In the Emmy Award-winning TV game show ‘What’s My Line?’, blindfolded panelists tried to nail down the occupation of guests by peppering them with questions. Sometimes the clock ran out and the questioners were shocked to see the face of a celebrity they knew very well, when they removed their eyecovers. A similar thing happened to me in the steam room of the Azimut Resort Hotel and Spa in Sochi during the Olympics. The temperature was about 110 F and I could not see six inches past my nose when I entered the bath. On the other side of the room I saw two legs, which looked like they belonged to an elderly man, dangling down from the cedar bench.
The face and upper body were completely covered by steam. “Are you working for NBC?” I asked. “No, CBC,” came a voice from the fog. Just another of the national broadcaster’s many cameramen, I presumed. So, I prodded to see what the mystery man’s specific job was. “I’m the star of Hockey Night In Canada,” he replied. And that’s the truth, and nothing but the truth, about my chance meeting with Don Cherry, turned 80 just a week earlier, on the shores of the Black Sea, 10,000 miles away. Our hotel the Azimut Resort and Spa was located right on the Black Sea and a pathway for walkers, joggers and cyclists follows the coastline. It was only a three-mile walk to the fence which constitutes the border between Russia and the autonomous republic of Abhazhia, which is part of Georgia. Like the Niagara Peninsula, Abhazhia is a huge producer of peaches, many of which we consumed at breakfast each day.
Over the three weeks I was there, the temperature ranged from 50 to 65 degrees F, palm trees were growing everywhere and a few hardy folks even took a dip in the ocean. It was difficult to believe that in Kiev, Ukraine, only 600 miles away, 82 people had died in a protest against the Yanukovych government. The fires in the city square were shown on Russian TV, however, unlike two previous earth-shattering events that occurred during two of my six previous visits to Russia. The accident at the nuclear plant in Chernobyl in 1986 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 warranted only three-inch stories on the back page of the newspaper Izvestia during Communist times. Russian coast guard cutters patrolled the Black Sea coastline everyday to guard against possible terrorist attacks at the Olympics and Cossacks in full uniform secured the border between Russia and Georgia. In a little village about two miles from the hotel, I discovered a statue of Lenin still standing prominently in the Park of Culture and Recreation for children. Stray dogs, some with only three legs, roamed the streets. Celebrities were everywhere.
On my walk to Georgia I encountered a man who turned out to be Sergei Proskuryakov, assistant deputy director of the Ballet Company of the Marinsky Theatre, now the largest ballet company in the world. His troupe was in Adler rehearsing for the closing ceremonies. Former figure skating gold medalist Katarina Witt, who shone at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, was in our breakfast room most mornings. Brent Pope, a graduate of Ancaster high school who played junior hockey for the old Dukes of Hamilton, was doing the color commentary for BBC Radio. Pope moved to England to play hockey and made it his permanent home. I flew home from Newark to Toronto with former Canadian Olympic skier Todd Brooker, who also worked for NBC at the Krasnaya Polyana ski site. When I was just 12 years old and growing up in Acton, his father Charlie was one of my heroes when he played for Canada, represented by the Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen, at the 1956 Olympics in Italy, the first Olympics I can remember. In December of 1984, I traveled to Finland with the Burlington Cougars bantam team, which was competing in the Finnair Cup tournament there. Starring for the Jokerit Helsinki club was a 14 year old lad named Teemu Selanne. Thirty years later I had the honor of seeing Selanne play his final Olympic game, earning a bronze medal, and retiring from Olympic play as co-holder of the record for most Olympics by a hockey player with six and as Olympic hockey’s all-time leading scorer.
More exciting, between the second and third periods of the bronze medal game against the U.S., I met Teemu’s wife Sirpa and his father Ilmari, who told me he had been at that very Burlington-Jokerit game in 1984 As a very young boy Selanne even played minor hockey in the town of Rauma, which for many years was a twin city of sorts for Burlington teams who went overseas to play. Russian President Vladimir Putin visited many of the Olympic sites, but I saw him only once sitting in the VIP section at the Russia-USA men’s hockey game. During the Games he stayed on a government yacht called ‘Olympia’, which was docked there. Life has been a whirlwind for Bishop Tonnos high school grad Laura Fortino, who set up the winning goal to give Canada the gold medal in women’s hockey. Shortly after arriving home, Laura flew to Ottawa where she and her teammates were introduced on the ice prior to an NHL game between the Senators and Detroit Red Wings. Then a few days later she flew to Vancouver, where the players were given the same honor at the Heritage Classic between the Senators and Vancouver Canucks at B.C. Place. Laura’s parents Ignacio and Ivana were tucked away in a corner of the rink opposite our NBC broadcast position. I had managed to walk around and snap a photo of them between the second and third period when the Americans were leading 2-0.
They were a bit subdued, but still optimistic. When Laura faked a shot, then made a perfect pass to Marie-Philippe Poulin for the winning goal in overtime. I quickly cranked out my telephoto lens and got a shot of them giving each other a victory kiss. A signature moment of the pre-medal ceremony celebrations occurred when Laura turned to that corner and waved to her parents, in recognition of all the help they had given her over the years. Two days later most of the players came back to the Bolshoy Dome to cheer the Canadian men to victory against Sweden. Fortino also was saluted with the presentation of a plaque by Hamilton Mayor Bob Bratina at a city council meeting and, after taking the month of March off, will resume training in April with the idea of landing a spot with a Canadian Women’s Hockey League team next season. She also is deciding where she will do her Master’s degree. “I’m just glad I was able to stay poised and follow my instincts when I saw ‘Poo’ wide open on the left,” she said of the pass she made to Marie-Philippe Poulin. “Being in the Athletes Village in Sochi was just an incredible experience.”
By: Denis Gibbons