To Russia, with pucks


By Peter Knutson
Let’s Play Hockey

On Oct. 4, a group of Minnesotans got the opportunity of a lifetime. The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs partnered with USA Hockey and sent a group of youth hockey players to Moscow, Russia in an effort to strengthen relationships between the U.S. and Russia.

The program sent 24 Americans from Minnesota and California. There were five boys, five girls and two coaches from each state. Among the Minnesotans were Matthew Derby, Elliot Moormann, Benjamin Newman, Rory Taylor, Ben Cencer, Laura Bowman, Emilie Brigham, Lauren Wedell, Kaitlin Storo, Rachael Peroutky and coaches Jessica Christopherson and Scott Macho. USA Hockey selected the players and coaches. These 12 players and coaches went for 10 days to play hockey and experience the culture of Russia.

While all the players were excited to go, they never expected the trip to play out like it did. On the first day, their flight was delayed for over an hour and their hockey bags and stick bags were lost on their flight to Washington D.C.

Some of the players knew each other before the trip, which helped to break the ice of being stuck together for the next 10 days. In D.C., they met up with their fellow teammates from California and were greeted by many U.S. diplomats.

The next day, their sticks and equipment had finally arrived. The whole group met with the U.S. State Department and were told what was going to happen overseas. Assistant Secretary Ann Stock gave a speech explaining that, “While the group is going as hockey players and coaches, they are also going as cultural ambassadors of the United States of America. This is a special opportunity to develop relationships and have an experience that not many Americans have had.”

After the meeting, the group headed to the airport and left for Germany. After a long seven-hour layover, and more missing luggage, the team made its way to its final destination, Moscow.

The first day there, the group had to change their plans due to the missing luggage. They went to watch the Russian Red Army hockey team practice. They play in the KHL where many NHL players have gone due to the lockout. Their tour guide was Igor Tuzik, the VP of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation.

After practice, the team got to meet the players and coaches. Among them were Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Bryzgalov and Sergei Federov.

“We were treated like royalty there,” said Macho,the current boys’ varsity coach at South St. Paul. “It was unbelievable. We got to take pictures will all the players, saw the World Cup and got a backstage tour of the whole facility.”

The next day their equipment arrived and they were able to skate. They trained at the Novogorst Training Center, the arena where the Russian National Team trains. The group skated with players from Russia and they ran through many drills, some they learned from the Russian Red Army team. Some of the Russian players were on the national team, but most were local 16- and 17-year-old boys and girls.

“The language barrier was tough, but as soon as the players got on the ice and watched the drawing board they understood,” Macho said. “The language didn’t matter, the hockey took over and everyone spoke the same language.”

“The style of play was noticeably different,” said Christopherson, the Coon Rapids girls’ varsity coach. “The practice was good. The pace was very high and there were a lot of skilled players in the group.”

After practice the group had lunch with the Russian skaters.

“There was definitely a language barrier off the ice, but the Russian kids did their best with what little English they knew, and our kids stayed patient and made it work,” Christopherson said.

After skating, the team went sightseeing. They got to see historic cites such as the St. Basil’s Cathedral and Moscow State University. After a long touring day, the team went to watch the Russian Red Army play St. Petersburg. Again, they were given a backstage tour and met up with the players after the game. The team was given two jerseys, one of which was signed by every player on the Russian Red Army.

The team went to a local school the next day where they got to experience a day in the life of a Russian student. They exchanged gifts with the kids and shared experiences from home. While the players were from opposite sides of the world, the stories and smiles were the same.

“The culture is very unique there,” Macho said. “Everyone lives in bigger apartment complexes. They surround the complexes with youth sporting arenas and training facilities. Each facility houses many different sports. One rink can be used for floor hockey, roller hockey, ice hockey, cheerleading, soccer figure skating, speedskating and dancing. It was unbelievable.

“The one difference I noticed was the funding for these kids playing sports. I asked Tuzik how much it costs to play sports in Russia and he said it was completely free. The government pays for all the kids to play. He told me that, ‘You never know how good a kid is going to be and you don’t want them to be hindered by money.’”

The next day was another to remember.

“There is no way to properly summarize the things we had a chance to experience and the people we were able to meet,” Christopherson said.

The group started the day with on-ice training led by Olympic champion Vitali Prokhorov. He took the kids through some Russian drills that were much different than what they were used to.

“It was really interesting to see our American kids in these situations because most of them are not used to these types of skating sequences,” Christopherson said. “He emphasized edgework and form in all the skating drills.”

After practice the kids went to the Russian Ministry of Sports for a meeting between the Russian Federation and the U.S. Embassy. While there, the group got to see a museum of Russia’s sports history. After a few speeches from both sides, the U.S. group was presented with an authentic Russian jersey for all the kids to sign, which would be hung in the museum on display.

As if the day couldn’t get any better, the team then went to the U.S. Embassy and was greeted by Alex Ovechkin.

“It was absolutely incredible and humbling to be amongst such legendary players, past and present,” Christopherson said.

The team had a dinner there and took pictures with all the players. Not a bad day for a group of high school kids.

Day 8 featured another day of famous players and unique opportunities. After a morning practice the team went to Ovechkin’s KHL team the Dynamo Moscow’s training facility. The Dynamo are currently in first place in the KHL and are the reigning champions.

“The facility was incredible. It was covered with memorabilia from past players,” Christopherson said.

The group was again given a backstage tour and invited to hang with the players for more pictures and autographs. After visiting with the Dynamo team, the group went to Old Arbat Street for some shopping.

Day 9 featured a private tour of the Kremlin, the government headquarters in Russia. The next couple hours were some to remember.

“We were told that 99 percent of Russian citizens would not have gotten that opportunity to see inside it,” Macho said. “It was kind of a surreal moment. I grew up in a small rural town in Minnesota and after this day, it hit me that I was halfway around the world running a practice in the Olympic training center in Russia and seeing things that very few people have ever seen. I will remember this for the rest of my life.”

The team then headed to their final skating session. They scrimmaged the local Russian players in front of hundreds of people. After the game there was closing ceremony and the players said goodbye to their counterparts.

The last day was no shortage of excitement. The group went to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. This was built in remembrance of World War II. The group also got to shop one last time in Red Square. One of the shops was selling Olympic apparel for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. At night, the team finished off their trip with another KHL game, this time featuring the Dynamo and Metallurg.

“The stadium was much more impressive than the first. It was a great end to an awesome trip,” Christopherson said.

After a long day of traveling, the groups from California and Minnesota parted ways and went their separate ways. Ten days of experiencing Russian culture. An experience few will get.

“It is hard to comprehend what an amazing experience we have all been through,” Christopherson said. “We got to meet so many wonderful people and see the rich culture of Russia. Our hosts went far above and beyond what their responsibility was in guiding us. Not only did they act as our tour guides and lead us through Moscow, they mad sure our experience was one to remember. They got to know us and became our friends. There is no way to properly thank them for their efforts.”

“The whole trip, not only from a hockey standpoint, was unbelievable. Everyday exceeded the previous one. We met so many people that we can now call our friends. It was like a who’s who of hockey everyday being led around by Tuzik. I wish I could do it again. We all learned so much and even though we were a long way from home, we still felt like we were at home.”

While the Russian players and the U.S. players are worlds apart, the kids are still the same deep down. They are all just kids playing hockey. They were part of a lifetime experience that they will remember for the rest of their lives. Two countries coming together as one.