For Pete's Sake
“What in the world is he doing?” Everyone on the bus jumped over to one side to see the helpless man crawling across the busy downtown street of St. Petersburg. “I can’t believe it. No one is helping him.” One of the players stated in a puzzled tone. I certainly had never witnessed a broken bone of that severity. The leg was dangling from the knee down, and most of the guys cringed seeing it. Hockey players are used to seeing gruesome injuries, but even this one was hard to bear. Mike stood up on the bus and jokingly addressed us all, “Boys, welcome to Russia.”
When my best friend Drew approached me at school and asked if I would be interested in going to Russia with him in the upcoming summer, my first thought was that my parents would never let me go. I had never traveled alone and going to Russia would not exactly be the ideal place to send a kid off by himself for the first time.
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I made the phone call to my parents that night and surprisingly got the response: “We will think about it.” I approached Drew the next day and asked him to tell me more about what we would be doing for the two weeks we were in St. Petersburg. He explained to me that he knew the head coach of the professional hockey team in St. Petersburg and that we would have the opportunity to train with the players, while training with other Russian hockey elite who play in the NHL as well. He told me the players’ names who would be training in St. Pete and at that moment I thought to myself that I would be going.
Three months later, we were driving to Chicago O’Hare to cath our flight to St. Petersburg. Drew, along with his older brother Alex, and I were on our way to skate with some of our biggest hockey heroes. We arrived in Russia roughly twenty hours later. It wasn’t just your average trip as we experienced quite a few glitches along the way: our flight from Berlin to St. Petersburg was changed; and later, upon delayed arrival to our destination, our bags were lost. Luckily enough for us, Barry Smith, the coach of CKA, was there with his Russian driver to pick us up and help us through the entire ordeal.
Drew, Alex, and I were then taken to the team dorm where we would be staying. It was located right in the heart of downtown St. Petersburg. We had just settled into our rooms when we were told that the bus had arrived to take us to the ice rink. The drive took about twenty minutes – the time was mostly due to heavy traffic, not distance, but it gave us the chance to get a peek of our new world and introduce ourselves to the players. On the bus, we met the three other Americans who would be staying at the house with us – one of whom was an NHL player, Mike Weber. Mike had already been to St. Petersburg the summer before. He explained to us what we would most likely be doing on a daily basis and then went on to tell us of some of his previous experiences, while at the same time, pointing out interesting features on the street, such as the helpless man.
For the next two weeks, Mike’s rendition about our training was completely accurate: a tough off-ice workout with the team trainer in the morning, then skating for two hours, a second dry land workout in the afternoon, and finally back to the house at 3:00 p.m. for lunch. On a few occasions, we would head back to the rink for another skate with Barry later in the evening. At other times, we would walk around downtown St. Pete.
But Barry told us that this trip was not solely for hockey. He wanted us to truly experience Russia, its people, and its culture. He took us to things such as a professional soccer game, gave us a city tour of St. Petersburg, and on our last day, a trip to the State Hermitage Museum. But a moment that will forever be etched in my memory is the time when the NHL players invited Drew and me out for dinner. We ate in amazement, seated next to hockey gods: Sergei Brylin, Andrei Zyuzin, and Robert Esche (one of the few Americans to play on the team). They shared their stories with us about their days in the NHL. After dinner, we continued to be a little star struck and then the bill came. We were completely unaware that we had been taken to the nicest restaurant in St. Petersburg. The bill came to $3,000 American dollars. Our three friends proceeded to argue over who would be picking up the tab as each one of them wanted to pay for our meal.
As the trip came to an end, I reflected on the amazing opportunity that I had been given: the experience to make unforgettable memories with a friend; the challenge of navigating the world, its landmarks, and languages; the occasion to try new and interesting meals, music, and more; and the chance to travel a land, know its people, and share a moment in time. Although Russia certainly left an indelible mark on me, it is my hope that I, too, left a lasting impression upon my new Russian friends.