SOCHI, Russia — There was no joy in Sochi. Mighty Russia had struck out.
Russian flags drooped. Tears smudged Russian-flag face paint. Arms dressed in white-blue-and-red jerseys flew into the air in exasperation and disbelief.
It was the bummer on ice. Finland 3, Russia 1. The stunning loss on home ice in the quarterfinals was the ultimate letdown for a fandom and a country that equate Olympic hockey success with national pride.
“To win a gold medal in Olympic hockey for Russia,” said Danil Motrenko, who came to Sochi from the southern Russian city Rostov-on-Don, “it’s like winning a war.”
Such are the expectations the Russian team faced.
Take Fan No. 1, President Vladimir Putin, who called this team the best in the Olympics. Pressure? Members of the 1980 Olympic team that was stunned by the Americans at Lake Placid wrote an open letter to today’s team.
“The entire country will be watching you,” it read. “Don’t let Russia down.”
And for ardent Russian hockey fans who traveled from frigid and far-flung lands to the Black Sea with one thing on their minds — hockey gold — the fact that there would be no medal, just as in Vancouver, was a death knell for the Sochi Games.
“The Olympics are over for me,” said Alexander Shevtsov, who traveled thousands of miles from the distant Siberian region of Yakutia to witness the defeat.
These are hard times for the Russians, who also lost to the United States in a shootout earlier in the tournament. The last time the Russians won Olympic gold was in 1992, when they played with members of other former Soviet Republics as the Unified Team. The last time the Russians had a national team with a national name was that Soviet team that won in 1988, the sixth gold in seven Games (eight overall) for what was then known as the Big Red Machine, in the midst of a run of dominance interrupted only by a certain upset in 1980.
Speaking of the American team, no one here truly accepted that Russia lost that earlier game to its archrival, a controversial defeat that not only resulted in the US winning Group A and receiving a bye into the quarterfinals, but set the Russians on a course that would match the home team with the tough Finns.
Against the US, the Russians appeared to have scored the go-ahead goal with less than five minutes to play, but the referee — after a video review — waved off the goal, ruling the net had become dislodged.
It wasn’t only the fans who felt the Americans had stolen one. Putin complained that the goal should have been allowed. Anchorman Dmitry Kiselyov of Russian state-owned television suggested the disallowed goal was part of the multimillion-dollar deal NBC made to secure broadcasting rights.
For all Russian hockey fans, the very idea that Americans could come into Russia’s house and win was a slap in the face to a nation that remembers Soviet hockey dominance even if they never saw it.
“Once upon a time, everyone feared us,” said Pavel Zuyev, who wore a white-blue-and-red fur hat with a Soviet Army badge. “I want them to fear us again.”
Clearly, Russian hockey is not just another Olympic sport. And for some fans, one gold medal in hockey is worth the rest of the whole Olympic haul.
“There is Olympic hockey, and there is the rest of the Olympics,” said Dmitry Shashkov, of Moscow, one of a group of four decked out in Russia jerseys, shoulders draped in Russian flags, with hats and tiny Russian banners protruding from tiaras. “Hockey is the one that matters most.”
That was before the game, when fans congregating outside the Bolshoy Ice Dome were smiling and cheering “Rossiya, Rossiya.”
Tickets were tough to get, so a large crowd watched the game on three giant screens over the stage where the medal ceremonies are held.
After Finland took at 2-1 lead, the play-by-play announcer took it personally.
“You know, I’m not a professional sportsman, I don’t earn money that way, but you just can’t let that happen,” he intoned. The crowd groaned in agreement.
Over at the Russian House of the Fans at Olympic Park, a standing-room-only crowd cheered and sighed with every close call and every missed shot. And shouted, “Rossiya, Rossiya.”
Kristina Vyrostkova, who had come to Sochi from Krasnodar, the regional capitalwas convinced the Russian team would overcome the 3-1 deficit as the third period began.
“Hockey,” she breathed, “is the best.”
But when time ran out and the stunned crowd started to file out of the House of the Fans, Vyrostkova stood in shock. She turned away. She spread her Russian flag out like wings.
She no longer had anything to say.