You get up and you go to work; a day like any other day. But when you get to the office/shop/building, you discover that the front door isn’t there, but there. Inside, the atrium has moved, the light is different – more yellow and ghostly, perhaps – and the plants have all died. The elevator is now a set of long stairs, which lead to nowhere. After a while, you find a stranger and you ask them how to get where you’re going, but the stranger speaks a language you don’t understand. You repeat yourself and she grunts, throwing out an arm pointing this way, that way, this way.
You go this way, that way, this way until you find your office/shop/building, but when you do, it’s a place you haven’t been before. Your chair is taller, stiffer and the windows are dark-curtained. There are strange numbers on the phone – it’s a rotary phone – and the air smells weird. You go to the window and part the dark curtain, and it’s neither Calgary nor Halifax nor Oakville. It’s someplace else. You think it might be Russia.
This is, more or less, how it feels for visiting athletes at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and this is how it feels for Team Canada. While it’s true that lots of the hockey players have competed abroad, it’s been years since their lives – and their routines – have had to change: breakfast at 8, skate at 10, lunch at 1, nap at 3, rink at 5:30, maybe a little different, but mostly the same, for road trips. It’s hard for most of us to imagine what Team Canada will go through over the next 10 days, although unorthodox race-day drug tests for Canadian figure skaters and the American bobsledders getting trapped, first, in a bathroom, and then, in an elevator, may portend. Still, think of yourself doing what you do while hanging upside down in a dark room with strangers watching you do it. Then do it better than you’ve ever done. This is what is required of Team Canada 2014.
I watched an Australian feed for the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi Olympics (I’m funny that way). When Vladislav Tretiak came jogging past a greeting line of men and women dressed like Hunger Games rejects, the broadcaster, reading from a script, identified the old goaltender (and member of Putin’s senate, the Duma), telling us, “Tretiak was voted the greatest hockey player of the 20th Century,” which, of course, is not true. Perhaps he was named the greatest Russian, and maybe even the greatest goaltender, but no vote – at least not one that included Canadians or North Americans – would have ever yielded this result. Gretzky, okay. Orr, sure. I might even try and sway you into the Glenn Hall camp, but space and our focus of subject prevents me.
This script – composed by the host Russians – shows us that Team Canada has arrived in the proudest, and greatest hockey nation outside – or perhaps not outside – of Canada. From a distance, it’s hard to gauge the pressure of the tournament’s environment, but the Russians – however cordial and welcoming in their capacities as hosts – are deeply passionate about wresting game supremacy from the rest of the world. Their legacy – evinced in having a hockey player light the Olympic flame – is as storied as ours, if less dense, and whereas the teams of ‘72 and ‘74 played to muted crowds of privileged party wonks, Team Canada will be skating in front of roaring fans in a cold cauldron against players who grew up playing for teams coached by Russian stars.
The first time I was ever in the Dynamo complex outside of Moscow, Andrei Markov proudly introduced us to Alexander Maltsev, who stood in front of a wall decorated with photos of star players from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. In the Vancouver Olympics final, Gordie Howe looked down from the stands, conjuring hockey kharma about the rink. The same may prove true at the Bolshoy in Sochi. Only this time: Yakushev, Mikhailov, Fetisov, Larionov. The very forces that propelled Canada may well propel their longstanding rivals.
Team Canada arrived today by coach. It was almost disarming to see them on the pavement in front of the bus, searching their own bags out of the bay, gathering in small groups and waiting for instructions. A lot has been made about the differences between then and now – between the missing steaks and weird colas and strange chicken and troubling phone calls in the middle of the night that affected the players from ’72: Esposito, Henderson and Ken Dryden, who has suggested that the chicken may have been blackbird; the steaks stolen and fed to Politburo. But the similarities are also there: one proud country battling another, with lots of other great teams in between. Still, in 1972 Henderson went and got it, and, in 2014, someone else will have to go and get it, too.