SOCHI, Russia – I can report, unequivocally, that Washington Capitals and Team Russia star Alex Ovechkin either did or did not arrive in Sochi on Monday morning, on a charter airplane full of NHL players reporting for duty at the 2014 Sochi Games.
And I saw a broad-shouldered guy with red sneakers – couldn’t get close enough to look for the telltale gap-toothed smile – come out with the first group of players, who were whisked into a waiting van and promptly driven away. Many among the horde of several hundred journalists there to document the moment, such as it was, shouted, “Sasha! Sasha!” – Ovechkin’s Russian nickname – at this figure.
So, I guess it was him. But honestly, from a distance of perhaps 50 meters, from behind the barricades erected to keep the media away from the players, with furry-hatted Cossacks and other random police officers blocking my view, and with ill-tempered Russian cameramen – what a relief to know this disposition transcends nationalities and cultures – hip-checking me any time I made a move to get closer to the railing, I couldn’t be entirely sure it was him.
“It was Ovechkin,” one Russian journalist told me.
So there you have it – confirmation! I couldn’t see very well, I said, because of the Cossack standing in front of me.
“Ah, yes,” scoffed another Russian journalist, Slava Malamud, a U.S.-based correspondent for Sport-Express, at the mention of the Cossacks. “Our equivalent of your Civil War reenactors.”
After taking a pair of buses from my hotel, I had arrived at the airport shortly after 8:30 a.m. and spent most of the next hour wandering aimlessly, looking for help and using the only Russian word in my vocabulary that seemed to be of any use to me at the moment: “Ovechkin?” At this, without fail, eyes would light up and a finger would arise, pointing me in a new direction.
At Terminal B, helpful Sochi 2014 volunteers told me to try Terminal C. At Terminal C, they told me to try the VIP Terminal – where, amazingly, I was allowed to enter. But it was the wrong place. “Ovechkin?” I asked the helpful people there. They pointed back to Terminal C.
I was just about ready to give up when I linked up with a Canadian TV crew from Rogers Sportsnet, which was also trying to find the plane and whose members had just gotten some inside info.
After two more false leads – one of which took us to a holding pen for limo drivers, who were standing around smoking cigarettes as they awaited their day’s fares — we spotted the scene: a horde of several hundred journalists, held back by barricades and Cossacks, gathered around “Terminal D.” We staggered to the back of the pack, careful to avoid the ill-tempered cameramen, and squinted into the bright sunshine, just in time to see the first players emerge – including the one I believe to be Ovechkin.
By piecing together bits of information from the better-connected among the Russian hockey media (generally distinguished by their red Team Russia jackets that are the same as the ones worn by team officials), I can report that Ovechkin and the eight other Russian players on board – including fellow superstars Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk – were greeted as they deplaned by Vladislav Tretiak, the famed ex-goalie from the great Red Machine teams of the Soviet era and now the president of Russia’s national team.
After a quick pass through customs and Olympic accreditation, the Russian party was put on a waiting van, while everyone else – including players, coaches and team officials from other countries, plus players’ families – were herded onto buses. I could make out Nicklas Backstrom (Capitals/Team Sweden) and Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins/Team Canada) among the pack. Also exiting toward the end was Maria Kirilenko, the Russian tennis star and Ovechkin’s fiancée.
“Can you come over to speak to us?” Malamud shouted, in Russian, at Kirilenko.
“No, I’m sorry,” she replied, also in Russian. “They won’t let us.”
And then she was gone, and they were all gone, and only the Cossacks were left, glaring icily at us, unmoving — just in case.