SOCHI, Russia – Here is Russia in one sentence: On the same day a group of Neanderthal men given authority for no good reason allegedly used whips to beat on women in plain view of the public, the nation instead mourned the loss of its hockey team.
The coach of the great disaster of the Sochi Games offered himself up as a cannibal sacrifice. The players lamented their bad fortune Wednesday in losing 3-1 to Finland, though none went so far as to peddle his flesh for consumption, even if it beats the other choices: Siberia or gulag.
In the meantime, somehow, the clock continued to tick, the world continued to function and Olympic hockey continued to exist. One game was great: Canada snuck past a scrappy Latvian team 2-1. Another was not: The United States dismantled the Czech Republic 5-2. Now they'll meet in a semifinal Friday that sends the winner to the gold medal game, though the true gold medal game may well be that semifinal.
Which is not to disparage Finland or the other winner on that side of the bracket, Sweden, which beat Slovenia 5-0 on Wednesday. Both are potent hockey teams fully capable of winning the tournament. It's just that … what the hell, Russia!
This was your tournament. Vladimir Putin was totally going to take his shirt off if you won. You subjected the world to Alex Ovechkin's gap-toothed face on every advertisement possible because hockey is pretty much all that Russia cares about. That and ice skating, and between one politician calling a skater an "invalid" and 15-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia falling in her short program Wednesday, the onus was on the hockey team to avoid losing against a country with a population of approximately 5.5 million.
Gone now is the great atmosphere displayed in the U.S.-Russia round-robin game, the sort of thunderous crowd that proved the perfect complement to the most highly skilled hockey game since Canada beat Team USA for gold in the Vancouver Games. Yes, no matter how far the United States and Finland make it, they'll draw the ire of whatever size crowd does show up for having the temerity to dispose of Mother Russia, to send Ovie and Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk away from the religion that was supposed to be this tournament and back to their secular teams.
Not that Team USA was lamenting it. The players survived the fully partisan Bolshoy Ice Dome, though barely, and no matter how spectacular the ambiance, it's not exactly one with which they wanted to reacquaint themselves anytime soon.
"When you do have that home crowd, that home atmosphere, it always makes for an exciting game," U.S. captain Zach Parise said. "But when guys like Kovalchuk and Ovechkin and Malkin aren't in the tournament anymore, it's pretty nice."
Parise grinned. Earlier, in typical hockey-player fashion, he tried to say the truth in the nicest way possible. He didn't want to give the Finns any bulletin-board material for a potential gold or bronze medal game, so he talked about how good they are. And it's true: They've medaled in four of the past five Olympics. The next-best team, Canada, has three. The U.S., Sweden, the Czechs and Russia each have two.
Still, the prospect of Russia's dismissal left Parise about as excited as a hockey player will get: "We're not upset that they're out, I guess, with how good they are."
Nobody mustered up much excitement for the revenge game against Canada, either, one that fans of the game will adore and fans in Russia will loathe. Because it was supposed to be them playing the winner, not whoever triumphs in the Nordic semifinal.
"We already played Russia," U.S. center Paul Stastny said, adding: "That was fun, but at the same time, you have an eye on that gold medal. Whoever's next in your way, that's who you're worried about. You don't hope about playing this team or that team."
The hope here was relatively simple: Russia vs. anyone for gold. It was supposed to be that way because Vancouver was that way and because Russia was forever the Olympics' hockey power and because nobody thinks cannibalism is OK.
Team USA's relative ennui wasn't disappointing as much as it didn't reflect the truth of this hockey tournament: Russia losing was a bummer, sucking all the life out of a Winter Olympics that already felt desolate and pallid and comatose. Most venues teem with empty seats. Less than 1,000 miles away, Kiev is ablaze. The alleged beating of Pussy Riot members by Cossacks – the sort of thing that reminds us why Russia hosting any Olympics was a ludicrous conceit in the first place – only added to the Sochi Games being remembered for all the wrong things.
As much as the Russian hockey team could have changed that, it didn't. The Ice Dome will not rock, and the country will not tune in, and Sochi will not fulfill its destiny as the place Russia won its first gold since the breakup of the USSR. Only one good thing came of it.
At least Putin will keep his shirt on.