SOCHI, Russia – “U-S-A!” “U-S-A!”
The chant cut through the pregame buzz at the Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi on Saturday, and it was easy to identify the source. The crowd for Russia’s game against Team USA was what you might call “decidedly partisan.” Every section of the rink was a sea of Team Russia hats, scarves, jerseys, flags and other gear. The loudest chants were in the local tongue. It was Russia’s house.
“U-S-A!” “U-S-A!” the chant continued. It emanated from four fans clad in American swag, from Team USA jerseys to large stars-and-stripes flags draped over them: Scott Cunningham of Washington, D.C.; Tom O’Connor of Buffalo; Alan Apfel of Las Vegas; and Steven Arlington of Buffalo.
“U-S-A!” … and then the chant disappeared, as an entire section of Russian fans located near their end zone seats spun around and shouted them down.
“They shut us down with noisemakers and screams,” said Arlington. “They shut us down instantly.”
Sports fans are familiar with the concept of “the enemy fan”: That invading army of backers for the visiting team that invade the home stands and relish in pissing off the locals with their minority support.
This was a scene would repeat throughout Saturday’s men’s hockey quarterfinal in Sochi.
“We’re getting a great response,” said O’Connor. “We’re getting some chants going. If it takes some Americans to rowdy’em up, that’s fine.”
The reaction was so instant and fervent, you started to worry about the four young American guys surrounded by Russian fans in the end zone of the rink. The more intense the game got, would fans of the home team start taking out their stress on the nearest person in an opposing sweater?
No. Actually, the foursome was completely and hospitably embraced by the locals.
“So many Russians want to get their pictures with us,” said Cunningham.
They even befriended a Russian fan in back of them who spoke English, and translated the various chants inside the arena for them.
But that was during regulation. Then we had a no-goal controversy, blamed on an American ref. Then we got to overtime, and then the shootout.
“This is the most intense hockey game I’ve ever been too,” said Cunningham.
The tension was raised to unprecedented levels in this tournament. The American fans were seated behind the Russian net, in direct view of T.J. Oshie’s now-legendary six shootout attempts, four conversions and game-winning goal in Russia’s house.
“Well, after I stopped worrying about whether Russian arenas carry defibrillators I just kind of released all that pent-up energy,” said O’Connor, after Oshie's goal. “We all started jumping around, and I hugged some USA guys I've ever met before. It was that kind of moment.”
So ... what was it like for four celebratory Team USA fans, surrounded by disgruntled, disappointed and downright angry Russian fans?
“We got one, and only one, ‘gesture,’” said O’Connor. “Almost immediately we were getting high fives, requests for pictures and ‘good game’ in broken English.”
In the end, history trumped resentment, hockey trumped nationalism and the incredible game that was played in Sochi that afternoon left everyone appreciative of the moment.
“I think we all knew we just watched one hell of a game. It was competitive but cordial,” said O’Connor.
Four USA fans walked into the Sochi ice arena ready for anything. They left with a better understanding of their hosts.
“We've had only the best impression of Russians since we've arrived. Amazing people,” said O’Connor.