SOCHI, Russia – When it was all over, when the mighty Russian men's hockey team with the big stars and the massive expectations failed to earn a medal for the third straight Winter Olympics, thousands of their demanding fans streamed out of the shiny new arena and squinted as their eyes caught the setting sun.
Many had no words to express the disappointment that came with Russia's 3-1 loss to Finland on Wednesday. This was supposed be the team to end a 22-year gold medal drought and provide a hopeful nation with the defining moment of an Olympics on home turf.
Instead, they were a massive flop, and the fans in attendance had difficulty reconciling the failure.
"For seven years we have been waiting and preparing for the Olympics and most of all we waited for the ice hockey and today it was a catastrophe and shame for Russia," said Sergey Kazakov, a 58-year-old retiree from Moscow.
Alex Ovechkin. Pavel Datsyuk. Ilya Kovalchuk. Evgeni Malkin. The stars all seemed to be aligning this time around in Russia, where hockey is a national treasure and the fans yearn for the dominant days of the old Soviet Red Army teams. And they were aligning at home, in this resort town on the Black Sea, in an arena built to show off the nation's hockey prowess.
With all this in mind, the fans were certain that the glory days were returning. They packed the Bolshoy Ice Dome, painted their faces in the national colors and blew horns as they walked the steps into the arena to cheer on their heroes. The team got off to a roaring start with a 5-2 win over newcomer Slovenia, but they followed that with a shootout loss to the Americans and a shootout win over Slovakia before they were bounced by the Finns.
"They put up together many hockey stars but with no result," said Andrei Bondar, a 42-year-old road construction manager from Krasnodar. "Finland was well-organized. They scored two goals and never looked back after adding one more."
Outside the Bolshoy, fans shook their heads and threw up their arms in frustration. To put the disappointment in perspective, think of the feelings in Rio de Janeiro if Brazil loses in the World Cup this year, look back on the dejection in Tuscaloosa when Alabama lost to Auburn in the Iron Bowl or turn on talk radio in New York in the fall if the Yankees fail to make the World Series.
"It is such a shame," said Boris Popov, a 62-year-old construction worker from Siberia. "There are no words. It's simply a shame for the second Olympics we lost."
When one fan was approached, he covered his face in a goalie mask and walked away. Others shouted into the air to vent their frustrations. Alex Korovin, a 41-year-old manager from Siberia, said the loss was Russia coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov's fault.
"The coach is to be blamed for the result, only the coach," he said. "He had a set of bright hockey stars but failed to make a team. There was no team during all their games here."
Bilyaletdinov apologized to the fans after the game, but it's clear that it's going to take some time for these new wounds to heal. When the team filled with NHL millionaires sullenly lifted sticks at the end of the game to salute their fans, the few cheers in the arena were drowned out by angry whistles as they left the ice.
"There are eight million people in Finland. We have 140 million," Popov said. "Fifteen times more kids are playing ice hockey here. Where are they?"
"They change a jersey and go to the NHL and only think of their bank accounts," Popov added. "They just ruin ice hockey. Not a single child dreams of hockey now. Only about money."
Said Korovin: "I want my money back."