SOCHI, Russia – For most athletes, reporters and fans, there are not many perfect things in the way of accommodations at the Olympic Games. You make good with the amenities given, and the tradeoff is being part of a world sporting spectacle to which only a select, privileged group can relate..
But it seemed pretty clear that one perfect, true thing had been seized from me at 6 a.m. Sochi time Saturday morning.
The Soviet-hockey themed bar on the ground floor of my hotel – which isn’t really a hotel but more of a college dorm, with duplicate buildings slotted in rows – had apparently been dismantled and taken down.
Worse, my new friend Sasha (Alexander Pankratov, but everyone here named Alex is “Sasha”) behind the bar was gone. So was his business partner, Vlad, who Sasha says is more “gloomy” than he is because he likes soccer more than hockey. These guys are real Russian men, in Eurofit “Russia Hockey” T-shirts, who made me feel accepted in their home country; most of the female inhabitants of Building 1 had crushes on them.
“You know Sasha?” a fair-haired, young woman colleague asked me Tuesday. “What’s he like? Is he married?”
If Juan Pablo of “The Bachelor” fame was from Vladivostok instead of Venezuela, he would be Sasha.
As I entered from the back door Saturday morning, in their place was an unfriendly bald man on a cell phone, sitting on the very couch Sasha slept on with his coat covering him the other night because he had to open early and did not go home.
I had brought Sasha fresh scrambled eggs and sausages and croissants from the breakfast spread after Liz Clarke and I had returned to the hotel by bus from the Main Press Center at 5:30 a.m. (I often eat breakfast before I go to bed here because it’s not the picked-over cabbage, fried chicken livers and curds with spinach you get at 11:30 a.m. I’m not kidding; that’s breakfast here if you don’t eat by 9.)
So imagine the shock when the one thing that made you feel at home 6,000 miles away — the one person you felt a genuine connection with – had vanished, in an instant.
So had the pictures of the famed KLM line of Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Markarov, the signed sticks and pucks fastened to the white walls – a small but affecting homage to Russian hockey history that removed the antiseptic, vacant feel of the place. And the signed jerseys and grainy black-and-white photos of Vladislav Tretiak, the great Soviet goalie who lit the torch at the Opening Ceremonies. Kharlamov, Fetisov — all the great players who ticked the rest of the hockey world off between 1956 and 1992, when either the Soviets or the Unified Team won 8 of 11 Olympic gold medals. All of that memorabilia had been taken in the middle of the night.
I felt guilty. Maybe Dave Sheinin and I should have tried harder to bring them business. Maybe instead of karaokeing till our diaphragms collapsed at the wine bar in the middle of the complex, we should have moved the party to Sasha and Vlad’s. To hell with the karaoke guy; he charged us 200 rubles a song to make him popular.
No number from Sasha. No note from Vlad. Would I ever see my friends again?
I put the plate of food down on the bar, in disbelief this was the same place I had shared draft beer and wine with friends less than 24 hours before. Why wouldn’t they tell me they hadn’t done well enough financially to stick around?
I’m not embellishing when I say Sasha and I had some deep conversations. Even the small talk was good. When I asked what Russians really thought about Alex Ovechkin, Sasha originally told me he liked Evgeny Malkin better because of his playmaking abilities. Then the next day, he showed me his composition book. He said he hadn’t fully explained himself and, in English, wrote three pages of how he really loves Ovechkin but is hurt because he believes Malkin should get the same kind of love and attention from the Russian people for what he does as a player. It was really thoughtful stuff.
One of my favorite encounters is when I asked Sasha, who was not born until 1981, how Russians refer to the “Miracle on Ice.”
“The translation?” he asked.
“Chudo na I’du,” he said.
“Miracle on Ice. It’s the same thing.”
Wait, you guys actually call it that too?
“Yes, of course.”
How international, I thought, a Russian hockey zealot, who has spent his hard-earned money to attend both Russian games thus far in the Olympic tournament, appreciates the momentous occasion 34 years ago.
But the following day, Sasha stopped me on the way to the elevator to my room.
“Michael, I have to tell you something. The translation I give you is wrong.”
“I said, ‘Chudo na I’du.’ This is not right. It is actually, ‘Pozor chuda na I’du.’”
“Which means what?”
“Shame of the Miracle on Ice.”
This made me laugh.
When Jerry Sullivan of the Buffalo News tried to cushion the blow by saying how many of those players on the American team ended up having pretty good NHL careers, Sasha scoffed.
“These players were college students for America. No, it was shame.”
Wild, I thought, how a kid born after 1980 would still have that game so embedded in his DNA.
Anyhow, I watched him sober up a terribly inebriated man wearing an Ovechkin jersey after Russia beat Slovenia in their first game. Sasha and Vlad refused to let the man leave until he drank enough water and passed their own unofficial sobriety test.
Good men, both of them. And I would never see them again.
“Where is Sasha?” I asked the bald unfriendly man, who would not get off his cell phone. “What happened to the bar?”
He spoke no English. He went back to his cellphone. He didn’t care.
Did he do it? Was he responsible for shutting down my only place of community outside of co-workers? Money-grubbing slob, I bet it was him.
After a while of looking at the empty walls where the photos and jerseys were, after looking behind the bar where Sasha and Vlad warmed up chicken sandwiches and served me salmon soup at 2 a.m. , I left the plate of food for the bald, unfriendly man, motioning for him to eat after he got off the phone.
I walked to the elevator a dejected soul, half-wanting to wake up Sheinin and tell him the depressing news. Because both of us have been writing about hockey here, part of me felt it was karma we ended up with that bar in our lobby.
But the elevator door was so damn slow — much slower than I remember — I just pushed “5” and began ascending.
“Pyatyy etazh [Fifth Floor] “came the computerized Russian voice as the doors opened. I had been walking around saying “Yaki Tash” for a week not having any idea what she was saying until I just looked it up on the Internet.
Anyhow, I walked a few steps to my room – and now my key wouldn’t even work. What the hell is going on? And my room on the fifth floor is no longer even the same number. It’s like I was in a time warp or something.
Wait.Could it be?
Is it possible?
Damn the “Yaki Tash” and the molasses-slow elevator.
I began running down the steps. The unfriendly bald guy was now behind the counter, grabbing a fork to eat the food I had brought for my friends.
“This isn’t for you,” I said, walking out the front door, moving as fast as I could with a plate of eggs and sausages and croissants toward the next building.
Eleven seconds left to the front door. Ten. The countdown is going on right now. Five…. Do you believe in Misguided Sports Writers Who Eventually Find Their Way Home?! Yes!!!
“Hello,” Vlad said, wiping his eyes, wondering why I was shouting at 6:15 a.m.
“Vlad, you’renotgoingtobelievethis. IthoughtyouandSashaweregone. Ithoughtthebarwasgone. Ithought…”
“You get the wrong building?” he said.
“Yes! I got the wrong building! How great is that? All these damn buildings look alike and I went into No. 3 instead of 1, through the back door. And I….”
Now Vlad was laughing. He said Sasha would be back later. I gave Vlad the plate of food, which he was excited about.
I went upstairs to bed. And slept like a baby in a tiny twin bed, five floors up from my friends and the best little hockey bar in Russia no one knows about.
When I ran into Sasha the next day, Vlad had told him the story.
“You thought we was all gone? You was sad — like baby?”
“Nah. Me? Come on.
“What time you going over to the Russia-USA game today?”