The Sochi Olympics: 1 year later (3 part Series) Part 3 of 3
As February mark the one year anniversary of the Sochi Olympics, please enjoy this 3 part series written by NHL Referee Mike Leggo of his recollection and experience of being selected to work the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Follow Mike for an inside look at his two weeks journey of the Olympic Experience.
The NHLOA would like to thank Mike for his time to write this article.
Article edited by Amy Watson.
Part 3 of 3
CHAPTER IN HOCKEY RIVALRY, FAMOUS SILVER RUBLE, RUSSIAN BIG MAC, SOCHI THE CITY & SAYING GOODBYE.
The Great Russia/USA Hockey Rivalry
The Olympics, on top of everything else, also serves golden opportunity for the NHL to see international prospects at work in a high-pressure situation. Every official we worked with was as dedicated and committed as any official on the NHL staff. We were as eager to learn about their experiences as they were to hear about ours. Many of them had participated in NHL training camps as invitees and many had worked with NHL officials in international pre-season games in Europe. Among the group was Marcus Vinnerborg, a Swedish official who also spent a season as a teammate of ours on the NHL officiating staff. He was a true groundbreaker coming to the NHL after success in the Swedish elite league and international tournaments. He took a big chance coming to the NHL. He fit in well with the group during the time he worked with us. I think everyone that got to meet him was cheering for him and admired his determination and commitment. After his time with the NHL, he returned to Sweden and continues his stellar career. It was really good to see him again.
Marcus was inadvertently part of one of the big stories in Sochi, along with NHL referee Brad Meier. They worked the USA/Russia game that ended in the unforgettable shootout featuring T.J. Oshie. I also played a small supporting role in the game. Lonnie Cameron and I were assigned as the standby officials for the game. We were in the dressing room, riding stationary bikes and stretching as we watched the game on the in-house television feed. Russia scored a goal and the in-house television feed showed a replay from the side where the net was clearly dislodged by Jonathan Quick before the puck went in. This is a good goal in the NHL; but under IIHL rules, it’s not a legal goal. Both Lonnie and I looked at each other and said, "No goal. Uh oh."
We could feel the Bolshoy Ice Dome shaking even from our room under the stands. We could hear the roar of the crowd and looked at each other again and knew there was a major issue brewing. Instinctively, we went into on-ice game mode making sure we had the call. We were ready to go out to the box just outside our room to let Brad and Marcus know. Marcus was being called on the headset in the penalty box. We knew the video review had the call, so we waited with the rest of the world for the news we knew was coming. We looked at each other again and said, "Holy sh..!"
In the Olympics, there is no microphone to explain a ruling to the crowd or television audience, the video replay on the scoreboard did not show any angle with the net off its moorings. Nobody in the arena had the faintest idea why the goal was waved off unless they saw it first hand. The crowd was incensed and confused. Another chapter had just been added to the story of the US vs. Russia at the Olympics. And there was more to come.
The game got more intense as it neared that end and a shootout became imminent. I started to look for a coin for the potential coin flip. Most Russian currency is paper and we carried no change. We asked Albert, our Russian host if he had one. He did not. As the game ended, he raced down the hall to the reception desk and came back with a silver Russian ruble. I rushed out to the penalty box and called Brad Meier over, who had a rather perplexed look on his face as to why I was there. I gave him the coin for the toss to determine shootout order. He gave me a quick smile and returned to the huddle at the goal crease. Like everyone else in the building, he was in the zone. The shootout ensued and the USA won the game. T.J. Oshie was the hero and another episode in this historic hockey rivalry became hockey folklore.
Now, the rest of the story. I told Albert before the shootout started that I would give back the coin and he should keep it as a souvenir. He was genuinely thrilled and said it would be one of the most famous coins in Russia and a piece of history. I thought he meant only if they won, but he genuinely meant it. As I explained earlier, hockey is a huge part of Russian culture. For the next few days I saw Albert and knew he wanted to ask me about my promise of the coin, I wanted to keep him in suspense for a while because he was now part of our group and it was part of the informal initiation. He never did ask about it and I kept teasing him that I would only give it to him if he used it to impress girls back at school in his hometown of Ufa. I finally gave it to him after the bronze medal game and he was definitely appreciative; I held up my end of the bargain, I’m sure he held up his part.
The immediate aftermath and the days that followed the controversial game were filled with misguided backlash. Brad was singled out as part of the conspiracy to deny Russia gold. Truth be told, the referees only relayed the information about the call to the teams and players; they did not make the decision. However, the die was cast and the Russian alternative media picked up on Brad's dual citizenship and the horse was out of the barn. We collectively laughed it off, but we weren't in Brad’s shoes. His major concern was that his family would be worried about his safety. They were. Although we never felt unsafe or not secure, we did notice an increased presence of serious looking men in dark suits and earpieces hanging around our hotel after that. If anything, their presence enhanced our sense of security inside the perimeter. Being the bunch of juveniles that we are, however, we could not pass up the opportunity to tease Brad and Marcus that the KGB was looking for them.
Sochi - The City
A group of us traveled into Sochi to explore the city. After a 30-minute train ride from Olympic Park, we arrived at the downtown train station and walked along the busy city streets to the harbor and beach area where the cruise ships (doubling as hotels) were docked and a mini-Olympic festival was set up. The hosts did a good job of presenting the better side of their city to the world, but we also discovered a great bit of trickery. Some buildings looked great from a distance, but upon closer inspection, we noticed various optical illusions were being employed. Some run-down buildings had huge drapes hung across their façades to make them appear as if they were newly renovated. Large screens with pastoral scenes covered dingy alleys along the train route. Appearance is everything.
The festival pretty much replicated what was going on at the Olympic Park, so we did not spend much time there. We found ourselves migrating to the harbor area. Sochi seemed to be a typical medium-sized resort city with a business area surrounded by a few apartments and luxury hotel high rises. A long stretch of shops and restaurants faced the beach and were bordered by a cement walkway from the harbor, protected by a rock wall. The shops and restaurants were a mix of high-end places and tacky souvenir shops, selling the same things mixed in with a few surprises. There was a shop were you could soak your feet in a tub of tiny biting fish who ate away the dead skin on feet and ankles. Despite my offer to pay for treatment, no one took me up.
We wandered around the area and found a McDonald’s where we had to try the Russian version of a burger and fries (the burger tasted similar but the fries tasted exactly the same) and headed back to the station via a different route. The city and Olympic Committee did a good job posting signage to ensure no one got lost between the train/bus stations and the beach/harbor area. We found our way back without too much difficulty, passing through a couple of shopping areas and the bustling downtown core. We had to go through our customary security check at the train station. After a brief wait in line, we were back on the train heading “home” to the Bogatyr.
The train line followed along the coast and passed numerous half-complete concrete piers and jetties reaching out into the Black Sea. Someone commented that it looked like they started to build the pier, decided it was too hard halfway through and moved the entire project a hundred meters away down the beach, only to stop again and move on. We also noticed a number of fishing boats off the coast. On closer inspection, we saw they were actually navy ships on patrol. Intentionally or not, they sure looked like simple fishing boats from a short distance. As we got closer to Adler and the populated areas close to the tracks, we noticed a couple of carefully concealed sniper-type nests and military outposts cleverly hidden on top of garages and taller buildings. The train line and the area around the Park were under constant surveillance.
The final stop at the train station offered an unobstructed view of the half-complete, monstrous F-1 auto-racing complex on the outer edge of the Park. There is a large boulevard that will serve as pit row between two five-story grandstands. After the Olympics and when only the two large stadiums remain, the miles of concrete will serve as part of a planned F-1 racetrack on the site. I hope it all works out. The citizens of the area deserve a permanent legacy of the Olympics.
We managed to trade some hockey tickets for curling tickets, so off we went see an Olympic curling match. Our front row seats were right above the nearest ice surface. It was an early morning draw and three of the four ice surfaces were being used. We were seated right above the surface the Canadian women were playing on. Fans from different countries waved flags, cheered, blew horns and chanted at various points during the game. For those who are not familiar with curling, there are a lot of tactics and skill involved in the game. Those that love curling are as passionate about their game as hockey lovers are.
The game is perfect for television. We were impressed with the number of cameras whizzing above the ice, giving an overhead view of the action and close ups of the curlers as they swept, brushed and otherwise cajoled the rock to curl to exactly where they wanted. We knew back in Canada millions would be glued to the game, watching the action up close and personal, even though they’re eight – twelve time zones away.
Naturally, we watched the referees not only because we recognized them from the hotel, but also because any curling match I had been to before involved the honor system and not internationally accredited judges. No offence to curling judges everywhere and I would not know how to measure using the big circular geometry piece they use but as far as I could tell, they sit at the back end of the surface, watch the game and then go to the other end, sit down and watch some more until called into action for a measurement. I am sure there is far more to the job.
A Real Russian Sauna
The IIHF hosted a day at a Russian sauna and lunch for the officials on the one day during the tournament that no games were scheduled. We boarded our two minibuses and left the hotel for what promised to be yet another adventure. We were not disappointed. We left Olympic Park, drove through Adler and headed up partially paved roads into the local mountains in search of our retreat. Apparently the minibus driver did not know where he was going, as we doubled back a couple times, did a couple of U-turns, lost sight of the other bus and eventually came to a dead end trying to manoeuver along a small dirt parking area. The driver backed up over the edge of a cliff much to the concern of the guys sitting in the back row. Their view behind us was clear: a steep drop, no earth below the bus and a mound of Russian garbage underneath. At this point someone in the bus said, "Okay, we get it, Marcus and Brad, the KGB is here for you. Let's give them up and let everyone else go." We are a sensitive and compassionate bunch.
After some more tense moments and nervous laughs, we ambled along. After passing some cows sauntering in the middle of the road that the driver quickly passed without concern, we arrived at a beautiful, rustic looking camp nestled next to the river. There were a number of pools of water of various sizes formed by giant rocks and a cascading river just above the camp. It was very reminiscent of the famous Sooke Potholes recreation area near Victoria, British Columbia. It was beautifully serene and a perfect spot for a retreat.
The sauna was a great cultural experience. Our hosts told us that it was a long-standing tradition and very common for Russians to spend a day at a sauna like this or to have one at their dacha, or cottage. It consists of a basic wood-burning sauna built next to a river in which to cool off. There was a small anteroom with a shower and a few tables where you could relax and toast the custom with some genuine Russian vodka. We experienced the sauna “whip," where wheat like stalks are bundled together soaked in hot water and lashed against the body. It was pretty amazing. It looked like a religious self-flagellation exercise, but was very relaxing. After jumping in the cold February mountain water and retreating to the sauna a few times, we were served a traditional lunch of breads, pastry, meats, vegetables and fish. It was very good and the hosts were wonderful. The courses just kept coming and as we ate, we asked the Czech, Belarus and Russian officials what exactly it was we were eating. I didn’t really understand the translation; but whatever it was, it was all tasty and everyone seemed to enjoy the food.
Following lunch we wandered around the area and enjoyed our time together away from the Park high in the mountains. We curiously examined and then used the painted and tiled hole in the ground that served as the toilet. As always, it was an adventure. The biggest challenge was sneaking the souvenir glasses (and a little content) into the security zone and our hotel. After some smuggling tips from our own apparent experts, we got through and did not cause an international incident.
We were scheduled to leave Sochi on NHL charters just after the men’s gold medal hockey game, while the closing ceremonies were taking place. The gold medal game was emotional, exciting and one to remember. The NHL had a large suite and it was full. The IIHF also had an entire couple of rows reserved for officials and administrators. They were great seats and, luckily, we were in the right end as the Canadian team celebrated their win right in front of us.
The NHL had given us iPhones to use in Russia to limit our exposure to potential cyber-crimes and give them the ability to contact us at all times. The game started in early morning in Calgary, where my brother and his friends were at a local watering hole that the government gave exemptions to open at 4 a.m. for the game. It’s Canada, after all. It’s a big deal. I used FaceTime on the phone and gave the whole restaurant in Calgary (Rips) a chance to see the arena and all the fans live during the pre-game skate and intermissions. It was a cool experience for me and hopefully for them, too. Technology is shrinking the world.
Immediately after the game, we scrambled back to the hotel, when I say scrambled I mean it. Since Putin was to be on hand, the place was locked down tighter than the top on a tin of Russian caviar. Our regular route across the plaza was cut off by preparations for the closing ceremonies. Alternative exits were closed and our normal buses could not get from the arena to the hotel. We hoofed it along the perimeter road, which was strangely empty of any traffic at all. Suddenly, we found out why. A caravan of six black Mercedes SUVs barreled by with lights flashing. They drove right into the back entrance of the stadium where the closing ceremonies were to start shortly. Putin had arrived.
We had already packed and sent our luggage to the airport in the morning, so we gathered our carry-on luggage from our rooms and congregated in the lobby bar area. The international officials and officials from other sports were meeting to walk over to the closing ceremonies, as the NHL crew collected our stuff and headed to the airport. After they all left, as we waited, we pooled our leftover rubles (How many rubles can you take home as souvenirs anyway?) and purchased some cold beverages. We left the rest as a large tip for our newfound friend/ bartender/waiter/host extraordinaire, Anatoly. I don’t remember how much it was but he was very, very happy to receive the tip. We were happy that he was so happy. The buses finally came and we loaded them for the one-mile trip to the airport. The area, however, was locked down for the closing ceremonies. We could see the exits, but they would not let us out.
We backtracked and doubled back for about an hour (or so it seemed) before they finally found a way to let us out. We were the only ones leaving at that time. Apparently, somebody forgot to tell security our departure time. We finally made it out of the Park and to the airport. We had a last little bit of cheer before we entered the temporary airport facility. Then, we were off, heading back to North America and the last weeks of the NHL regular season.
The plane on the way back was full, mostly with media members, Team Finland, some players from other teams, the NHL and NHLPA management and staff. I sat across from Teemu Selanne and his wife. It was great to sit and talk casually about life, family, our jobs and his experience. All the Finnish players were very worn out after a great tournament and a long celebration from their bronze medal victory the night before. Most slept after we ate and so did most of the officials and media members.
After a 12-hour flight we landed in Newark about 6 a.m. and waited another three hours for a connection and a five-hour hour flight to Los Angeles. It was a long day, a long two weeks away from family, but well worth it. I would do it again in a minute. Perhaps in Pyongyang, South Korea, host of the 2018 Winter Olympics? Now, that would be something!
We hope you enjoyed this little “behind the scenes” series about Sochi and would like to thank Mike Leggo for taking some precious time to put this series together! Well done Mike!