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.

"This means national prestige," he said. "We must win the hockey gold medal. Nothing else matters."

The Russian team has three of the greatest players in the world: Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk. With their powerful skating and imaginative manipulation of the puck, they are analogues of the great players of the Soviet national teams that dominated Olympic play. There is one fundamental difference. Those Soviet stars were known for their togetherness, their ability to play in concert with one another, to cooperate toward a common goal. As Russian players have become wealthy and well-known in the NHL, they have assumed the mercenary qualities that subdue a team.

Alexander looked at his phone. There he found the score of the other game being played at the moment, the United States versus Slovakia. "The U.S. is winning 7-1," Alexander shouted. He was surprised. He was angry. "We should be winning 7-1." He slammed his fist on the table. When he recovered his senses, he refilled the glasses.

Over these past five Olympic Games, any Russian could see the hockey team was a reflection of the country, which was fractured, scattered after the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia had no purpose, no central theme. One of Russian president Vladimir Putin's goals has always been to unite the country, to regather Russian strength and momentum.

From across the table, Pavel spoke up. "In the '90s, I was ashamed to be Russian," he said, as the game played out on a screen over his shoulder. "Now I am very proud." He lifted his shot glass and added, "Let's drink to Putin." A men's hockey gold medal for Russia in the Sochi Games would be a sign that the country has righted itself, a sign that Russia is once again together.

That may be why sports, these meaningless contests, mean so much to us. Life plays itself out with no finality, no resolutions, no assigning of victor and defeated. It just keeps going. In contrast, by the end of a game, we know which side is united, and which side is scattered.

Russia scored several more times against Slovenia, and the fans at Draft leaped to their feet on each occasion with evident relief. The game wound down. Russia won 5-2. Talk at the table turned to the future.

"Who do we play next?" Pavel asked. Alexander searched for the information on his phone. "We play the U.S. on Saturday," he said.

Everyone at the table sat back and thought about that for a moment. What might that game determine? There was a last toast -- "To Team USA!" -- and goodbyes said all around, before Roman, the cop, pointed his finger at me accusingly and commanded: "You're coming back here Saturday."

Brett Forrest is a contributor to ESPN The Magazine and His book, "The Big Fix," is out in May.