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Russia's Hockey Fans Hope Glory Days Return

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Russia's Hockey Fans Hope Glory Days Return

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Russia's Hockey Fans Hope Glory Days Return

Russia's Hockey Fans Hope Glory Days Return

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Russians are obsessed with ice hockey, and hockey events have gotten underway at the Vancouver Winter Olympics. In the Soviet days, hockey was much more than just a game. International encounters took on great diplomatic significance, and the Soviet Union won seven of the nine gold medals from 1956 to 1988.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Russias hockey team won its first game at the Vancouver Olympics last night, defeating Latvia eight to two. Moscow time, that match started at 8AM Wednesday, so its a pretty safe bet that millions of Russians were late to work today. Ice hockey was a huge deal in Soviet times. Interest faded after the collapse of Communism.

Now, as Peter van Dyk reports from Moscow, Russians are rekindling their love affair with the sport.

PETER VAN DYK: Its after 10PM on a Monday evening and a group of Russian investment bankers are playing a hard game of ice hockey on an indoor rink in Moscow.

Mr. DIMITRI DIMETRIAS: We were thinking about playing hockey together for probably almost two years. But only recently only, about half a year ago, our dream started to materialize.

DYK: Dimitri Dimetrias(ph) plays with his colleagues at the rink of the former Interior Ministry Sports Club, just a few miles from The Kremlin. His luxury car is in the snowbound and pot-holed parking lot at the sprawling complex, and his smart suit is hanging in a locker room that has seen better days. But on the ice, none of that matters.

Mr. DIMETRIAS: Its kind of a special atmosphere, and it looks like people are leaving all their problems. Some of us have very, very tough day, on the day of the playing but - and then this is magic above all. But looks like most of the people leave it outside, the change room outside for this ice arena, and for these two hours were somewhat free from our everyday problems.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DYK: Another player, Andre Burginski(ph), says hockeys tough image has helped their group grow from just eight players to around 20.

Mr. ANDRE BURGINSKI: I think hockey considered to be a rather masculine sports, right? So those who dont play, they feel that they are not kind of man enough. So even people who dont know how to skate or theyre just learning how to skate, they still decided after, you know, months or weeks of hesitation, they decided to join, just to show how masculine they are, I guess.

DYK: In the Soviet days it was much more than just a game. International encounters took on great diplomatic significance, and the Soviet Union won seven of the nine golds from 1956 to 1988. The current president of the Russian Olympic Committee, Leonid Tyagachev, says its not a real Olympics if the hockey gold doesnt come back to Moscow.

Mr. LEONID TYAGACHEV (President, Russian Olympic Committee): (Through Translator) In the Soviet era, if we won 15 or 16 golds in other sports, but the Americans won the hockey, the Olympics were considered to have not happened. Second or third place in hockey, for our country, was a humiliation, not just for the people, but for the coaches and the players.

DYK: The Americans did beat the Soviets in 1980, the miracle on ice at Lake Placid, but that was just a blip in the Soviet dominance on the ice. A combined team won the gold in 1992 just after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But in the four Winter Olympics since then, Russia has managed just one silver and one bronze. Now, though, things are looking up. Russia has won the last two Ice Hockey World Championships, and the fans are hoping for a return to past glories.

(Soundbite of cheering)

DYK: There are certainly plenty of fans at this recent game between Moscow club CSKA and Lada Togliatti.

Mr. SERGEI KURENOV: (Through Translator) The old traditions of Soviet hockey, they live on today.

DYK: Sergei Kurenov(ph) is a long time fan of CSKA. He was a serious player in his youth and bemoans the lack of places for young people to play now. But he is pleased that his son is playing, and that everyone will be rooting for Russia in Vancouver.

Mr. KURENOV: (Through Translator) Its more important than anything to win the hockey, more important than any other Olympic gold.

(Soundbite of cheering)

DYK: CSKA fans celebrate the winning goal. They and millions of other Russians will be hoping that they have just as much to cheer about after the Olympic Ice Hockey final on February 28th.

For NPR News, Im Peter van Dyk in Moscow.

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