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Between U.S. And Russian Hockey, A Different Kind Of Cold War



For a lot of Russians, the true start of the Olympics was today. Team Russia took the ice in men's hockey. At the very same time, Team USA also had their very first game. We sent a reporter to each game to see how the two rivals stack up against each other and they sent his report.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: I'm Robert Smith at the Team USA game here in Sochi. It's the red, white and blue against the red, blue and white: Slovakia. Hey, it's a world tournament, you've got to start somewhere.

The big questions before the USA game were: How do all these professional NHL stars actually play together? And are any Americans going to show up to cheer them on? Most of the people waving the stars and stripes were the families of athletes. But Melody Thostenson came here from Minnesota as a pure fan.

MELODY THOSTENSON: Everyone was a little scared. All my friends told me not to come. My family told me not to come. But we're happy to be here.

SMITH: And, with a few other brave travelers from the U.S., they did manage to get the chant going, just a little bit.



UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #2: (Foreign language spoken)

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: I'm Tamara Keith at Team Russia versus Team Slovenia in the arena next door. There's was no question who was here. Rough estimate: 600 Slovenians and 11,000 rabid Russian hockey fans.

Sergei Slebnakov is wearing a giant white fuzzy hat and has a bold S on the front of his hockey jersey. Together with his friends, they spell Russia and they are visible from across the area.

SERGEI SLEBNAKOV: Russia plays very nice and very good. Russia winner.

SMITH: Team USA started out slowly against Slovakia. They were just finding their legs on the ice. Everyone on the squad had been playing in the NHL all winter long and the team barely had a practice, and at first it showed. Tom Bozick(ph) from Buffalo Grove, Illinois, was in the stands and he felt that Team USA had good puck control, sure, but clearly had not worked together.

TOM BOZICK: I notice people are probably like unsure about coverage and who's going to go for the puck. A couple guys bumping into each other, but practice will work that out. This is it. This is the practice. They've still got jetlag.

KEITH: Team Russia did not have this problem with Slovenia. At a minute and 17 seconds into the game, Alex Ovechkin, the Russian hockey god who normally plays on the Washington Capitals, scored.


SMITH: Meanwhile, next door, Team USA showed quickly that their lack of practice did not hold back their raw talent. They scored 14 minutes into the game.


SMITH: And Slovakia basically shut down. Paul Stastny from the Colorado Avalanche scored two goals. Phil Kessel from the Maple Leafs flicked in another. Final score: USA 7, Slovakia 1.

KEITH: In the second period, Russia struggled a bit more with Slovenia, made sloppy passes, allowed Slovenia to score twice. Alexey Shunyaev(ph) is a Russian sports reporter with Worldwide Metro.

ALEXEY SHUNYAEV: Russians didn't play well because I haven't seen much concentration.

KEITH: He says they underestimated the Slovenians, but then, in the third period, it's as if the Russian players realized, hey, wait, we're Russia and we're only beating Slovenia by one goal. The crowd sensed what was coming and every time the puck neared the Slovenian goal, the energy in the arena crescendos.


KEITH: The Olympics' mascot there was high-fiving people, giving ecstatic hugs. Final score: Russia 5, Slovenia 2. There is tremendous pressure on the Russians. Vladimir Putin is expected to attend some of the games and for Russia, nothing matters except winning in that final gold medal game in 10 days. Again, Shunyaev, the sports reporter.

SHUNYAEV: A lot of sports (unintelligible) if we win hockey, we will win Olympics. (Unintelligible).

SMITH: Team USA might be able to relax a little bit more than the Russians can, but not much. There is still frustration among the team that they lost to Canada four years ago in the Olympics finals. And they know that the few hearty USA fans will be overwhelmed by the thousands of Russians who are cheering on their home team. After the game, David Backes of Team USA said he is looking forward to the challenge.

DAVID BACKES: We're going to play against a hostile crowd, against a great team and, you know, if we want to win a gold medal, we're going to have to beat the best teams in this tournament and that's a great test for us.

SMITH: The USA plays Russia on Saturday.

KEITH: It is already the hottest ticket in Sochi. I'm Tamara Keith.

SMITH: And I'm Robert Smith, NPR News...

KEITH: Sochi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.