The Sochi Olympics: 1 year later (3 part Series)
Article edited by Amy Watson
As February mark the one year anniversary of the Sochi Olympics, please enjoy this 3 part series written by NHL Referee Mike Leggo of his recollection and experience of being selected to work the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Follow Mike for an inside look at his two weeks journey of the Olympic Experience.
The NHLOA would like to thank Mike for his time to write this article.
PART 1 OF 3
GETTING TO SOCHI, SECURITY INVASION, HOTEL BOGATYR, THE 24 HOUR GYM IS NOT OPEN & MEETING THE FELLAS.
In this article, I share some experiences as a hockey official at the 2014 Winter Olympics held in Sochi, Russia from February 7th – 23rd. I was honored to work and share this adventure with fellow NHL officials Dave Jackson, Derek Amell, Lonnie Cameron, Brad Meier, Greg Devorski, Tim Peel, Brad Kovachik, Kevin Pollock, Andy McElman, Kelly Sutherland, Mark Wheler and Ian Walsh. Another important member of our group was Steve Traynor, a close friend of Dave Jackson, who came along on the trip and fit in very well with our group. NHL Officiating Managers Ken Wheler, Bob Hall, Rob Shick and Terry Gregson rounded out our contingent.
We also worked with some very capable and interesting international officials. They included Lars Brüggemann, Daniel Piechaczek and Andre Schrader from Germany; Anton Jerabek from the Czech Republic; Chris Carlson and Jesse Wilmot from Canada; Tommy George and Chris Woodworth from the USA; Ivan Dedioulia from Belarus; Konstantin Olenin from Russia; Sakari Suominen, Sakari Rönn and Jyri Rönn from Finland; Moroslav Valach from Slovakia; Vladimir Sindler from the Czech Republic, and our friend and former NHL colleague Marcus Vinnerborg from Sweden.
I relay my stories on behalf of the entire Sochi men’s hockey officiating staff. Thanks for the memories, gentlemen.
Our adventure began in Newark, New Jersey. Our plane, charted by the NHL, was scheduled to depart in the early afternoon on a Sunday. We arrived the night before and stayed at the Newark airport hotel to ensure we were all present and accounted for. Even amid negative publicity surrounding security and facility readiness, there was sense of adventure in the air and nervous energy overpowered any apprehension. Nobody knew exactly what to expect and, really, no one seemed to care. After most of the NHL contingent arrived at the hotel, we had dinner, chatted with players, coaches and managers. As is usually the case, retreated to one of the rooms and relaxed as a group with a nightcap, excitedly anticipating what was to come. Our Olympic journey was about to begin.
Checking in for the charter, we were warned not to carry any liquids or gels and to expect to be searched. And we were. Every single item out of everyone’s carry-on luggage was removed, examined and semi-replaced. The long tables became littered with books, iPads, iPods and pens. The coaches had their highlighters, pens, pencils, game and player notes spread out on the table. It was a thorough and seemingly unnecessary inspection for a chartered plane with only NHL personnel on board. We were not, however, going to argue with security guards and other serious-looking people overseeing the process. Everyone remained cooperative and in a good mood, despite the semi-hassle. We left in the early afternoon from Newark and landed in Russia early the next morning. Our charter flight was the first to leave, with two others following later in the day. The long flight gave the officials a chance to talk with coaches, broadcasters, managers, media, team executives and others about a wide range of issues, both professional and personal. Ultimately, we all got to know each other a little better. That’s a good thing for the game overall.
THE OLYMPIC PARK
We arrived in Sochi early in the morning and went through security and accreditation at the temporary terminal at the airport before boarding buses to our hotel. The process was efficient and easier than expected. There was a strong security presence surrounding the airport, with armed soldiers stationed every 100 meters along the perimeter. As the days went on, the soldiers blended into the background and, incredibly, part of the landscape. It is funny how quickly your mind gets used to something and it becomes the norm.
We disembarked at the hotel to a champagne welcome from the IIHF, with costumed Russian dancers helping celebrate our arrival. Most of us were still a little tired from the long flight. We had a couple of hours to unpack and get orientated before the bus left for the arena and a meeting. As I unpacked in the spacious, surprisingly well-furnished new room, I decided to rest on the bed for just a few minutes. The next sound I heard was my phone ringing and Ian Walsh telling me everyone was waiting for me downstairs. I fell deep asleep and was late for the first meeting – good start Mike.
I grabbed my equipment bag, rushed through the lobby and boarded the bus apologetically. Little did I know that another NHL official who will remain nameless – what the heck … it was Greg Devorski – was also late. He snuck on the bus just before I did and quietly joined the rest of the group as they waited for me, the last late guy. Our NHL officials’ motto for meetings, lunch and game travel is “10 minutes early is five minutes late,” so technically I was still on time. After our meeting that day, I paid the “stupid tax” for my tardiness. I treated some guys to refreshments at the outdoor kiosks set up outside the main hockey arena, the Bolshoy Ice Dome.
The Olympic venues included two hockey arenas, two practice facilities, long- and short-track speed skating, curling and figure skating arenas. A large soccer stadium and a huge gift store were located in another area of the Park. The massive Olympic torch, whose gas burning flame hissed and roared constantly, was in the middle of the Park. The perimeter was also dotted with various “Olympic Houses,” which were socializing venues hosted by different countries. There was a large cafeteria-type restaurant and various smaller food vendors scattered around the area. Even though there were many different food stands, the fare was all the same. Olympic sponsors pay a lot of money for exclusivity. Choices were limited inside the Park and nothing from the outside was allowed in. We could not bring any outside food or beverages into the Park or our hotel.
The international media center was located outside of the perimeter in a truly massive building that was to be converted into a shopping mall after the Olympics. There was a two-story temporary television studio, divided into about eight smaller studios that were assigned to specific countries. The structure was in the middle of the Park, which allowed the TV hosts to use the flame and the plaza as a backdrop. We could see into the studios through the windows as the broadcasters did their shows. Because of the different time zones around the world, at least one of studios was “on air” throughout the days and nights.
Located just behind the broadcast area was a curious-looking circular copse of trees that, upon closer inspection, had a green mesh fence blended into them. We came to find out that it was a 100-year-old cemetery for the Old Believers, a sect of the Orthodox Church. A cemetery located smack dab in the middle of the Olympic Park was a surprise and not exactly advertised. We found out information about it by asking the right person. The greenery and trees concealed it well and people just seemed oblivious to it, assuming it was a bit of planned landscaping in the otherwise barren Olympic Park.
We were issued lanyards with our credentials on them for security reasons. We had to flash them through electronic scanners at every entrance and exit and many checkpoints inside the facilities. Someone knew where we were at all times inside any venue. The system was omnipresent but easily navigable. Located between the Bolshoy Ice Dome and Fischt Olympic Stadium (home of the opening and closing ceremonies and a future World Cup stadium site) was the smaller (5,000 seat) “Honey Badger Arena.” It got the nickname from our resident comedian and astute observer of life, Derek Amell, as the place where everyone is right on top of you, no place to hide or be invisible.
We walked through the crowd (with escorts) to get to the ice surface, just like many arenas scattered across North America. It was cozy and steeper than we were accustomed. The relatively tight quarters enhanced the electric atmosphere during the games. A dual-ice rink practice facility was located directly across from this. It contained a gym on the second floor for our use anytime. Well, kind of anytime. Our guide explained the facility to the officiating group on the first tour and proudly proclaimed, “The gym is open for you 24 hours a day all tournament long, except when it is not open.” He then went onto explain that teams may book private gym times so it would be “open all the time except when it is not open.” Sure enough, his meaning became very clear the next day. On my first foray to the gym with Lonnie Cameron, Mark Wheler and Brad Meier, we met Brad Kovachik who was coming out of the arena with a broad smile. Brad said simply, “The 24 hour gym is not open.”
We went over to the main arena and rode the stationary bikes and did our normal stretching routine. We were soon joined by amateur officials Chris Carlson and Jesse Wilmot. At the same time, the teams’ managers and coaches were walking down the hall to a directors’ meeting. All the brass from the IIHF kept walking by the workout area and saw the officials training in the very small, glass enclosed temporary warm up room. It was an accidental but fortuitous situation as they stopped in, chatted and gave us the thumbs up for our dedication and wished us well. The games had not started yet and everyone was still in contention for the gold. Sometimes, timing is everything.
The Hotel Bogatyr was our home away from home. It was in a great location. Our hotel was inside the security perimeter, which meant that we did not have to go through metal detectors and physical inspection everyday like those outside of the perimeter. Although we were inside the perimeter, we were just outside the Olympic Park circle, separated by a small cadre of buildings. These structures housed the IOC doping control and medical buildings. It also houses a very fancy looking restaurant and lounge for extra-special VIPs, the real high-end of the high-end. We never stepped foot inside. Alongside those buildings, adjacent to our path to the hotel and behind a very ominous looking wall, was the security headquarters populated by stern looking men with bulges in their jackets. We tended to walk by that area with purpose and pace on the way to the hotel.
Like all newly built hotels, the rooms had a few issues. We were the first guests, so slow running drains, mirrors falling of the wall, televisions that worked intermittently, air conditioning or fans not working and other little things occurred. Overall, however, the rooms and hotel were great. My room looked out over Olympic Park. I had a great view of the Olympic flame right from my window. The air conditioning worked sporadically, so I slept with the windows open most times and awoke to the Olympic flame peeking out from behind my curtains every morning. It was an unmistakable reminder of where I was and a great inspiration at the start of every day. My room was fine, but some parts of the hotel were works in progress the whole time. The nicely appointed spa and sparse gym opened the second week, albeit periodically. The gift shop was open only the last three days. Everything else was open and operating and the staff members were very friendly and accommodating.
The hotel looked like a castle on the exterior and the interior was decorated with medieval banners, shields, coats of arms and other historical artifacts. It would seem out of place and a bit cliché in a North American hotel. I realized, however, the ornamentation was actually a real part of Russian history. The pieces were from a bygone era, but an important part of the culture and history of our hosts. Appreciating and respecting the past and acknowledging the future is the goal of most countries and, as simplistic as that sounds, the dichotomy could not be clearer. Easily visible from the many large windows was a brand new theme park (not yet open), with its iconic twisted-steel, purple roller coaster frame dominating the skyline. The old and the new Russia stand side by side.
The hotel also had a large restaurant and lobby bar, which became the night time meeting place for the officials and other hotel guests. A large breakfast buffet on the ground floor became our morning gathering location. We would meet there for breakfast between 8-10 a.m. and then go off in different directions. Officials were scheduled to work games at noon, 4 p.m. or 9 p.m. The Bogatyr was home to not only hockey officials, but officials from all sports: curling, figure skating, long- and short-track speed skating judges. A shuttle came to the hotel every eight minutes and did a loop, stopping at the officials’ entrances at all venues. We mixed and mingled with judges and referees from other sports at breakfast, in the evening and on the way to the venues. It was a great experience to meet other Olympic officials. It was also a fantastic way to gain access to other events, as the age-old tradition of ticket trading was alive and well. We were able to get tickets to almost any event we wanted to attend.
To be continued... article 2 of 3 (The Stray Dogs, Russian Hospitality, Medal Ceremony, The Games, Can I Order Please?) to be posted next Tuesday (February 17th).