Game-changer: Denis Hainault helps Russia re-set the Olympic bar in Sochi

If the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi are to transform Russia as it hopes, then Canada's Denis Hainault may have an important part to play. For the past 18 months, Hainault has been in Moscow organizing the games' glamour event, the Olympic ice hockey tournament.
He cut his Olympic teeth as Director of Ice Events at the 2010 Vancouver/Whistler Games.

But before that he spent 14 years with Hockey Canada managing the men’s and women’s national teams at countless World Championships, World Junior Championships and Olympic events.Loaded with experience,

Russia couldn’t have chosen a better person to mentor their young inexperienced venue managers.

A new life in Moscow brings challenges and excitement

Hainault moved to Moscow in 2010 several months after the Olympic flame in Vancouver’s ice-crystal cauldron was extinguished.

He says he and his wife Wanda wanted to experience something totally different. They are enjoying living in Russia although they admit it has been difficult at times.

“The experience in Russia is interesting (although) not always easy, my wife and I wanted to do something a little different, no doubt about that it is extremely different, we’ve been here 18 months now, we are getting used to the life, we are not homesick and don’t need to go to a Canadian restaurant every week to get a sense of home, Moscow is a big big city you can find everything you want if you can pay for it”

Moscow is a city of extremes. Twelve million people live and work in the shadow of the Kremlin, the Volga and its Stalin-era buildings.

The language is difficult, the Cyrillic alphabet a real challenge although Hainault says they can now understand the street signs.

Hainault's hockey pedigree

Hainault’s Facebook page says he comes from Montreal (where reading streets signs can also be challenge.)

It is a quinessential Canadian hockey city, one that knows a lot about winning and tradition.

The retired shirts of National Hockey League stars like Maurice “Rocket” Richard, Ken Dryden, Guy Lafleur and Patrick Roy hang from the rafters at the Bell Centre, alongside banners marking the 24 Stanley Cups.

Hainault’s ‘Stanley Cup’ arrived on Feb 28th 2010 when Canadian kid Sidney Crosby scored the gold medal winning goal in overtime against the USA at Canada Hockey Place.

Hainault says he felt a sense of relief after the puck went in, a sense that he and his team had met the expectations of a whole nation – a job well done.

Hainault believes Crosby's Olympic magic will become just as iconic as Paul Henderson’s dramatic winner in the 1972 Summit Series.

“Here in Russia they are marking the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Super Series, you can see its impact on life and on hockey not just in Canada and Russia but around the world. (Notwithstanding) the political weight of the ‘72 series, the Sidney Crosby goal is almost as important, 50 years from now people will be celebrating that as well, it will be lined up right alongside Paul Henderson’s goal”

Given Russia’s grand plans for the Sochi Olympics they would welcome something similar.

Can Sochi rehabilitate Russia’s image?

The architect and soul of the Vancouver/Whistler 2010 Winter Games was CEO John Furlong, a transplanted Irishman who thought the Olympics could unite Canada through the power of sport.

Furlong was Hainault’s inspirational boss and said that every successful Olympics must have a vision.

Hainault says that Sochi has a vision and that it's expansive.

“The vision of Sochi is about a new Russia, it is not the same thing we would do in Canada, it is not the same thing that John Furlong would do, but there is a message and it’s coming right from the leader of the country. The government is so much more involved in these games and in the lives of every Russian because of the legacy of the Soviet times, it’s changing slowly but progressively and that’s what Sochi 2014 is trying to do.”

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is hoping to update Russia’s faltering global image by severing ties with its Soviet past once and for all.

He wants the world to believe that Russia is no longer a nepotistic money-machine full of billionaire oligarchs, corporate cronyism, bribe-taking and deal-skimming.

It's a difficult ask as allegations of a tainted Presidential election swirl and rumours of a dodgy real estate deal involving Putin and a $350 million mansion in the Krasnodar area continue to dog him.

Sochi gets a major make-over

At the heart of Sochi's Olympic vision is a giant construction project, possibly the biggest one on the planet.

Hainault says that everything at Sochi is being built from scratch, an Olympic first.

Five new stadia in the Sochi Olympic park -- including the state-of-the-art Bolshoi Ice Palace where the ice hockey final will be held -- are rising from the Circassian sand on the edge of the Black Sea.

This seaside complex will be linked to the resort town of Krasnaya Polyana in the Caucasus mountains by a new 48km long high-speed rail link.

This is where sports ranging from bobsleigh, alpine skiing,  ski-cross and ski jumping will take place.

Hainault says something like 50,000 workers are building roads, hotels, a new airport at Adler, shopping centres, waste disposal systems and other vital infrastructure.

The Russians are hoping this will provide a legacy that will inspire Russian athletes to improve upon their relatively poor showing in Vancouver/Whistler.

Building a legacy

In the modern era, Olympic success is usually measured in two main ways; dollar and cents and the legacy these events leave to their host communities.

Vancouver/Whistler cost about $1.8 billion (Sochi will cost between $6-$33 billion depending on who you believe) and broke even, but left a sporting legacy that might be priceless.

Following a record 14 gold medals, 26 total medals and innumerable personal bests Canadian winter athletes currently have boatloads of confidence and the post-Vancouver/Whistler Olympic results to back it up.

Hainault says that Vancouver/Whistler set a new standard of excellence for Canadian athletes, but he says that Canada must continue to invest in the future of its athetes if they want to keep winning.

Hainault's personal legacy starts with his expertise

Hainault is an expert in logistics and planning. He laughs down the telephone line when he says that his official title is Managing Expert of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Organizing Committee.

But the Olympic legacy is also about mentorship and the transfer of expertise, experience and knowledge from one host city to the next.

The handover of the Olympic flag at the closing ceremonies in Vancouver to Sochi was steeped in symbolism, but it was also a promise to work together.

Hainault says that critics who suggest Canadians are unpatriotic for helping Russia to provide the winning conditions for its athletes are misguided.

"its a global world now, we as Canadians need coaches from other countries, we had Austrian and Americans helping us with Own The Podium, if there are other opportunities for (Canadians) to help somewhere in the major leagues they will always remain Canadian I can tell you that, certainly myself I will remain Canadian, but I also told the Russians I will help them as much as I can because it is their Olympic Games, their turn."

Hainault says that he's not sure what he will do after the Olympic torch in Sochi is passed on to Pyeongchang, South Korea.

But for now he's enjoying the ride.

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