North American Ice Hockey Gets a Euro Grounding

Tense match-ups and stunning upsets on the ice enliven things in the Torino Esposizioni ice-hockey arena, while poor tickets sales continue to dog attendance at the Winter Olympics.

The Ice Palace: Canada takes on Finland in the snug, 5,500-capacity Torino Esposizioni arena.     Photo: Jack Shaw

Turin Olympics Glossary & Map

As the Turin Winter Olympics races to the finish line with the élan of speedster Shani Davis, we countdown to an alphabetical crescendo of all things Olympian, Italian, and semantically significant. Today:

Monday, February 20

Turin hit full stride this weekend, jammed with people as the XX Giochi Olimpici Invernali passed the mezzo point. Heavy snow in the mountains forced the postponement of several of the Alpine events, including both Men's and Women's Super-G and the Women's Combined. But in the city that meant rain—a cold, soaking rain that made it very difficult to work the hockey arenas looking for spare tickets.

Late last week, the Italian government raided the "legitimate" scalping shops that served as clearinghouses for the blocks of unused sponsor tickets that have plagued the Games with low attendance. They confiscated over 3,500 tickets at one shop alone. Scalping is illegal in Italy, and as much as I hate the agencies that buy up all of the Rolling Stones tickets and hawk them on eBay for a grand a seat, seems they are an unavoidable cog in the supply and demand chain at these Olympics.

Go to any NBA or NFL game and you'll probably see the same impact corporate sponsorship has on attendance as you do here: fans outside desperate for tickets but unused blocks of seats inside belying the idea of a sellout crowd. Batches of tickets at every event are provided to the Olympic sponsors and the "Olympic Family," many of which seem to me to go unused. If they do make their way on to the market illegally, the ticket is essentially being sold twice, so the authorities have put the kibosh on it altogether. Which explains why I was having trouble getting in to see any ice-hockey games.

On the ice, Switzerland continues to play the Torino giant-killer, and after defeating the Czechs, I knew their game against Canada was going to be a good match. I arrived at the Torino Esposizioni arena three hours before the game, confident that I would get in. I met a bunch of Canadians who had been to three, four games, never paying more than face value for a seat. Some even got ten-Euro tickets five minutes after the puck dropped. But Saturday was different. Polizia were everywhere, making the few scalpers very nervous.

Asking price for Category A (80-Euro face value) was 200 Euros and up. And there just weren't any cheap seats available. About a half-hour before the game started, the cops rounded up a dozen of the scalpers, the bagarino, and carted them off. That meant a couple hundred less tickets available for the crowd of soaked and desperate fans. After a half-hour past the start of the game, I caught a tram to the Centro to watch the postponed Men's Super-G on the big screen in the Piazza San Carlo, feeling like a kicked puppy.

The race was re-run after heavy snow and poor visibility forced judges to call it off after 17 racers had completed their runs in the morning. But the course wasn't changed, which prompted the notion that racers who had gone earlier had an unfair advantage. Regardless, it began at 2:30 and everyone had another shot.

Soaked, I arrived just in time to watch Bode's disappointing "Did Not Finish" and Daron Rahlves come in out of the money as well. But the story on the hill was veteran Kjetil Andre Aamodt, the five-time Olympic veteran, winning his record eighth medal. He edged out Austrian Hermann Maier—the Hermanator—by 0.13seconds, and Swiss Ambrosi Hoffman took home the bronze. The U.S. ski team's sole shining moment continues to be Ligety's gold in the Combined. It may well be all we have to cheer about.

I went back to my hotel to warm up and come up with a plan for the rest of the evening. USA was to play Slovakia on the ice at 8 p.m., but I knew that without those extra tickets floating around, it was going to take more than just luck to get in. The kicker was that there wasn't any coverage on RAI 2, Italy's Olympic network; they were showing curling instead. So I changed clothes and headed back to the rink.

The exiting crowd from the Canada-Switzerland game had astounding news: Canada lost 2-0. I was twitching; I needed to see some hockey. But nobody was selling. Finally, fate smiled on me and five minutes to eight, a group of super-cool execs from Sports Market walked up with a wad of extras. A horde of agro Slovakian fans descended on them, demanding and waving Euros in their faces. One guy said something ugly and the Americans said, "You know what, we're NOT selling them to you..." One of them asked me if I needed a ticket, and told me to come along. For free. He said, "Buy me a beer, and we're all good."

Fourth row, blue line! The game was epic. I was surrounded by a sea of Slovaks, singing incomprehensible songs and waving flags. The U.S. came out hard and the first period was as good as hockey gets. Rick DiPietro was playing out of his head in the goal, and it was tied 1-1 after the first 40 minutes. But the Slovakians had the jump on us and Peter Bondra stuffed another one past Team USA in the third, and the boys were stunned and played on their heels the rest of the game. Brian Ralston hit a post that would have tied it with five left in the third, and just like that, it was over and the Slovaks were still undefeated. As for USA, we were still in the hunt but beginning a backslide that could put us dangerously close to going home early.

After the game, downtown Turin had transformed into a street party, with the entire Centro closed to traffic. Concerts, DJ's, laser shows, and people. Hundreds of thousands of people. It was a zoo. I wished I had some more stamina, but after standing around in the rain all day, I was whooped. I passed through the periphery for a little while, then took it back to the hotel.

The next day, the rain continued and the snow piled up in the mountains. I had a ticket in hand for the Canada-Finland ice-hockey game at 9 p.m., as a group of Canuck and Finnish ski-bum friends from Verbier were on their way down to the game and had me covered. So I took the afternoon to visit the Museo Nazionale della Montagna, overlooking Turin from the other side of the Po. Founded in 1874 by the Club Alpini d'Italia, the museum is a gorgeous space dedicated to Italy's rich mountaineering heritage. Scale 3-D models of the Alps, Monte Bianco, Monte Rosa, and Monte Cervino (the Matterhorn) were interspersed with the photography of Vittorio Sella and a special exhibit on classic ski resort poster art of the prewar era. From the observation deck on the roof, on a clear day you can see all of those peaks. But the rain had turned to snow, and you could barely see Turin.

Walking back through town before dinner, you can't help but think about when a good dump hits a big, dirty city. It's like New York; it never looks so clean as when it's snowing. And as soon as it stops, it turns into the nastiest, filthy sludge you've ever seen.

The Verbier crew pulled into town and met me, but not without incident. My friend Sammy got pick pocketed on the streetcar. He actually got off and chased the guy down and got his wallet back. They asked me if we had time to grab a bite and I couldn't resist taking them back to Da Mauro. Another excellent meal, served promptly, and we were at the game on time.

The same problems we had with Slovakia the Canadians were having with Finland. On that bigger international ice, it is difficult to play a hard-checking North American-style game. And the Europeans pass so well and skate so fast, size and strength doesn't match up well.

As Wayne Gretzky's team struggled to a 2-0 deficit in the first period, we noticed his father Walter, the Great Dad sitting in front of us. Only Canadian hockey fans would get the Great One's dad to sign autographs, and they did all game long. Up in the VIP seats, Wayne continued to scratch his head.

The game finished 2-0, and there was an army of devastated red jerseys in the crowd. With USA losing another game to Sweden as well, North America wasn't faring very well in the meat of Round 1. It could be an all-Euro medal fight for the first time since North American professional dream teams have competed in the Games.

The Men's GS goes off today (Monday) and it is Daron Rahlves' last chance to get some hardware in these games. The women race Super-G as well, and Kirsten Clark is in the same boat. It's time for the U.S. to live up to their motto: Best in the World.

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