SOCHI, Russia – The bear grabbed a man by his face with both paws, and passionately kissed him.
The endearing mascot of these Winter Games, the Sochi Polar Bear, was so excited by Pavel Datsyuk's first goal against the Americans on Saturday that he slung a furry arm around a random fan in the stands at the Bolshoy Ice Dome and gave him a smooch, right on the lips. Then he found a woman and did the same, all while others around him shook and danced and waved flags.
The Russians are known as stoic, dour, unfeeling. They were anything but during the USA-Russia hockey game. There must have been 500 tricolored flags being paraded around the concourse, waved in the stands, wrapped around shoulders of young and old. There was no beer served – only the non-alcoholic kind – but a 22-year-old from Siberia named Vitaly ("like Italy without the 'V' he said) shrugged and smiled. "We take what we get!"
Well, one fan was drunk. He grabbed a reporter by the hand, swung it back and forth, exclaimed, "No beer! Vodka!" and then crashed into a trash receptacle.
But for everyone else, the day was sober and sweet.
Then, at the end, it was just sober.
The place was packed. No late arriving fans, no early departing fans. There weren't even any bathroom break fans. "Standing room only" was an understatement: There were 111 fans seated in the handicapped section, and only two of them were handicapped. During the second period, while the game was going on, a concession worker named Valeria was so bored that she read a Russian novel next to the soda dispenser.
[Photos: U.S. beats Russia in hockey shootout]
Even the intermissions were intense. Fans flooded the food stands and jumped around chanting, "RUSS-EE-AH! RUSS-EE-AH!" Two magicians, named Yuri and Ilya, wore tuxes and had card tricks at the ready, but nobody seemed to crave extra entertainment. NBC's Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth walked halfway around the concourse and only two people (both Americans) noticed. And then the long corridor was vacant again as soon as the next period started. Some fans were crowded out of the standing section and watched the game through the doors to the hallways. No complaints.
There was little or no impatience. No boos or groans, even as the Americans took and retook the lead. There were no boos even when the referees disallowed a U.S. goal in the third. The game went to overtime and beyond, and by then just about everyone was standing.
The shootout, or "game winning shots" portion, featured a rising crescendo of noise. Every Russian goal released a growing howl – first from the fans behind the goal and then from every Russian fan in every corner of the building. The never-ending phalanx of cameramen whirled around after every Russian score and took shots of the fans instead of the ice. American soccer star Julie Foudy, who knows the pressure of crucial international games, did the same with her camera phone.
In the end, there was near silence, as the Americans won and sent the small but rowdy U.S. contingent into a tizzy. But the home fans didn't grouse. They simply walked out into the dark night as the P.A. system played "Wake Me Up When It's All Over." One Russian fan stuck out a hand to congratulate an American fan. Another actually offered a hug. The whole day felt like a celebration, even among those who didn't end up celebrating.
On the outdoor pavilion overlooking the plaza and the Olympic flame, a woman named Lena from Volgograd held hands with her husband as they left the scene. She smiled and massaged her neck, hoarse from all the yelling. But she could utter one thought, shaking her head as she did so.