SOCHI, Russia — It was 1:20 p.m. Tuesday when, through a side door to the Main Press Center’s vast Pushkin Hall, the red-and-white parade of Russia’s hockey team commenced.
Though they were 20 minutes late for a 1 p.m. news conference, and though the people who filled the aisles and most of the 465 seats ostensibly were journalists, the sighting triggered an excited eruption of cheers and flashes.
Two young, blond Russian women were so moved by this up-close glimpse that they leapt to their feet, squealed, embraced and hopped like snow bunnies.
The 25 players, most of them unshaven and weary from their recent journeys, looked unusually stern as they climbed onto the stage and searched for name cards and seats along the carrier deck-sized dais.
All the while, the applause continued.
No athletes at these Sochi Games will be scrutinized more thoroughly or adored more intently. Like their Canadian hockey counterparts at Vancouver four years ago, they are the home team, the national heroes expected to vanquish a world that, for these 2014 Winter Olympics, has breached their nation’s walls.
“Yes, there is pressure,” said Russian hockey legend Vladislav Tretiak, president of the Russian Hockey Federation. “Just look at how many of you there are here.”
The moderator did not bother to introduce the team or set any ground rules. And when he asked for questions, a forest of arms sprouted.
The first query set the tone. A Russian-to-English interpreter, one of seven available for the event, repeated it.
“I would like to ask Alex Ovechkin, what are you planning to do on Feb. 23?”
Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals star, looked momentarily baffled.
“No idea,” he mumbled in English.
“In Russian, please!” came a passionate cry from the audience.
That gave Ovechkin time to recover.
“Of course I hope to play in the Olympic finals that day,” he said in his native tongue, “and bring my country a gold medal.”
When questions were posed to Tretiak, the great goalie on those Soviet teams that ruled the world in the 1970s and 1980s, he was always addressed as “Mr. Tretiak.”
He had a knowing smile on his face as an American journalist rose and prepared to ask him a question. Tretiak knew it would be about a long-ago game in a little American village, one that haunts him still.
Russians remember 1980 and the stunning Olympic loss to the young Americans at Lake Placid the way Philadelphians of a certain age recall 1964. It’s a hurt so deep it never really disappears.
Just Monday night, in fact, when Dmitry Chernyshenko, the head of the Sochi Organizing Committee, was addressing a group of visiting dignitaries, he referenced that game.
“As a child, there were three horror films that I knew from the West,” he told the audience. “One was ‘Nightmare on Elm Street.’ The second was ‘Friday the 13th.’ And the third one was ‘Miracle on Ice.’ “
Asked now, by an American no less, how long it took him to recover from that famous defeat, Tretiak, his head so imposing it appeared to have been hewn from marble, paused. As he did, you could hear the agitated murmurs of the mostly Russian audience.
“If you remember,” Tretiak finally responded, “in 1984 we rectified our mistake.”
The room shook with applause and enthusiastic shouts.
“It was a miracle,” Tretiak said when he was able to continue. “We did not have respect (for our opponent) at that time. So 1980 was a good lesson for us.”
But, as was obvious Tuesday, 34 years later, a terribly painful one too.
Russian hockey clearly has some scores to settle with North America.
Coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov’s team would love nothing better than to thump the Americans, its main Group A rival and Saturday’s opponent, then take the gold medal from Canada.
Should they fail at either, however, the weaponry of the Russian media, most of which is assembled here in the battle-scarred Caucasus, would volley and thunder. And Sochi would be recalled as a new valley of death.
“A loss would be a big blow,” said Ovechkin. “The host always has the most pressure. It was the same in Canada four years ago.”
When Canada beat the U.S. in that riveting gold-medal game Feb. 28, 2010, tens of thousands of gleeful Canadians partied at the Vancouver intersection of Robson and Granville Streets.
All around this super-sized country, Russians want a celebration of their own.
After 20 minutes and a dozen or so questions whose responses seemed either to have been lost in translation or purposely bland, the Russians arose and once again marched through the side door.
No one-on-one interviews. No photos. No good-luck handshakes. No small talk.
Just a rapid retreat to prepare for the great patriotic wars ahead.
Theirs not to make reply. Theirs not to reason why. Theirs but to do or die.