Like the Cold War, but with much more actionsophie penney

Ice hockey is Russia’s most popular sport. Living in Russia, my cultural assimilation would never be complete without going to watch a game. But it turns out that these games are not emblematic of Russian culture. Instead, they try to fuse the cultures of the world’s greatest rivals: Russia and America.

This was more a spectacle than a game of sport, focusing on a pure entertainment value that can only be described as American. When I walked through the gates, multicoloured lights swooped around the darkened stadium and American pop music was booming throughout the stands. Two DJs were stationed in the middle of the ice, getting the party started.

Even when the lights went up and the match commenced, there was no stopping the entertainment factor from working its way into the game. At every break in play (which are about every 30 seconds in ice hockey) the American pop music would blare, keeping the crowd’s hype level up. Cheerleaders would appear in the gangways waving their pompoms to the beat, and there is even a kiss cam.

This is not to say that the Russians don’t add their own twists. Interspersed with the pop music were video clips of songs from Soviet films, shown on the big screen above the ice rink. These were bizarre to say the least, one showing soldiers gleefully chanting about going off to war to fight for their motherland, and another with a pirate rolling a die.

Perhaps the most quintessentially Russian aspect of the game was the giant Gazprom balloon floating around the stadium during the breaks. This remote-controlled emblem of Russia’s oil-based power swooped around the stands, serving as a reminder of government control or widespread corruption, depending on the nationality and perspective of the spectator.

I never thought I would see the cultures of the world’s two greatest rivals unite in one sports match. These polar opposites seemed to come together but never fully gel, yet somehow the American elements were deemed permissible, perhaps even necessary, for the greater good of the game.

Ice hockey is also incredibly popular in Finland, but the experience of the game seems to be very different there, as a friend explained to me: “Here in Russia the game was more of a spectacle, you know, the American way. In Finland it’s really just about the ice hockey – not all the teams even have cheerleaders there. If they stop the game they continue playing straight away. I found the game experience here in Russia really strange. I go [to Finland] to see the teams play, not to see some random people dancing on the screen. But the differences are probably only because they don’t have that much money in Finland.”

Every country seems to have their own version of the original. Except for the UK. And trust me, we’re missing out. It is by far the most exciting sport I’ve ever seen live.

It’s so fast that your eyes are constantly moving, trying to follow the puck as it flies around at incredible speeds. In fact, it actually often does fly, higher than the barriers, making the spectator a little tense at times!

The speed makes attacks on the other team’s goal much more exhilarating, as a sudden super-fast strike will be hit right at the goal and the goalie will have to rely on lightning reactions.

The game I saw was also incredibly violent, with many bodies being slammed against the side, three sticks ending up broken in half, and several heads hitting the ice. Players seem totally unfazed by the fact that their eyes are centimetres away from sharp blades, and by the possibility of bones being broken by the force. Yet they made no fuss, just got up and carried on in a heartbeat (except for the occasional fight).

There is no doubt that this game also involves incredible skill: their changes of direction on ice are what any English netballer would dream of; their sprinting pace equal to anything you could see on an athletics track.

This game in particular was special from a supporter’s point of view. When SKA scored their winning goal, every single person in the 13,000-strong crowd jumped to their feet in a roar of excitement: that image will remain with me for a long time.

With so many home supporters present, the war-like chanting of ‘pobezhdat’ (‘win’), ‘tolko SKA i tolko pobeda’ (‘only SKA and only victory’) and ‘davai SKA’ (‘come on SKA’) was a powerful force, driving the home side toward victory.

It is rare that you get to go to a match where everyone is supporting the same team. Of course, in Russia travelling to see an away game is a bit more of an ordeal. When St Petersburg play Vladivostok the away fans would face a 10-hour flight to support their team. But what a game they would be watching when they got there.