SOCHI, Russia -- The victorious Finnish coach fielded two questions. The losing Russian coach took 16.
Barely had the loud and ad-heavy hope of 143 million people across 10.6 million square miles gone swirling down the drain, barely had the speakers in the Bolshoy Ice Dome finished playing Avicii's "Wake Me Up (When It's All Over)" as the Russian stars filed out for good, barely had gritty-gooey Finland throttled our hosts 3-1 in their most cherished pursuit of ice hockey, when there began something momentous.
There began a second phase.
There began a second phase that could make you wish you could wake up tomorrow suddenly, inexplicably fluent in Russian.
There began the aftermath.
Where's the interpreter?
The first question went to the Russian coach. The second question went to the Russian coach. The third went to the Russian coach, as did the fourth, and then the fifth, but also the sixth, and indeed the seventh and for sure the eighth. Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, the man you'd least like to be around 7 p.m. Sochi time on Wednesday, did handle all with calm aplomb.
All along, Finland coach Erkka Westerlund sat to Bilyaletdinov's left, absorbing the interpreted spectacle through his earphones. After a while, he began to seem as if a press conference hood ornament, maybe an attaché of some sort, perhaps a stray interpreter or the well-dressed borscht chef from the press-room kitchen. Excuse me, Sir, but what's your role here?
It told all. It certainly told of the country in which we sat just in case all the English-language music had made us forget. It told that the central theme of the entire Sochi games had veered off an early exit ramp marked "quarterfinal" and long presumed passable. When Vladimir Putin won these Games for Sochi in July 2007, he did not say, "Our Games will show a young and vibrant Russia, as well as a Finland-Sweden hockey semifinal of high caliber."
For the third time in the last 20 years, the accomplished little next-door neighbor with its 5.2 million people and its land slightly smaller than Montana had derailed the giant bear with its 143 million people and land almost twice that of the United States (counting Alaska). For the first time in the last 20 years, that twist had taken place in Russia. When question time began, question time figured to last longer than the 18 questions in the room, longer than the six days Russia participated in its hockey Olympics, but not necessarily longer than The Brothers Karamazov.
It brought a test of the Russian free-expression system some 23 years after Soviet breakup. Could this bold new nation match the Brits? In 2007 at Wembley, Croatia dismissed England from Euro 2008 qualifying, and the first question to manager Steve McClaren went thusly: "Have you resigned yet?"
It took the Russian media two questions to get to the far more polite, "Will you stay?"
Nobody beats the Brits.
"I want to stay," Bilyaletdinov said, "but that is probably a question to be answered by someone else."
Two Russian questions demanded further press conferences and wondered if this Russian team would stand up for those. (They're leaving Thursday, so it's not the way to bet.) Three concerned lineup matters. (One wondered why Bilyaletdinov had not separated Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin and their four combined NHL Hart trophies onto different lines, after each scored once all Sochi: Ovechkin 77 seconds into the Olympics, and Malkin 157 seconds after that.) One sought a message to the 12,000 who went silent in the arena and the millions who had watched on TV. ("I can only say words of apology," Bilyaletdinov said.)
The bronze medal went to the Russian question about whether Bilyaletdinov would stay in Sochi for the remainder of the tournament. The silver went to the one that included, "How guilty are you feeling?" The gold went to the one that, according to the interpreter, utilized the Russian word for "catastrophe."
"Let's not play word games; I said it was unsuccessful," Bilyaletdinov said for the bronze-medal answer to the "catastrophe" question. For the silver, he said, "Everyone understands the Olympic Games are paid a lot of attention and they (players) wanted to play. Well, something happened. Something didn't work out. They tried the best, I think. I can't say anything bad about them." For the gold, and it's a runaway gold, a Dutch speed skating kind of gold, he answered the remain-in-Sochi question.
"No," he said. "I'd rather leave."
What theatre in the homeland that won eight of the 10 gold medals between 1956 and 1992, constructing a heap of national expectations, but has won only one silver and one bronze since, constructing a heap of national lamentations. What theatre after a match that contained little, with its goalless closing 34 minutes, and during which, after two periods, a young Russian volunteer said of Russian players and victory: "It's their obligation."
What strangeness, then, a third period in which the painted-up and flagged-up Russian fans kept attaining fresh levels of silence, sitting through long stretches as if at the symphony. Said Russian captain Pavel Datsyuk, talking of Finnish goalie Tuukka Rask, "He's a good goalie, but we make it them easy; we did not make enough traffic on net." Said Kimmo Timonen of the Philadelphia Flyers and Finland, "Maybe in the third period, I felt like when there was, you know, a (Russian) power play, with maybe 14 minutes left (correct), and it wasn't really good, I could feel, they started hitting people behind and playing hard and that's not their style. Then I felt like if we could keep the score like this, obviously we're going to win."
Drearily the last vestiges of seven years of hope ticked by. With 2:54 left, Ovechkin had a lazy pass intercepted. With 2:04 remaining, Russia committed icing. With 1:55 remaining, Russia committed icing again for a nine-second icing exacta. With one minute left, a sole throat in the stands belted out the three-syllable "RUSS-I-A" chat so familiar in Russia's brief stay. With 28 seconds left, Ovechkin slapped one from out front that met immediate blockage. With nine seconds left, Ilya Kovalchuk of the club SKA St. Petersburg took a hopeless whack that never reached Rask, then just stopped and stood, motionless as the dregs of dream drained.
Jeers came, but sullenness ruled. Everybody filed out reticently. "Wake Me Up" played. As the forecast called for days of questions in barrage, 43-year-old Teemu Selanne hugged various Finnish teammates from a roster with 14 NHL players to Russia's 16, from a country with -- get this -- more medals (four) than any other in the past five Olympics.
Nobody much cared for that detail in this so-called upset. Everybody knew this Olympics is in Russia. And on the ninth question, Westerlund answered, "I am very proud of Team Finland and the players, they play as a team very good and of course hockey is big sport in Finland, so it's very important for us, success."