GANGNEUNG, South Korea — The clash Tuesday night between Russia and the United States was lopsided on the ice, convivial in the stands and never really happened in the eyes of the International Olympic Committee.
The hockey was breathtaking at times, especially when the puck found the stick of American forward Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson. The mixed zone — the area where the athletes meet the media — was awkward at times, especially when the name Sergei Lavrov surfaced. U.S. goaltender Nicole Hensley produced a shutout, but everyone wanted to know about the images on her goalie mask.
The PyeongChang Olympics can be confusing, and the factors at play outside the Games hovered over a hockey game. The United States bulldozed the overmatched Olympic Athletes from Russia, 5-0, moving to 2-0 in the tournament before their showdown with rival Canada, the one team preventing the U.S. from claiming superiority in the sport.
Team USA has legitimate gold medal aspirations, and it submitted a dominant performance. Lamoureux-Davidson assisted on Team USA’s first goal and later, in a feat of hockey previously resigned to fantasy, scored the next two in a span of six seconds, the shortest span between goals by one player in Olympic history.
“Don’t think I’ve ever done that before,” Lamoureux-Davidson said.
The entire enterprise carried an unprecedented air. The OAR hockey team boasts 23 of the 168 Olympic Athletes from Russia, the cohort of Russian athletes the IOC allowed in. After the IOC and the World Anti-Doping Agency busted Russia for running a sophisticated, widespread, state-sponsored doping program at the 2014 Sochi Games, the IOC banned six women’s hockey players from the Olympics for life.
“Obviously,” Lamoureux-Davidson said, “we’re aware of what’s been going on with Team Russia.”
That would complicate the game matter no what. A contest between the United States and Russian athletes further muddles matters. The Russian government, aside from its non-Olympic interfaces with America, has repeatedly labeled the evidence cited by the IOC as fabricated, part of a conspiracy driven by the United States to prevent Russia from its rightful dominance.
“It’s a form of competition without scruples because the U.S. team, obviously, are not capable of beating us fairly at sport,” Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said last week.
Afterward, Russian team press manager Evgenii Kurgurgian agreed to translate an interview with Coach Alexei Chistyakov into English. One question concerned whether Lavrov’s comments had changed the tenor of the meeting.
“I’m not really sure about that,” Kurgurian said. “What did he say?”
A reporter apprised him of the comments.
“Actually,” Kurgurian said, “we not follow this news about our minister. So it’s really hard to comment.”
“We think about games,” Chistyakov said. “We prepare for these games. We can talk about Olympic Games and sport. Our goal is to be strong like the Canadian and American teams. We think about this, focus on this only.”
The Americans had to handle a brushfire Tuesday afternoon, hours before the game. A report surfaced that the IOC and Team USA were discussing whether Hensley would be permitted to wear a mask with the Statue of Liberty painted on it, or whether it would be deemed a political statement. As the uproar coalesced, both USA Hockey spokesman Dave Fischer and IOC spokesman Mark Adams called the back-and-forth a “misunderstanding.” Hensley wore her usual mask.
“We’re all good,” Hensley said. “I’m really not sure what happened. I’m just focused on playing the games. Our equipment guys take care of the equipment, and we take care of what’s going on on the ice.”
As for the Statue of Liberty, “I think it’s just a great representation of our country,” Hensley said. “Like I said, we’re just focused on a win tonight. We’re moving on from there.”
Lamoureux-Davidson provided the U.S. breathing room by herself, with a preposterous spasm of offensive hockey. First, she banged a rebound into the back of the net to push Team USA’s lead to 2-0. She proceeded to corral the puck off the ensuing faceoff, break free down the ice, fool the Russian goaltender with a deke from hell and flip a backhand into the cage.
A lesser effort could have defeated OAR, but what the Russians lacked in skill they made up for in fan support. The Russian cheering section featured a four-woman dance team, clad in matching red jogging suits with the words “Red Machine” stitched on the chest. Other fans wore stocking caps with a patch reading, “#Russia In My Heart” in the front. They waved Russian flags — which athletes are not permitted to display in any fashion — and chanted what is becoming a ubiquitous sound at rinks: “Russ-i-a! Russ-i-a!”
The majority of Russian supporters sat together in front of a section of American fans. The groups coexisted with no apparent animosity or controversy, save for some dueling chants. During the first intermission, a female Team USA fan with an American flag draped around her shoulders and a beer in her hand posed for a picture with three female Russian fans.
“I’m USA, they’re Russia,” said the American woman, who declined to share her name. “It’s a friendly rivalry. Right?”
Uh, sure? The Olympics plead for athletes and spectators to place geopolitical conflicts and concerns to the side. Among Tuesday night’s participants, one country ws investigating whether the other country played a role in influencing and/or sabotaging its freely held election. That tends to muddy the waters, even if those waters are frozen, smoothed over with a Zamboni and emblazoned with Olympic rings.