SOCHI, Russia — The Beatles — actually, more like only one of them — ran through a short sound check here Sunday afternoon, and predictably there was bedlam everywhere you looked: hordes of journalists jockeying for position, fresh-faced youngsters standing on tippy-toes to get a peek, stern-faced publicists and security officials trying to contain the madness.
Okay, it wasn’t really the Beatles — or even a Beatle. But it was the Russian sports equivalent.
Sunday was the first day of practice for the superstar-laden Russian men’s Olympic hockey team — in preparation for the tournament, which begins Wednesday — and even though just nine of Russia’s 25 players were on hand for it, some 200 journalists and perhaps 100 youthful Olympic volunteers still packed into a dinky little practice rink in between the giant arenas of the Olympic Park to witness and document it.
“The only reason it’s not more,” said Mikhail Zakharov, Team Russia’s beleaguered media manager, “is because our women are playing a game this afternoon.”
This was only the first wave of Russian players to arrive in Sochi, the ones who play domestically in the Kontinental Hockey League. (The bulk of the Russian team — the 16 players who play in the NHL, led by three-time league MVP Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals — was scheduled to arrive Monday.)
But when these nine players arrived at the airport Saturday — from Kazan in the nearby Republic of Tatarstan, where they had been practicing for the past week in seclusion — and went straight to their bus without stopping to talk to the hordes of Russian media that had shown up, the reporters and cameramen surrounded the bus, briefly delaying its departure.
“We weren’t expecting that there would be such a rush of media,” goalkeeper Alexander Yeryomenko said Sunday, through a translator, about the raucous reception. “We’re all shy guys. We haven’t done anything yet to be talking about it.”
The cat-and-mouse game between the Russian team and its breathless media pack is certain to be worth following in the coming days. Earlier Sunday, it was conveyed to the media that players and coaches would not be speaking at all until the start of the tournament. But apparently Olympic organizers got wind of that and made sure Russian officials made team members available. General Manager Alexei Kasatonov informed players at a team meeting Sunday morning that they would, in fact, be expected to speak to the media.
“They told us to have respect for the press and give time to the journalists,” defenseman Evgeny Medvedev said through a translator. “It’s a usual [part of the schedule], like lunch at 14:30.”
Of the Russians’ four highest-profile players — their Beatles, if you will — only left winger Ilya Kovalchuk, formerly of the New Jersey Devils but now of the KHL’s SKA St. Petersburg, was on hand Sunday. The other three — Ovechkin, Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk and Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin — will arrive, along with the NHL’s other Olympians of various nationalities, on charter flights that left from Newark and Atlanta on Sunday.
Those flights were scheduled to land in Sochi by mid-morning Monday, which meant Team Russia officials were working on a tight deadline to come up with a better airport escape-plan than the one that failed miserably Saturday.
Natasha Abbakumova contributed to this report.