SOCHI – When the shootout began, everyone in Bar London stopped. The waitresses, who had spent all afternoon delivering plates and bottles of vodka, stood to the side and watched. The bartender leaned over the rail, not even thinking about pouring a drink. Then again, nobody here was going to order one, not until this excruciating game was over.
One man was so nervous as American forward T.J. Oshie came floated toward Russian goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, he kept pinching his nose with the chopsticks he had just used to eat a plate of sushi. Another stood on his barstool and flung two middle fingers toward the television. And then, as Oshie scored to give the U.S. a 3-2 shootout victory, it seemed like everyone holding a cigarette in this upscale pub took a drag in unison.
Then after a few moments of silence, a man in a red hooded sweatshirt with Cyrillic-lettered "Russia" striped across his chest stood up and clapped. He had spent most of the game pacing in front of the bar, yelling Russian obscenities at the television and questioning officials' calls. So important was this game, and so bitter the result, he told a reporter that he wouldn't answer any questions from an American newspaper.
Other Russian fans were friendlier, but just as critical of the final score – and especially the video review that wiped out an apparent go-ahead goal for Russia with 4:40 remaining because the net came off its moorings.
No matter how distant two nations can be politically, culturally and geographically, a few things are universal in hockey: The crescendo of anticipation as a scoring chance develops, the nervous silence and explosion of relief after a big save, and, of course, blaming the refs.
Three students from Krasnodar, all wearing jumpsuits with the Olympic R-U insignia, felt the home team got robbed.
"We still think Russia was stronger," one of them, who identified himself as Anton, said through an interpreter. "Officiating was fair most of the time, but there were times where it was not. But it was a great game. Those are two world class teams. It was a high level game."
His friend Dennis was less diplomatic: "Officials were unfair toward Russia, but generally the game was great. We have a lot of emotions, sore throat, crying. But it's OK; we're still a strong team."
For Russia, winning a hockey gold medal at these Olympics is everything, and downtown Sochi was buzzing Saturday in anticipation of the first marquee game of the tournament. Even in a coffee shop still under construction, where workers were hanging light fixtures, the only thing that was finished was the television so everyone could watch USA-Russia.
"A lot of people reserved tables (at our other location) just to watch the game," said the manager, Ekaterina Dementeva.
And at Bar London, where most of the tables were reserved and couches had been placed in front of the massive projection television at the front, only a few seats remained open by the middle of the first period. They chanted "Russ-eee-ya, Russ-eee-ya," with increasing frequency and intensity as the game wore on. They downed vodka shots every time the home team scored. And throughout every power play, they yelled "Shy-bu! Shy-bu!" – the Russian word for "puck."
But even though the Russian fans wanted desperately to win Saturday, the rivalry with the United States is clearly not as tense as it was once. Several fans, in fact, said that Canada was the team they most wanted to beat.
"It's a different era, a different time, a different Russia; a stronger Russia," than in the 1980s, said Dmitry Ivanov, who traveled from Saint Petersburg with his wife and another couple and sat by a television with a chilled bottle of Beluga vodka and two carafes of tomato juice.
"We respect the Americans," said Sergei Petrov. "Great country, great team. We want the strongest to win."
For 69-year old Nikolai Belbov from Berm, watching Russia and the U.S. team couldn't help but bring back painful memories of the 1980 "Miracle on Ice," but winning the gold on their home turf would be a new memory for new Russia.
"Hockey is more prestigious because men and women love this sport," Belbov from Perm, who came with his son to the Olympics. "We were not that successful (in other sports), so that's why it's important. It's the last one we are able to win."