SOCHI, Russia – Many Russians laughed when Sochi was selected to host the 2014 Winter Olympics. Not only was Sochi one of the warmest places in Russia, it also had no history of winter sports.
But against all odds, Sochi now boasts a professional ice hockey team and a steady following of fans who turn the otherwise deserted Olympic Park into the noisy, busy place it was a year ago during the games.
Russia spent a total of $51 billion on the Sochi Games, much of it on long-term infrastructure projects. Critics questioned the expediency of much of the spending and many fans and sports journalists inside Russia wondered what would happen to the gleaming arenas in a city where sub-zero temperatures make top news.
Russia's glorious hockey history goes back to a time when millions of Soviet children spent weekends and evenings at outdoor skating rinks which dotted virtually every neighborhood. That was not the case in subtropical Sochi, with no hockey culture or pro team.
But now, fans are streaming to the Bolshoy Ice Dome — venue for the ice hockey tournament at the Sochi Games — to watch their own team: HC Sochi. The new team competes in the Kontinental Hockey League, the Russia-based league considered the world's second-strongest after the NHL.
At the start, team spokeswoman Ksenia Tsukareva recalls, the staff was worried "whether we were going to have any fans at all, what the stands will look like."
The first game on Sept. 15 exceeded everyone's expectations, as more than 8,000 fans came to watch.
"It was an incredible feeling because we didn't expect so many fans would come. It was the first game and there never was hockey in this town," 19-year-old forward Yegor Morozov said.
Although the team has not yet played to a full house of 12,000, average attendance is 7,000 to 8,000.
"In the beginning, people would cheer when we would score and when the other team scored, too," defenseman Pavel Koledov said. "Some didn't quite get it at the start."
A lively flow of fans, about 8,000 people, braved the torrential rain to arrive at a game in January, walking through the sprawling and empty Olympic Park to the arena.
Vartkez Bagaryan, a Sochi native, said he doesn't "get all the rules and always understand why the referee whistles — but we're getting the hang of it."
None of the cities which hosted the Winter Olympics in the recent years has found a permanent use for all of the venues. In Nagano, host of the 1998 Games in Japan, the main Olympic arena was converted into a baseball stadium but does not host a team on a permanent basis.
The Stadio Olimpico, which hosted the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2006 Turin Games, is used by the top-flight Torino soccer club while other arenas host sporadic events.
Tickets to HC Sochi home games are priced between 100 ($1.5) and 500 ($8) rubles, making it a relatively cheap entertainment. A movie ticket in Sochi costs around 300 rubles and a trip on the commuter train to the mountains goes for 350 rubles.
Sochi's team is a typical KHL mix of young and older players, Russians and foreigners. For Canadian forward Cory Emmerton, it's his first contract outside the NHL.
Despite the worsening geopolitical climate between Russia and the West, Emmerton said he doesn't feel any pressure.
"You hear a lot on the news about the problems but you don't experience them personally," he said.
Last season, Morozov was playing for HC Donbass, Ukraine's only KHL team. He went home in March at the end of the season only to see the bloody conflict in Donetsk, his hometown, unfold on television.
"I got up in the morning and my dad told me the stadium was destroyed. I couldn't believe it at first," Morozov recalled. The team's stadium was looted and set on fire in late May when Donetsk was overrun by pro-Russian separatists.
Almost all of the KHL's 28 clubs rely heavily on Russian state-owned companies and regional governments for their revenue. With Russian government finances under pressure from low oil prices, several clubs are reportedly struggling to pay players.
HC Sochi is sponsored by the gas giant Gazprom, while the regional Krasnodar government pays for the upkeep of the arena.
The Sochi team's future appears secure because it's part of the Olympic legacy.
"The team will stay around at least for a while, no matter the sponsors," said Roman Solovyev, a hockey correspondent for the R-Sport news agency. "It would be wrong not to use the Olympic arena, even from the political point of view."
AP Sports Writers Jim Armstrong in Tokyo and Andrew Dampf in Rome contributed to this report.