Arena music in Sochi has American appeal



SOCHI, Russia -- The International Olympic Committee tells the music directors at its sites to not show favoritism, that their mission is to unite the fans watching the events, to get athletes from all countries moved to play at their highest level. Basically, they want the music directors to be Switzerland.

But have a listen as the United States men's hockey team whips Slovenia, 5-1, on Sunday, clinching a spot in Wednesday's quarterfinals. There are no Slovenian hits (surely there's one that has the two million who live there buzzing). You hear a Russian tune every now and then, but mostly what you get is a popular playlist as American as apple pie.

From the organ, it is music from "Star Wars," or the theme from HBO show "Game of Thrones," or, hilariously, Queen's epic ballad "Bohemian Rhapsody." From the IOC-approved playlist, it is LMFAO, Coldplay, U2 and other acts that are more likely to resonate with the Americans, who are already making sweet music on the ice with a 3-0 mark in group play.

So you wonder: What is going on here? Who is this Russian organist who loves American and British hits?

After the game, two Olympic volunteers lead you up the elevator to the fourth floor, down a long hallway and into the room where Dieter Ruehle does his work. He is 45, with long red hair and a scruffy beard, and, wouldn't you know it, he's American.

Ruehle is from Los Angeles, a Kings fan by birth who has played the organ at his favorite team's games since 1989. And not only is Ruehle doing all of the Olympic hockey games at the smaller Shayba Arena, but his counterpart with the New York Rangers, Ray Castoldi, is handling the action at Bolshoy Ice Dome.

So the Russians, who have already questioned whether an American referee should have officiated Saturday's U.S.-Russia game, are letting Americans dictate the atmosphere of the tournament they are supposedly desperate to win? Apparently.

"I don't know what to say to that," Ruehle says with a smile.

How did this get past Russia President Vladimir Putin?

Of course, in his official role as music director and organist at Shayba, Ruehle is saying all the right things.

"It goes both ways," Ruehle says. "Basically, our job is to get both teams pumped up. We celebrate goals for both teams, and I do the same penalty stinger for both teams. You want it to be neutral from our perspective.

"There's a music library that all the DJs at the venues in Sochi choose from. As far as the international music, I was just given the direction of going with mostly what you think fits the best. Because I asked if it needs to be a lot of Russian music, and they didn't say yes, they didn't say no."

It isn't just Ruehle who is choosing songs that are hits in America. Walking around Olympic Park, you are just as likely to hear Green Day or AC/DC as Russian music.

At Shayba, where Team USA also thumped Slovakia, 7-1, on Thursday, the players aren't paying much attention to what's going on around them. But they have noticed familiar tunes driving their pursuit of gold in this foreign land.

"They've done a fantastic job," Team USA center David Backes said. "The atmosphere's been great. Whatever music they want to play to get the crowd going, it seems to work. Occasionally when they're scraping the ice, you get a few notes that make you reminiscent."

The Americans had a tough challenge Sunday in having to recover from their epic shootout victory against the Russians just a day before and hold off a Slovenia team that had just knocked off Slovakia.

For T.J. Oshie, especially, the 20 or so hours between games were a whirlwind he'll never forget. Oshie, whose Twitter following went from about 80,000 to more than 200,000 after making four of his six shootout attempts against the Russians, was whisked from media interviews to a meeting with some of the biggest names at NBC. He met Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth and Dan Patrick, and was so nervous that he was shaking.

Oshie went back to his room and talked by phone with his fiancée, Lauren, who is expecting their first child back in St. Louis. It was well after midnight before he finally calmed down enough to sleep.

"When I got to the rink [Sunday]," Oshie said, "I didn't want this to be something that carried over into our game. I did my pregame routine and took my mind off it."

Playing behind Ruehle's soundtrack, the Americans scored twice in the first five minutes on back-to-back nifty goals by Phil Kessel. He earned his hat trick in the second period, giving the U.S. a 3-0 lead, and the rout was on. Team USA will play the winner of Tuesday's qualification playoff between Slovakia and Czech Republic in the quarterfinals.

Up in the booth, Ruehle was loving it all. This is his fourth Winter Olympics, and he said there are a lot of his fellow arena organists back home who are a bit jealous that he keeps getting the call.

"It's a very awesome event," Ruehle said, "and I'm honored to be a part of it. Every game has this intensity. It's sort of like an NHL playoff game, but different. The teams have got national pride, and the crowds are always energetic. It's a very cool thing to be a part of."


J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough.

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