Introducing Sochi and Hockey Arena That Will Host 2014 Winter Olympics

Note: Those of you who were visiting Fear the Fin last February will remember that we had an everyday coverage of the men's hockey tournament at the Winter Olympic games in Vancouver, Canada. This was a tournament that saw eight Sharks play for their native countries. As time passes, we will on occasion get back to the topic of Olympic hockey and today's article will serve as an introduction to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.

When three years ago the city of Sochi was announced as a host city for XXII Winter Olympic Games, not a lot of people outside of Russia have heard the name. Yet three years from now, the eyes of the world will turn towards a what has long been considered a jewel of Russia. Sports fans all across the world will remember the name of the city for decades, just like today we remember Lillehammer, Nagano, or Salt Lake City (not the most known city for those outside of North America).

While Russia with its long and freezing winters sounds like a perfect location to host winter Olympics, it's never happened before in the history sports. Moscow hosted summer Olympics of 1980, which you will remember were ignored by US athletes, but the privilege of hosting winter games have eluded Russia until now. One reason is no doubt political, as political regime that prevailed in Soviet Union did not encourage too much interaction with the Western culture and people. Another reason is geographical. Most of the country does get covered with snow between November and March, which gives cities an opportunity to open free community rinks where kids like Malkin, Datsyuk and Nabokov can grow up playing hockey for free every night. But the country has generally flat surface, and not too many Russian cities would be able to host winter Olympics with all the alpine events as part of the program.

Sochi is a rare exception to this pattern. On the map, Sochi borders Georgia and is across the sea from Turkey. For centuries, it was part of Georgia and belonged to the Ottoman Empire, until Russia won that territory in 1829 in a war. The conflicts over that territory continues for several decades, and it was in 1860s that Russia began to actively colonize and populate the area. Compared to many other ancient Russian cities that are close to thousand years old, Sochi is an infant. It doesn't have the history or the architectures of cities like Moscow or Kazan.

Sochi did not become a favorite Russian city until Joseph Stalin decided to build a summer home there.  During the Soviet Union era when the country borders were closed for its citizens, most of the Russians in Eastern Russia, including my family, headed to Sochi for their beach or skiing vacations.  Even today, Russia's President has a home there where he can hide for some rest. Well, technically, he's not hiding, because it's obvious to the locals when he's in town from the battleships that show up on the horizon of the Black Sea to patrol the area.

Now that the area is developed, located on the shore of the Black Sea and right at the bottom of the Caucasus Mountains, Sochi is both a vacation resort with sandy beaches, palm trees, bikinis in the summer, and a skiing resort in the winter. In all of Russia, I could not think of a better and a more beautiful location to host the Winter Olympics.

The city of Sochi, however, is not a hockey town. The nearby mountains stay snow capped for most of the winter, but the city below it does not get much snow - in a way, much like Salt Lake City or nearby countries of Turkey and Greece. If it snows, the snow doesn't last. Sochi never had a professional hockey team, and, of course, did not have an arena that could be good enough to host world class hockey tournament of any kind, let alone the one that will likely feature the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Marcel Goc.

Along with many other facilities under construction in Sochi right now, hockey rink is being built right now. The arena will become the first of its size in the world to be built on the sea coast. You can see what the arena will look like here. The construction site was recently inspected by Valeri Fesyuk, an executive director of the Russia's Federation of Hockey (FHR). Below are the translated excerpts of his interview to Sport-Express about the progress of the construction and his thought on the possible format of the tournament.

On your trip [of inspecting Sochi facilities], you were likely interested in the Olympic hockey rink.

Of course. On its ice we're planning on holding a series of "trial" pre-Olympic events. For example, in the spring of 2013 the arena will host Junior World Championships. Four months before the Olympic games we'll also host a large international tournament featuring women's hockey teams of Russia, USA and Canada. Men's Team Russia will also play games in Sochi before 2014 Olympics. Besides the Superseries of 2012, it'll likely be one of the games of Eurotour in 2013. Today Sochi is a one big construction site, with 32,000 workers and engineers laboring here. Because of 2014 Games, it'll turn into the biggest ski resort in the country. Hockey will also come to life here. The arena that's being built in here is a work of art, and we can't afford for it to stay empty.

You inspected the site. Any impressions?

Yes, I visited it with the architects. I saw every little corner. The foundation of the building with its walls is already in place. They'll soon finish the ground for the ice and will start working on interior and electronics. I'll note that it's all going according to the schedule and there is no doubt the arena will be built as planned, to be opened in the spring of 2012. ... The arena itself will have two rinks - the main one and the practice rink. We'll also have another training facility nearby with another rink.

We don't yet know the size of the rink that will host the 2014 Winter Games. Will the maintenance people be able to change its size if necessary?

It's not too hard to change big rink into smaller one. Right now the "pillow" of the rink is being laid with the thoughts of 30 by 60 meters [IIHF standards rink, which is wider than NHL rink]. It won't be too hard to turn it into 28 by 58 meters rink. The question about the rink size will likely be decided at the next IIHF congress during World Cup of 2011 in Bratislava. But right now the thinking of hockey administration is that 2014 Winter Olympics hockey tournament will be held on bigger, European ice.

What will be the capacity of the arena?

It'll be 12,000 seats.