodded through the new security checkpoint. The Olympic rings stood next to the central fountain, and a steady stream of people stopped there to take photos. Volunteers in blue coats marshaled street corners, aiding out-of-town passersby. And squirreled away in a pub called Draft, a group of people were shirking their work to watch a game on TV -- the first contest for the Russian men in the Olympic hockey tournament, against Slovenia.

Russia was the heavy favorite (lowly Slovenia has never won a medal in the Olympics), but halfway through the game, Russia had managed just two goals to the Slovenians' one. The mood in the back room at Draft was tense.

In the crowd that reacted with great emotion to each shift in the game's momentum, one man was yelling most loudly of all. He wore a brown turtleneck, and his hands were on his head. At a stoppage in play, I approached his table and asked him, in Russian, "Why is this game so important to you?" The man looked at me strangely. He said his name was Alexander. He asked me to join him.

Never sit down at a table of Russians unless you're prepared to do as they do. Alexander summoned the waitress, and she soon returned with a bucket of ice and a bottle of vodka.

"This is a very passionate question," Alexander said, turning to me. He poured shots of vodka for the table. "It means everything."

Alexander introduced his friends. There was Pavel, a muscular man wearing a green tankman's helmet. "The T95S tank," he said, unbidden. "The best tank in the world." There was Roman, a policeman with the Interior Ministry. He wore an Armani T-shirt and smoked a lot.

I asked Alexander what he did for a living. He pointed at the game on the big screen. "This," he said. "The Olympics."

Alexander explained that he owned a company that helped construct the combined railroad and highway that linked the Olympic skating venues in Adler to the new ski resorts of Krasnaya Polyana. I asked him if the reports were true, that the railroad had cost roughly $9 billion. He nodded. "It cost more than that," he said. "About $12.5 billion. The Olympics have been very good for businesspeople here in Sochi." I told him I had heard that some contractors were still tracking down payment. "The government owes me $3 million," he said. Then he winked. "I'll get it."

Talk turned to hockey and, over several shots of vodka, Alexander explained the sport's importance. Hockey was the closest thing to sacred in the Soviet Union. The national team won seven gold medals in Olympic play. During the Cold War, in the ideological conflict that was never contested militarily, hockey was the proxy battle between East and West. When the Cold War ended, hockey lost its political import, and the Russian hockey team lost its purpose. In the past five Winter Olympics, Russia has won just two medals, a silver and a bronze. Alexander gestured to the TV screen with his shot glass.

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