The Sochi Olympics: 1 year later (3 part Series) Part 2 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 2 of 3
THE STRAY DOGS, RUSSIAN HOSPITALITY, MEDAL CEREMONY, THE GAMES, CAN I ORDER PLEASE?
Stray Dog Strut
There were a number of stories about the stray dogs in Sochi and, yes, they were prevalent. They were usually hanging out in packs, but they all seemed rather healthy. They did not seem menacing and were, in fact, rather friendly and benign. They hung around the outdoor cafes and restaurants, by the beach and close to the Olympic Park entrance. Only a few were inside the Park itself. They lounged about in the sun outside the gates. Occasionally, someone stopped to play or pet them, but mostly people ignored them, as if they were part of the landscape. If the authorities got rid of all the dogs before the games started as reported, the dogs had a replacement team ready to go because they were out in full force.
Canada, the USA and many other countries had "houses" set up so athletes and their families had a place to hang out and relax. Credentials were needed to get into the houses and our group managed to get some. Similar to the USA House, the Canadian House had Canadian snacks and was showing their national broadcast feed (CBC or NBC) coverage of the events. They gave a little taste of North America far away from home. Each night at Canada House, the medalists from the day before would arrive around 8:30 p.m. and the guests in the house would sing the national anthem and the medalists would speak. It was a stirring and emotional event every time I was present at one of the ceremonies. Everyone wore their national colors with Canada or the USA emblazoned across t-shirts, hats, mittens, scarves, coats and stickers. The atmosphere was similar to that of a championship game with the energy and excitement of the crowd pulsating through the room. Of course, the free food and refreshments helped the cause immensely and added to the boisterous festive atmosphere.
We met many different people at these houses: volunteer workers, parents, athletes, family members and Olympic Committee members. The Houses offered a pleasant and friendly ambiance was truly an Olympic experience. They provided a relaxed setting to socializing with new people. The houses also served as a clearinghouse for people who wanted to either unload tickets or secure tickets to featured events. They were also a great place to mingle with other people from Canada or the United States who travelled a long way from home.
Hosts with the Most
The officials had two Russian hosts that acted as liaisons at the arena and helped us out in the dressing room area ensuring we had water, food, tape, clean laundry, medical supplies, etc. One of our hosts was Oleg, a 26 year old from St Petersburg who has a PhD in Russian history, speaks five languages and moonlights as a professional volleyball referee. Albert was our other host. He is a 21-year-old student from Ufa, studying to be a translator. He speaks Russian, English, and French and is working on his Spanish. During our time spent with them, Oleg and Albert were both generous, friendly and very helpful. They were proud Russians and eager to learn about us and where we came from. Both gentlemen became a part of our group very quickly. They helped make the experience much richer and complete as we were able to connect with people who were as eager to learn about us as we were to learn about them.
They were also in charge of making sure we got on the ice at the right time, which was somewhat of an issue at the start of the tournament. In the NHL, we are on the ice two minutes before the players enter the ice surface. As we are creatures of habit, we assumed the situation would be similar at the Olympics. That was not the case. The Olympics is definitely a made-for-TV event. Everything revolved around timing for the broadcasts. We were requested to leave the dressing room and be at the penalty box at exactly the four-minute mark so the TV cameras could catch us as we walked to the ice surface and entered from the penalty box. We then had to ensure we were standing in front of the penalty box for the customary exchange of pennants and handshake between the captains that precedes every game. We were constantly reminded that every second counts and that timing is everything. Our hosts must have gotten some seriously negative feedback about our timing during the first few games because a sign appeared on our dressing room door stating, "One second late costs the national broadcasters $1 million." The message was received loud and clear. We adjusted our timing as a group out of respect for the wishes (and pocketbooks) of the broadcasters.
One evening, walking back to the hotel after the game, Greg Devorski and I went to the medal ceremony in the Olympic Park. It was for events that took place in the Mountain Cluster, about a 45-minute train ride away from where we were staying, which was called the Coastal Cluster. The top athletes were recognized at a ceremony after their actual events. There, they climbed the traditional three-tiered stanza representing gold, silver and bronze, but were presented only flower bouquets. They received their medals, however, during a medal ceremony that was held at 8:14 p.m. (20:14 on the 24-hour clock) every night at the Olympic Park. The ceremony was conducted in Russian, English and French. It could have been conducted in Martian, for that matter, and no one would have minded. There was no mistaking the joy and excitement of the athletes when they walked onto the stage.
Watching an event like that on television brings out emotion on one level, but seeing it live heightened the emotion and is an unforgettable experience. The athletes bounded onto the stage, each resplendent in their country’s ceremonial outfit, with a smile that I am sure has not dissipated since. Each medalist was over-exuberant and jumped for joy when acknowledged by the crowd, their huge smiles lighting the plaza even brighter than the nearby flame.
When they received their medals most simply stared at them, seemingly trying to comprehend what just happened, enjoying the moment, and not quite sure what to do and how to act. Here, they were at the pinnacle of their sport, emotionally drained, excited, and nervous and alone on a big stage in front of millions of people watching on television. It was a surreal moment for them for sure. It is a unique Olympic tradition that I am glad I was able to see firsthand.
After the athletes received their medals, crisply dressed soldiers, marched out from the back of the crowd to the three flagpoles in the middle. Each soldier was highly disciplined, high stepping, ramrod straight, with each athlete’s flag ready to be raised in their honor. If receiving medals stirred the emotions of the crowd and athletes, the sight of the flag with the national anthem playing elevated the emotional level to truly Olympic proportions. The moment every athlete dreams of was taking place and as if one singular body, the crowd on the plaza stopped and stood in silence respecting this time-honored tradition. It was a truly special Olympic moment. Greg and I were both deeply touched.
Working the games was, as you can, imagine very exciting. The games were played at a very crisp pace. Each team was obvious in their determination and desire. Working my first game, it quickly became apparent that this was not only a celebration of global sports and culture, but also a serious athletic competition and Olympic gold at stake. The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) runs the tournament. Team managers and executives form committees and, along with the NHL and IIHF officiating managers, decide assignments and review each game. For us on the ice, it is just a matter of going out and working and not thinking about nationalities, the size and scope of the Olympic stage or any other outside influences. It was great to work with the other officials from around the world. We all had the same goals in mind and we quickly became a team. We played, ate and worked together as a team and kept each other in check, instinctively knowing which guys to tease and joke with and which teammates to leave on their own. It was like any other officials’ dressing room in any other arena. We bonded and went to work, albeit enjoying every minute in our own personal way.
The coaches were respectful. They concentrated on their team and not us, for the most part. As in any sport, the coaches and players will do what is normal and then conform to a new normal when a standard is set. The only minor issue was that every time a player went down, their team – players, trainers, and coaches- would all yell “HEY” as if it was an immediate penalty. It was starting to bug me, but I did not want to let emotion take over. I let it go for the first period, with the intent of speaking to the bench at the start of the second. In the dressing room between periods, I mentioned it to the crew and the European officials said that is what they do in their leagues. They are not saying it is a penalty all the time, they just habitually all yell “HEY” to make sure the referee sees it. I understood, but was not buying it. I went to the bench at the start of the second. I mentioned that I appreciated the “HEY” to make sure I see a play, but it was far too loud and demonstrative for my liking. The coach acknowledged it and that was the end of the issue. Everyone around the game was very respectful and just wanted to compete.
Tretiak the Legend
Russians are very passionate sport fans and hockey is a major part of everyday Russian life. Television commercials show idyllic scenes of Russians playing hockey on outdoor ponds and rinks. The ads featured their greats, Viacheslav Fetisov, Igor Larionov and Valdislav Tretiak, winning Olympic and World Championship gold. Tretiak is a rock star in Russia. He is a larger-than-life figure and a mountain of a man. He was a very gracious attendee of the Olympics. Everywhere he went, there was a crowd of adoring fans and awestruck celebrities getting pictures shaking his hand and posing with him. He was always generous with his time and smiled, obviously recognizing the responsibility he carries in his role as head of the Russian Hockey Federation. He’s a very accommodating sports icon in a sports-centric nation.
On a day off, I went to the Mountain Cluster with Lonnie Cameron to the alpine events. The train was a brand new commuter-type train, with crisp announcements in Russian and British-accented English. The tracks seemed to follow a river as it climbed up from sea level to the mountain staging area. It was unlike any train ride in North America. It did not follow beside the river, but was over of the river on elevated rails for much of the way. The rail line was patrolled at every crossing and soldiers were stationed every half mile or so along the entire journey. It was as secure as it was new.
The alpine events were staged at different remote, mountain locations reached by separate trams from a central village. The village appeared to be a typical mountain tourist location, with high-end clothing and accessory shops, boutique hotels and the expected souvenir shops. It was ruggedly beautiful like a smaller version of Banff in Canada. The boulder-strewn river separated the train station from the village. Steep mountain slopes were scattered with trams that disappeared over the horizon. There were only a few venues dotting the hills surrounding the village. Most were far into the backcountry. Lonnie and I bought tickets for cross country skiing and rode the long steep tram up the hill, dotted with freshly cut trees and soldiers’ camps. These soldiers appeared to be camped out in different areas along the tram for the entirety of the Games. We then weathered yet another long uphill walk to the stadium area.
It was very exciting to see a live Olympic event out of my normal comfort zone. It took a few minutes to understand the races and locate the best viewing areas. We had a great day watching the skiers whizzing by at speeds I thought possible only in downhill events. The fans were rambunctious, loud and just as passionate and excited as any hockey fan. We met a number of fans from different countries and wandered the area before heading for a snack. I had learned early on that lining up was not how the locals get waited on. Waving a fist full of money over and through the person in front of you was how you do it.
I sat back and watched as a Russian woman slowly elbowed, cajoled and intimidated her way through the crowd to the front area. Then, she ran into an Australian woman who defended her place in line like a Norris trophy winner. She moved left; she moved right; she spread her elbows and turned her knees. She bobbed. She weaved. She was not going to let the Russian lady cut in line. The Aussie finally confronted the Russian and said, "I'm sorry, you are not getting through here, we have all been waiting in line." The Russian woman grunted something, passed beside her, thrust her arm through and over the next person and was quickly served. Home team wins. Seriously, it was the only time I ever saw any type of conflict throughout the Games. Everyone was there to enjoy the experience.
Nothing, however, is simple in Russia. On the way back to the Olympic Park after the event, we had to go up to go down. We boarded a nice new tram, ascended even further up the hill to a small, newly built ski village that would serve as a central skiing area after the games. On the first tram, we met a young couple from the United States. As we were about to board the empty tram, we told them to go ahead. They could enjoy the long, scenic, romantic ride down by themselves. Lonnie and I would catch the next one. They thanked us and climbed in. As the tram rounded the curve and the door started to close, a large man came rushing past us, jammed his foot in the tram door and climbed in to join the couple. They looked at us, shrugged their shoulders and off they went. We laughed. Sure enough, Lonnie and I had a tram to ourselves 30 seconds later for our own romantic ride down.
The views during the trams descent were spectacular. The view of the entire valley was awe inspiring, with craggy peaks framed by a clear blue sky, topped with fresh white snow. It was postcard perfect. The tram passed right over top of the empty biathlon stadium. Smartly enough, this part of the tram track was closed during all biathlon events as the tram’s path was right over the shooting area. We could see other venues during the descent, like the bobsled run, the mogul ski hill and the ski jumping areas that were across the valley, far up the side of the mountain above the village.
The Resort Town of Adler and a Day at the Beach during the Winter Olympics
On one of our first early explorations, we took the train into the nearby resort town of Adler. We got off at the first stop to see what the station looked like and what was around. There was not much there so we wandered around the shops at the station for a while, window shopped at the souvenir store and found a store selling Russian snacks, chips, candy and chocolate. It was a typical train station convenience store. I loaded up on couple snacks for myself and bought a bag of treats to take home for my family. I got as far as the security check on our way back to the train. I forgot that the train itself was considered part of the secure zone. No outside food and drink were allowed. I thought of my girls as I dumped my goodie bag, which contained some souvenirs, into the bin beside the metal detector. I felt like I was at a North American airport eyeing the mounds of assorted stuff travelers discard before they go through security.
Once we passed train station security and entered the secure loading zone, we had to go up an escalator to catch the train. The escalator going up was crowded and people were waiting at the bottom for their turn. An older Russian woman, dressed in a long skirt and babushka headscarf, did not want to wait. She didn’t seem to comprehend why no one was using the other escalator. She started to climb the escalator, not realizing it was coming down toward us. She started taking a few steps slowly and then realized her situation and tried to go faster in an attempt to climb. Anyone who has tried to go up a down escalator knows what happened next. She kept going faster and realized she was not going anywhere, but did not know what to do except keep going faster as she stayed in place. Eventually, she stumbled on her skirt. Fortunately, some people at the bottom noticed and quickly climbed up and helped her ride the few short steps to the bottom. She was laughing and exclaiming something in Russian. Someone nearby translated saying she had never been on an escalator before. The old and the new Russia meet.
The NHL sent managers over to Sochi to work as game supervisors and to help the assimilation of the NHL officials and international officials into a team. A few of them had ridden the bus earlier into the Black Sea resort town of Adler. Rob Shick, one of the NHL managers and former referee, offered to take me into Adler so I could show the guys how easy it was to get there and where to go. The bus was accessed directly outside the security zone. It was free and stopped on a busy corner in downtown Adler, where we jaywalked across a five-way traffic circle through a market, down an alley, across a plaza and to the beach. We strolled and watched the stray dogs for a bit and took in the sights. We checked out the Cossack uniformed security patrol with their furry hats and jackboots as we continued to walk. I thought we would just stroll around a little more and head back to the hotel or stop somewhere for dinner. Unbeknownst to me, Rob had other plans… for himself only.
As we walked, we met all the other NHL and IIHF managers along the boardwalk. He told me they had a managers’ dinner planned and I was on my own. He assured me it was easy to work my way back through the alley, across the market, over the traffic circle, hang a left at the other market and the bus stop was right there- easy. I was on my own, outside the comfort of the security zone. It turned out fine, of course. I wandered around, doubled back, passed the managers enjoying an adult beverage on a beach patio and found the bus. The next day, a large group of us took the same bus route, sat on the same patio and watched the world go by for a few hours. It was a nice pleasant day at the beach.
The food at the restaurant was served family style, with large heaping mounds of meat, onions, peppers and other vegetables cooked on an outdoor grill. With smoke coursing throughout the outdoor patio, it was no surprise that a number of dogs were wandering nearby. Of course, with all the tourists around there were some characters milling about including one man with a monkey on his shoulder, charging the equivalent of $5 for pictures. As we are notorious penny-pinchers, he never made money from our group.
Adler had a sporting goods store where many of the guys bought jerseys, as the Olympic Park souvenir stores had long lines and a limited selection. There were many little shops scattered along the roads and a brand new shopping area on the edge of the ocean and river. The shopping area was mostly empty and finishing touches were being done. Like a lot of things in the vicinity, most new things outside the Park seemed not quite finished or operating at full speed. Most people crowded the nearby market filled with smaller local shops. Our penchant for exploring unique places found us at a small shack, no bigger than a shed, with dried salt fish and peanuts hanging on a rack behind the bar. The five of us were the only customers and we crowded the place as we sipped Russian beer and watched soccer on television. While we were there, a businessman stopped in, gulped a beer and left in about three minutes.
To be continued... article 3 of 3 (Chapter In Hockey Rivalry, Famous silver Ruble, Russian Big Mac, Sochi The City, Saying Goodbye.) to be posted this Thursday (February 19th).