In October 2012, the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, in partnership with USA Hockey, sent 24 Americans (20 players and 4 coaches) to Moscow, Russia for ten days of sports and cultural diplomacy with their Russian counterparts. The players and coaches were selected through an application process by their respective coaches associations and Minnesota Hockey.
Below is a blog, kept by the American coaches, that will give you insight into the day-to-day activities of the group.
Well....we have been home for four days now it's still hard to comprehend what an amazing experience we have all been through. I feel confident in saying that every one of us feels like this was a once in a lifetime opportunity; from the people that we were able to meet, the sites we got to visit and the relationships that we formed...everything about this trip exceeded expectations.
We can honestly say that the NHL lockout was good to us! :) We all had hopes of meeting Ovechkin when we left on this adventure, but there is no way we could have predicted just how far our hosts would go with the celebrity encounters. Ovechkin, Datsyuk, Bryzgalov, Kovalchuk, Tretiak, Federov, Myshkin, Yakushev, Tuzik....it was unreal. Every single one of them took the time to interact with us, whether it was on the ice, for pictures, or signing autographs....they left us with great memories. Note: NHL - it's okay to start now!
Moscow is a beautiful city and not only did we get to see it, we got to see it in a way that the casual tourist or visitor would not be able to (thanks to our amazing hosts). The buildings are full of history and rich with tradition - I can't tell you the number of times someone in our group said "if these walls could talk." We were given access to some of Moscow's greatest treasures and had the opportunity to learn about them from private tour guides and legendary athletes and public figures.
Our Russian 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 made sure our experience was one to remember. They got to know us and became our friends. They wanted to learn from us just as much as we wanted to learn from them. They felt responsibility in the airlines losing our luggage and for being stuck in traffic. Their first and only priority was to make sure we all left Russia with great memories. There is no way to properly thank them for their efforts!
From a coaching standpoint, we were all very impressed with how quickly our kids formed relationships with the Russian players. It truly is a testament to the fact that, at the end of the day, they're all just hockey players and kids, and that mentality has no boundaries. There were many tough goodbyes at the end of the trip and they will undoubtedly remain in touch via Facebook, Twitter and email.
We would also like to thank the U.S. Department of State, specifically SportsUnited, USA Hockey, Minnesota Hockey and our respective Coaches Associations for the work they did in making this trip a reality. This was an experience that we will never forget!
Today was our last day to enjoy Moscow and we made the most of it! We started the day off with a quick breakfast and headed out to visit the Museum of the Great Patriotic War (WW2). We got to see the Hall of Glory and the Hall of Remembrance, which honor those that fought and those that gave their lives.
Unfortunately, we were unable to go to the second level because Moscow's military students happened to be getting commissioned at that time. Great honor for them, bummer for us. Nonetheless, it was a great experience for the kids and one of which they will never forget.
Luckily, we were able to use the extra time for some more shopping in Red Square. We cannot get enough of this place. The kids and coaches all split up into small groups to do their last minute shopping. Many of us frequented the Bosco store, which is the brand for all of the Sochi '14 Olympic apparel. The kids all scooped up a bunch of souvenirs and other items they felt to be "worthy." :)
We left Red Square around 1:30pm and headed to a small restaurant - it was a small place owned by one of our Russian hosts' friends. They served an incredible mix of Russian and American cuisine and it was way more food than any of us were prepared for. However, it was a great meal and we all had a great time.
When we finished eating, we boarded the bus again and headed to our second KHL game - Dynamo vs Metallurg. This stadium was much more impressive than the first and many of us stopped to spend our last Rubles on team merchandise. Dynamo won 3-2 and it was a great venue to watch some pretty good hockey. It was a great end to an awesome day.
We are all pretty bummed out that we are leaving tomorrow. This has been such an amazing experience - we have met incredible people and had a chance to be a part of some unbelievable experiences. No one expected it to be like this. We are all very proud and honored to have been selected to be a part of this trip. Off to America tomorrow!
Our first stop today was one of the most desired places to visit in all of Moscow and is one of the largest architectural ensembles in the world...the Kremlin. It was more than anything we could have expected. The buildings were so beautiful and majestic - it was like we were on a movie set or something because it just didn't seem real. The Kremlin has been formed throughout many centuries and features many palaces, chambers and gold domed buildings.
We walked around inside the Kremlin for a short time, taking pictures and just checking everything out. The detail that went into these structures is absolutely unreal. We also found out that we would have the opportunity to tour the inside of the Grand Kremlin Palace (not open to the public). This is the building where much of the government business in Moscow is conducted and is also considered a residence for the President. The tour was incredible!
Following the Kremlin outing, we headed back to Novogorst Training Center for lunch. We also packed up our equipment from the locker rooms as we were scheduled to skate next at Megasport Arena. This is the same facility (different ice sheet) where the Red Army plays their games. Everyone was pretty excited for a change in venue and also because we would actually get a chance to compete.
Before we arrived at the arena, our Russian hosts had yet another surprise for us. We stopped at a municipal building and found out that we would have the opportunity to pose with the IIHF World Cup Trophy. Russia is the current champion.
We arrived at the arena shortly after 6:00pm for a "charity game" with some Russian players. These were different players than we have been training with and their ages varied. We shared some players between teams and enjoyed a fun, yet competitive scrimmage. The event included media, as well as opening and closing ceremonies. It was a great way to end the hockey portion of the trip. The kids all exchanged jerseys and other items from home and everyone had a great time.
Team with World Cup Trophy
This morning we had our last ice session at Novogorst Training Center. The Russian coaches and American coaches collaborated on a practice plan that included many skating sequences, puckwork and some 2 v 0's and 2 v 1's. Per usual, it was very high tempo. We ended the session with about thirty minutes of 3 v 3 with a passing option. It's really fun to see the different styles and habits of American hockey vs those of European hockey when they are meshed together in this type of setting. The Europeans tend to play more "east/west" with great support and fluid passing. The Americans typically want to go "north/south", get the puck up ice right away and attack the net.
After practice, we noticed some speedskaters working out in the second rink. It was incredible to see that up close. Supposedly, one of the Russian male skaters is considered one of the best in the world. They removed the boards and added portable pads to complete the track - it was a cool set up.
Following a quick lunch, the group walked over to the Dynamo practice facility. Dynamo Moscow is currently number one in their division of the KHL, and they are the reigning KHL champions. The facility was incredible. The interior was covered with jerseys, trophies, pictures....so much memorabilia. It covered past players and their incredible accomplishments - Olympians, NHL'ers and so much more.
We also caught the tail end of their practice and were able to watch the team as they played 3 v 3 and then a little bit of 4 v 3. Of course, all of the kids were scouting out Alex Ovechkin and he didn't disappoint...he scored a great goal in all alone with the goaltender. He even shot a puck up into the netting when he recognized our group up in the stands. After their practice ended, he invited us down for a group picture. He also came out to the lobby after he changed and signed more autographs for our kids. He has been awesome to our group and we are looking forward to the Dynamo game on Saturday.
We are still trying to process the incredible people we have met and the opportunities we have been given on this trip - it certainly is a once in a lifetime experience!
Following the Dynamo outing, the group got on the bus and headed downtown Moscow for some shopping on Old Arbat Street. It was a beautiful setting, although it is always cloud here, and everyone was looking forward to buying souvenirs and food from the various street vendors.
Unfortunately though, the dreaded Moscow traffic got the best of us on the way home. Our 45 minute trip took well over two hours! Regardless, we made it back and had dinner and a short meeting before saying goodbye to our Russian hockey friends. They are returning to school tomorrow. It was another great day, still so hard to believe we are here and experiencing all of this.
United States Athletes & Coaches
Coaches with Ovechkin
Team with Ovechkin
Today was amazing. There is no way to properly summarize the things we had a chance to experience and the people we were able to meet. We started off the day with breakfast as usual. Kids are getting into a steady routine and adapting nicely to the food and meal schedule. After breakfast, we headed over to the rink for our ice session and learned that we would be joined on the ice by Olympic Champion Vitali Prokhorov. He was awesome - he put the kids through some great skating drills, emphasizing edgework and form. It is really interesting to see our American kids in these situations because most of them are not used to these types of skating sequences. We are learning a lot about how the Europeans train and I think many of us will be taking this stuff back to our own teams.
After practice, we rushed through lunch and got dressed up for some special events. First, we headed dowtown to Moscow to the Ministry of Sports of the Russian Federation. The crazy Russian traffic made things difficult once again, but we eventually got there. We were able to walk through the museum and see some incredible memorabilia from Russia's sports history.
Jersey on display at Russian Ministry of Sport
Then we were seated for a press conference with the U.S. Embassy and the Ministry. Sergei Shelpakov, Deputy Minister of Sports of the Russian Federation, gave a great speech about building relationships through sports and the importance of coming together as a united group for the greater good. Emily Kenealy, Assistant Cultural Affairs Office for the U.S. Embassy of Moscow, also spoke and expressed heartfelt gratitude on behalf of our group. Lastly, all of the players and coaches signed an authentic Russian jersey to be displayed in the museum.
After the reception, we got back on the bus and sat in traffic for another 90 minutes...you cannot even imagine what this traffic is like. Six lanes, sometimes more, bumper to bumper ALL THE TIME. It is insane. However, it has actually been great for the kids as it has given them a lot of extra time with the Russian players.
We arrived at the U.S. Embassy and waited in line to get through security. As we were standing there, a car pulled up and out comes Alex Ovechkin (Washington Capitals & Dynamo Moscow during the lockout). That was pretty cool for a group of high school kids! The surprises didn't end there. The reception, held for our program and in honor of our group taking the trip to Russia, was basically a "who's who" of Russian hockey. In addition to Ovechkin, Sergei Federov, Pavel Datsyuk, Vladislov Tretiak and Igor Tuzik were also there to greet, talk, sign autographs and take pictures with us. It was absolutely incredible and humbling to be amongst legendary players, past and present.
Team with Federov, Datsyuk, Ovechkin & Tretiak
This morning we got to visit a school in Moscow. We were greeted by an enthusiastic crowd of kids and teachers - they even made us necklaces with handprints to signify the "hands of friendships." We listened to a history lesson on Moscow and then the group split up to attend actual class sessions. After that, they put on a play, sang some songs and recited poems to us. It was a great introduction to the Russian Culture.
After the school visit, the kids came back to Novogorst with us and we all went into a conference room to watch a video on the 1972 Summit Series. We were honored to be joined by legendary Soviet player Alexander Yakushev, who was gracious enough to go through a question and answer session with our kids and coaches. He talked about the pressure of playing for the Soviets in a time were there were great tensions around the world.
Following the question and answer session, our teams took the young students over to the arena and gave them a tour of the locker rooms. Our kids are doing a great job of interacting and breaking down the language barrier with their Russian counterparts.
After the tour, our kids met for lunch and then headed over to the arena for practice. Our session today was run by the Russian coaches and featured a lot of skating and fundamentals. It is an honor to be on the ice with the Vice President of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, Igor Tuzik.
Following practice, we headed to dinner and then a team meeting. At the meeting, all of the kids and coaches were presented with some gifts from our Russian hosts. Items in the gift bag included: Summit Series notebooks, a patch commemorating our program here in Moscow, a commemorative pin & a limited edition hardcover book about the great goaltender, Vladislav Tretiak.
Team with elementary school kids
Today was our first day on the ice! We got up and went to breakfast as usual, and then headed over to the rink. It is a nice facility and the ice is wider, but not longer, than an NHL sheet. The locker rooms are nice as well and we will be keeping our stuff there for the entire week.
The American and Russian coaches collaborated on a practice plan last night and ran the kids through a series of skating sequences to get warmed up. There were some obvious differences in styles and you could tell pretty quickly which kids had done skating specific training. After that, we moved into some passing and shooting drills and even worked in a shootout game before we resurfaced. We split the girls and boys up for the second part of practice and did some 3 v 3 and other small area games. It was a good practice - good pace and there are definitely some skilled players in this group!
After practice we ate lunch and headed out on a bus tour of Moscow. The Russian kids and coaches joined us and the kids are quickly becoming friends. Our tour guide pointed out several historical sites, like Moscow State, and we stopped at a couple of places for pictures. This city is beautiful and full of so much history.
Our main stop was at Red Square. We explored, shopped and took pictures for a couple of hours - this place is incredibly amazing. We did have a couple of kids almost get pickpocketed, but luckily the group handled those situations and everyone was fine.
At about 6:15pm, our bus picked us up and we headed to our first KHL game of the week. HC CSKA Moscow v SKA St Petersburg. In addition to Bryzgalov and Datsyuk, the game featured NHL'ers Kovalchuk and Prucha. It was an awesome game with SKA winning 4-2. Datsyuk had two points and Kovalchuk had a hat trick and an assist.
After the game, we were ushered down to the media waiting area where we were presented with two jerseys - one of which was signed by the entire team. We also got to meet and take pictures with Ilya Kovalchuk! It was an awesome experience and he was so nice to our group.
Moscow from Sparrow Hill
Team with Ilya Kovalchuk
The Ladies at Sparrow Hill
Today began early and with great excitement. The missing luggage and equipment did cause a few wrinkles in the schedule, but our Russian hosts were great about finding substitute activities. We ate breakfast at the training center and it was awesome. They had a ton of food and many things that were very familiar to us...eggs, meat and cheese, crepes, fruit, yogurt, etc.
After breakfast, we loaded up the bus and headed to the arena to watch the Russian Red Army practice. Their official name is HC CSKA Moscow and they play in the KHL. We were fortunate to be guided on this endeavor by Igor Tuzik, the VP of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation. We got to watch and film their practice, which was really cool. The coaches picked up on some new drills and schemes to try and the kids really enjoyed watching some NHL players that are playing here during the lockout.
After practice was done, the team got to meet and take photos with Pavel Datsyuk (Detroit Red Wings) and Ilya Bryzgalov (Philadelphia Flyers). It was incredible to see these guys and for them to be so friendly to our group. Sergei Federov was also there - he is the GM for CSKA.
When the players left, Tuzik took us on a tour of the facility and talked to us about the history of Russian hockey and how they do things. They even had a sheet of ice on the third floor where a group of peewee players were practicing. In Russia, kids are indentified early as "having talent" and then they are brought to sport schools and/or the training center for further development.
After the practice and tour, the group came back to the training center to relax for a bit and get more comfortable. The rooms here are dorm style and the kids are paired up with a player from a different state. This is a great set up for us and we are very lucky to have hosts that want to make sure we have everything we need. We have been very spoiled thus far.
This afternoon, we headed to an outdoor sport court facility for what we believed was a chance to watch some Russian floorball. When we arrived and got off the bus, we were greeted by Russian dancers and cheerleaders...and quickly realized that we were the opponent in the floorball game. There wasn't much time to react though and our kids were quickly divided up into lines with the Russian players for some relays and warm-up activities. Right after that, they played :). The game was a blast and all of the kids were having a ton of fun. It was interesting to see our kids trying to use their hockey skills and transfer them as much as possible to the floorball game. They got into the spirit of it right away and had a great time.
After the game, they had pizza and immediately the kids were talking, getting to know each other and, of course, exchanging names for Facebook and Twitter purposes. There was definitely a language barrier, but the Russian kids did their best with what little English they knew, and our kids stayed patient and made it work. It was an unbelievable icebreaker and great event put on by our Russian hosts.
We ended the night with another late dinner (it is common to eat here around 8:30pm) and then a meeting with the Russian players and coaches.
Red Army practice
Team with Ilya Bryzgalov
The international flight was LONG. Seven hours and 24 minutes, to be exact. We all tried to sleep, but the time of day was a little goofy for that, so most were not able to. We landed in Frankfurt, Germany around 7:30am (1:30am in Minnesota). Now everyone was tired and we had about a seven hour layover in front of us.
We found our gate and quickly realized that not many people were going to speak any English. The group of crabby kids and coaches with the USA warm-ups on drew the attention of anyone we walked by and we weren't getting much help from anyone. Regardless, everyone just split up and did their own thing...some ate, some did homework and some tried to sleep. The time actually went by fairly quickly.
About an hour before our flight, we learned that our gate had been moved. On the screen, it simply said "d" and there was no gate number listed. There were over 50 gates in the D section and the signs said gates 1-20 and 44-50 were in one direction, while gates 21-43 were in another. Great. We took a guess and headed down some stairs to try and find help. We ran into a police officer, but unfortunately no advice. He sarcastically told us he was "just a police office" and it wasn't his job to give gate information. Perfect. We eventually figured it out, though, and made it in plenty of time.
This morning we checked out of our rooms and met for breakfast at 7:15am. We all wore our SportsUnited t-shirts and it really felt like everyone was on the same page and excited to get going on this journey together. The coaches handed out Minnesota Hockey hats and pins, as well as USA Hockey keychains and pins, to each coach and player. Everyone will keep one of these items and use the others as gift exchanges with our Russian counterparts. Note: the stick bag finally showed up!
At 8:15am, the group boarded the bus and headed "inside the beltway" for meetings at the U.S. State Department. We were given our passports and visas and then settled into a conference room. Several people spoke on behalf of the program and the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, but the most impressive speaker was Assistant Secretary, Ann Stock. Her message was simple, but important....we were being sent to Russia as hockey players and coaches, but we were also "cultural ambassadors of the United States of America" and we needed to take this opportunity to develop relationships. She explained that we all had a special opportunity in front of us and we would be able to "have conversations that governments couldn't have." She emphasized that the Foreign Affairs Division of the United States and Russian Governments fully supported this program as a means to work on building relationships between the two countries.
There were several media outlets covering our program and many of the kids and coaches were interviewed, both on camera and for print interview. The State Department is going to collect all of these stories and send them to us.
We met at 9:45am this morning and, despite several group check-in "hurdles", we successfully got ten kids and two coaches through security with plenty of time to spare. We grabbed some lunch and rifled through some "get to know you" type conversations before we boarded the plane. Some of our kids already knew each other, or had at least played against each other, so that helped break the ice as well.
Once we boarded the plane, everyone was seated and ready to go when it was announced that we would be slightly delayed due to a "loose screw in one of the overhead compartments." Better yet, when the mechanic showed up 45 minutes later, he proceeded to rip off two pieces of duct tape and "fix" the compartment. Wow.
Once we were finally on our way, about 90 minutes late, the flight was just fine. We landed in DC at Dulles Airport around 5:00pm and were greeted by Ryan Murphy and Ray Harvey from the U.S. State Department. They are our lead contacts for the SportsUnited Division that is largely responsible for this trip. We collected our luggage (minus the hockey bags and stick bag that didn't make the plane) and headed outside to our bus where the California contingent was already waiting.
American athletes during a teambuilding exercise
The group that was on the later flight (from DC) was not so lucky. They had some maintenance issues and were delayed an additional four hours and barely made the plane in Germany. They literally ran through the gate at the last second. Once again, their bags would not make the trip.
The flight itself was great and we landed in Moscow about three hours later. Shockingly (sarcasm), not all of our bags made it. We were missing about 20 bags again, including the stick bag. The kids and coaches with the missing luggage went through a terrible process where they were almost interrogated by the Russian airport officials. Somehow, they left feeling like the lost luggage was their fault. Interesting.
The group was transported to Novogorst Training Center, where the Russian National Teams train, and dropped off for their stay in Russia. We ate a very late meal and got everyone to bed. The upcoming schedule is packed and everyone was exhausted....but we were finally in Russia!
When our "debrief" concluded, we were taken on a short tour of Washington DC. We saw the White House, Capital Building, Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. Some did additional interviews and then we headed back to the hotel to get our luggage and change into our USA Hockey warm-ups for travel. The team had a great meal at Champps and we were off to the airport.
Check-in was interesting, once again, but we made it through just fine. Most of the team spread out to charge cell phones and computers before the long flight and everyone was pretty quiet and tired from the long day. Our plane took off around 5:30pm EST. Five members of our group left on a later flight and we will all meet up in Germany.
Our next stop was George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia where the kids participated in some team building activities and more "get to know each other" exercises. These activities were geared towards brainstorming, being creative and working as a team to solve a problem. The kids did a great job and it was very effective in breaking down the communication walls and getting 20 strangers to open up to each other.
United States Contingent: James Blount (San Francisco, CA), Laura Bowman (Minnetonka, MN), Emilie Brigham (Anoka, MN), Rachel Carranza (San Francisco, CA), Benjamin Cencer (Clear Lake, MN), Elizabeth Chapman (Los Angeles, CA), Carter Dahl (San Francisco, CA), Matt Derby (Big Lake, MN), Victoria Huynh (Los Angeles, CA), Garett Kingsbury (Bakersfield, CA)Gabriella Monaco (Vermont), Elliot Moorman (Saint Paul, MN), Jacob Olenak (San Francisco, CA), Rachel Peroutky (Farmington, MN), Alexander Stoley (San Francisco, CA), Kaitlin Storo (Chanhassen, MN), Rory Taylor (Minneapolis, MN), Anastasia Thompson (Los Angeles, CA) & Lauren Wedell (Arden Hills, MN). Coaches: Jessica Christopherson (Coon Rapids, MN), Bret Kingsbury (Bakersfield, CA), Scott Macho (South St Paul, MN) & Emily Teachout (San Francisco, CA).
U.S. Department of State Announces American Ice Hockey Envoys to Russia
The U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, in partnership with USA Hockey, announces that a group of American ice hockey players will travel as Youth Sports Envoys to Moscow, Russia, October 5-14, 2012. The upcoming program supports the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commision's efforts to strengthen relationships between the people of the United States and Russia.
The program will send 24 Americans - ten boys, ten girls and four coaches - for ten days of sports and cultural diplomacy with their Russian counterparts. The participants were selected in coordination with USA Hockey and hail from Minnesota and California. During this exchange, the group will engage with their Russian peers through ice hockey and other cultural programs.
This exchange reciprocates a 2011 program that brought 24 Russian ice hockey players and coaches to Washington DC. It is the final of eight exchanges that were a part of a 2009 agreement between the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the Russian Ministry of Sports, Tourism and Youth Policy, under the auspices of the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission's Education, Culture, Sports and Media Working Group.
Sports diplomacy builds on Secretary Clinton's vision of "smart power," which embraces the use of full range of diplomatic tools, including sports exchanges, to bring people together for greater understanding.
SportsUnited is the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs' Division devoted to sports diplomacy programs at the U.S. Department of State. Since 2003, SportsUnited has brought more than 1,000 athletes from over 60 countries to the U.S. to participate in Sports Visitor programs. Since 2005, SportsUnited has sent more than 220 U.S. athletes to over 50 countries to participate in Sports Envoy programs.