BILL PLASCHKE

Russians are great sports, even in hockey loss to Americans

Watching the U.S.-Russia hockey game in a local bar, patrons cheer loudly and take a few shots, but they never gloat at visitors from America.

SOCHI, Russia — They had spent nearly three hours pouring their hearts across the sticky floor of the smoky basement bar.

They had cheered, groaned, cursed, crushed empty cigarette packs in frustration, danced past empty vodka bottles with glee, and chanted in baritone for their beloved Russia.

Then they lost.

When American T.J. Oshie scored in the eighth round of a shootout to give the U.S. a 3-2 victory over Russia in a first-round Olympic hockey game Saturday night, it was a devastating ending for the several dozen fans crowding into the So Leone sports bar in downtown Sochi.

FRAMEWORK: Best images from Sochi

But the group of mostly middle-aged men did not immediately leave. They picked their chins out of their chests, stood slowly from their couches and chairs, and lined up in front of the two Americans sitting meekly in the middle of the room.

Then, one by one, they shook our hands.

::

Far from the carefully painted faces and organized cheers at the Bolshoy Ice Dome, the Russian sporting soul was on display in a dark, wood-lined room with two giant televisions, one small dart board, and a lifetime of angst.

The So Leone sports bar was 35 minutes up the Black Sea coast from the game between Russia and the U.S., but it pounded with a cramped and honest pulse of a nation on edge.

"This is our sport, this is our life," said patron Denis Puzyrez, standing at the bar in a rumpled T-shirt and hopeful stare. "Even if we fail in everything else in Olympics, if we win hockey, we win the Olympics."

Yet it was more than the Olympics that led them to crowd into this tiny room whose outside wall is adorned with a huge photo of toothless Russian hockey players. This was also their first chance for home Olympic revenge of the U.S. "Miracle on Ice" win over the seemingly unbeatable Soviet team in 1980 in Lake Placid, N.Y.

"The 1980 game will forever be a scar on my heart," said 69-year-old Vladimir Makushkin, pausing while carrying his beer from table to table. "Every American knew we were the stronger team. It was students that beat us … young students!"

It was this sort of atmosphere that made one expect the worst as I plopped down on a leather couch with one of my editors here shortly before the start of the game. The other patrons, all men except for our translator's daughter, stared at us. The tension heightened just before the opening faceoff when a large man stood in front of me, pointing at both me and a giant television.

I cowered. He smiled.

"I want to make sure I'm not sitting in your way," he said.

So, we spent the rest of the evening not cheering against each other, but watching together. Beneath the ever-present scowls and throaty chants, the stereotype-crashing Russian fans showed a clear sensitivity about patriotism and definition of sport.

''Some people try to put politics into our games, but not us. …You support your team, we'll support ours," said Alexsandr Shaulsky.

When the Russians scored, as they did twice during regulation and three times during the shootout, the place erupted in a moving roar, folks running toward the television and jumping off the couches.

"Dat-suk, Dat-suk,"' they chanted in honor of Russia's two-goal star Pavel Datsyuk.

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