NHLPA providing a home away from home for players and their families in Sochi

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NHLPA lounge
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The PA Lounge at the Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi is like an upscale sports bar.

SOCHI, Russia – The most exclusive club in Sochi is not in the city. It is not in the Olympic Village, where the athletes have their own hot spot to relax and socialize. It is tucked inside the Bolshoy Ice Dome.

There are two ways in: You can walk from the dressing room area down a red carpet, or you can squeeze through a nondescript gate in the Olympic Park right across from the flame, if you know the gate is there.

But there are only two ways to get in: Be an NHL Olympian. Know an NHL Olympian.

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This is the PA Lounge, a little upscale sports bar like you might find in, say, Toronto. It is one of two sanctuaries the NHL Players’ Association set up for its members, families and friends during the Olympics. The other is the PA House, an event tent with food, beverages and even a live band at the Bridge Resort, where families and friends are staying nearby.

The NHLPA had a lounge four years ago in Vancouver. But it wasn’t like this, and the vibe wasn’t like this. The players, families and friends spread out in the big city then. They don’t have anywhere to go in Sochi now – or they don’t know where to go – so they have come together as their own community within the larger event.

The Olympics always mixes people from different sports, countries and cultures. The same thing is happening in the PA Lounge and PA House, only with an NHL twist. You’ll see Finns and Americans and Russians and Canadians and Swedes. You’ll see Penguins and Capitals and Rangers and Blackhawks and Ducks. You’ll see players stopping by on off days or after games, and you’ll see parents who otherwise would never have met hanging out and having a blast. You’ll see part of the reason the players are raving about this experience and saying they want to keep coming to the Olympics.

“It really helps us out as players,” said Team Canada’s John Tavares. “You want to bring your family. You want them to enjoy this experience as much you are. At the same time, you don’t really have much time and much energy to give them. Especially going to such a different country, you have no idea of your whereabouts and speaking the language. It’s very beneficial to have the NHL and the PA to be able to do this for us and make it easy.”

NHL players aren’t getting paid to be here. They want to experience the Olympics like other athletes. They are staying in the village – in the same spartan rooms, on the same basic beds – as curlers and speedskaters. They are eating the athletes’ dining hall. They are walking and biking from the village to the venues.

[Women's hockey: Canada shocks U.S. with comeback for the ages]

But they are also celebrities among celebrities – the bigger stars can’t go anywhere without being stopped for autographs and pictures, even among their fellow Olympians – and sometimes they want to kick back with the hockey crowd in a comfortable environment. They have a lot in common, no matter their NHL team or country.

“A lot of guys know each other obviously from playing with and against each other,” said Team Canada’s Jonathan Toews. “We see each other in the cafeteria in the village. Everyone’s talking amongst each other. Once you get on the ice, obviously it’s a different story. Everyone’s proud to represent their country. But it doesn’t mean that you’re not friends with those guys that you spend all of your time with back home.”

Their family and friends have a lot in common, too. Toews’ father, Bryan, sat next to Chris Kunitz’s father, Marvin, during a practice. He had met Evgeni Malkin’s father and Teemu Selanne’s father.

“That was kind of interesting to run into those guys and say hello,” Bryan Toews said. “It’s pretty cool. Normally when you travel with Hockey Canada, whether it was at the last Olympics or the world championships, you’re just with your Hockey Canada family. So here we’re all together, so it’s pretty neat.”

“We met some new people, plus we met some people that we’ve been on other trips with on other teams, so it’s pretty cool, actually,” Marvin Kunitz said. “A lot of fun.”

There is a special ticket window at the Bridge Resort so family and friends can go to events (and so the players don’t have to spend time and energy arranging it). There are special shuttles inside and outside the gates of the Olympic Park for the NHL and NHLPA folks. Some of this came out of the negotiations with the International Ice Hockey Federation and the International Olympic Committee – like the space for the lounge and the access for the shuttles – and some of this is purely an NHLPA production, a service for the members.

T.J. Oshie saw his family in the PA Lounge after his shootout heroics against Russia. Former figure skater Michelle Kwan and actor Taylor Kitsch each stopped by at one point. The other night, Malkin was out on the red carpet with his family after a game, while Patrick Kane was inside leaning back on the sofa on an off night, watching a game on the biggest of the five flat screens. Mats Zuccarello, Justin Faulk, Jimmy Howard … Max Pacioretty was there, too, but he rode off on his bike. United States, Russia, Norway. St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Chicago, New York, Carolina, Detroit, Montreal. Olympics, NHL, NHLPA.

“It’s great,” Marvin Kunitz said. “It’s a great experience. It’s something that everybody should get to enjoy, but it doesn’t work that way.”

It’s the most exclusive club in Sochi, and it’s shutting down soon.

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