SOCHI, Russia -- Here's a funny thing about the star-studded, megamillionaire U.S. men's hockey team: They will almost certainly be watched by fewer fans than just about any other team at these Olympics this side of curling. This team, considered by some to be one of the strongest American sides in the last decade or so (albeit one facing stiffer competition than ever), has been shuffled out of the spotlight in Russia. They aren't even the opening act to the headliner; they are playing on a sidestage, selling T-shirts out of the back of a van.
Team USA opened its Olympic schedule with a 7-1 win over Slovakia today in front of a barely half-full Shayba Arena. That would be depressing enough, but it's even worse when you consider that Shayba Arena only holds 7,000 people. There are two venues showing hockey at these Olympics: Shayba Arena and the Bolshoy Ice Dome, right next door. Bolshoy, where the medal round games will be played, holds 12,000 people, which would make it the smallest venue in the NHL by a substantial margin. But Shayba only has that 7,000. That would make it the smallest venue in the AHL. Shayba has roughly as many seats as the Cedar Park Center in Texas, home of the Texas Stars (and Austin Toros), and fewer than the i wireless Center in Moline, Illinois, home of the CHL's Quad City Mallards.
It is in this arena -- one that hadn't ever hosted a hockey game before Saturday, and had never held a men's game until yesterday -- the best players in the world are playing for you back home. Other than the Ice Cube Curling Center next door -- named for the geometric shape, not for the frontman of N.W.A. -- Shayba is the smallest indoor venue in Sochi; it has 1,000 fewer seats than the Adler Arena Skating Center a couple of buildings over. When the Olympics are over, they're just going to dismantle this place and move the pieces to another Russian city. This is the least used, most ignored venue at these whole Games. And it's where the U.S. is playing two of its first three games, joining lowly Latvia as the only men's team at these games to be here multiple times. It's possible they could play a quarterfinal game here too. It's a perfectly fine arena -- for one that's going to exist for roughly two weeks -- but undeniably minor league in scale. Most of these Americans superstars probably haven't played in front of that few fans since college. The last time the U.S. team played anywhere this small was a 4-1 win over Kazakstan in Torino in 2006. The final attendance for the game was 4,119. There might have been more people watching on your city block.
The reason for this? The United States is in Group A, which includes Slovakia, Slovenia and … Russia. Which means the U.S. keeps playing opposite Russia, which means they're gonna get the small arena and near-zero attention from anyone in town. (This harkens back to the overarching lack of American fans in Sochi that has been a subplot all week.) At the same time the U.S. played today, Russia, in front of a wild, deafening crowd at Bolshoy, beat Slovenia 5-2. It was honestly a surprise you couldn't hear them from across the street. This was the undercard. Back home, Americans are waking up at 7:30 to watch a thrilling, tantalizingly cohesive Team USA. But here, essentially, the Yanks are that Hawks-Bucks first-round playoff series that's only being shown on NBA-TV.
That'll change when they play Russia at Bolshoy on Saturday, which is the hottest ticket in town this side of the figure skating final and the gold medal game itself. (The U.S. is only useful as a direct villain here.) But for now, they're a club team playing at a sandlot next to Yankee Stadium; the big bad United States essentially is Latvia.
There's something democratizing and lovely about this. There are superstars at the Olympics, but not in the way we have superstars in professional sports in the U.S. With the exception of Shaun White -- who has garnered scorn for this very thing -- you can't be too distant at the Olympics if you're an athlete. They all stay in the same village, they all have to go through the same security, they all have to cram into the same tiny space. This is charming, a reminder that these are just games, and these are just guys that play them. (It's another reason to ultimately feel relieved -- if sad for her -- that Lindsey Vonn wasn't able to perform at these games. The last thing you want at the Olympics is everyone chasing Tiger Woods around.) Seeing this team stuffed into this tiny space is cleansing, in a way. In his book Dream Team, Jack McCallum writes about how for the 1992 USA Basketball team, playing qualifiers and exhibitions and even scrimmages in tiny gyms reminded them why they fell in love with the sport in the first place. Strip away all the junk, and all that's left is the game. Here, no one can be outsized. Winning is all there is to do.
Thing is: The U.S. might be fantastic. They dominated Slovakia today, a team that's not world-class, but also not a bottom feeder. (The Slovaks have 12 NHL players on their roster, including the Bruins' Zdeno Chara and the Blackhawks' Marian Hossa.) The U.S. controlled the entire first period but only led 1-0 before giving up a game-tying goal just 24 seconds into the second, one that probably should have been called back for offsides. No matter: The U.S. simply responded by rattling off six consecutive goals. There were questions about some of the U.S.'s roster decisions on offense -- mostly the exclusion of Ottawa's Bobby Ryan -- but that was clearly not a problem today. The U.S. coasted.
The crowd greeted it with a collective yawn. Slovakia is the length of the Ukraine away from Russia, so there were some loyalists in the stands, but mostly the game was quiet and calm and easy. It actually had the feel of a sleepy regular season game between non-rivals from different conferences.
Not that it wasn't a giddy experience to be there regardless. Hockey durably retains its earnest, dorky likability wherever it is played. You had "The Final Countdown" on organ, a Russian sleight-of-hand magician performing at the first intermission and The Offspring, Jet and other bands who exist only to be played at hockey games blasting from the loudspeakers. The party today might have been across the street, but the U.S. was just fine playing in its own little sandbox a few hundred feet away. But it won't remain this quiet and relaxing forever. On Saturday, the U.S gets to play on the main stage. This dress rehearsal went well.
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