May 4, 2003
Postcard: From Russia, with pucks

By Scott Monaghan

Remember when you were a kid and your parents kept harping on you about not knowing how good you have it? How they had to walk uphill both ways to school? Through a blizzard … with no shoes …

U.S. National Under-18 Team College Commitments
Player College
Mike Brown (F) Michigan
Matt Cohen Yale
Dusty Collins Northern Michigan
J.D. Corbin Denver
Kevin Coughlin UMass Lowell
Jacob Dowell Wisconsin
Robbie Earl Wisconsin
T.J. Hensick Michigan
Chris Holt Nebraska-Omaha
Matt Hunwick Michigan
Jeff Likens Wisconsin
Ryan Maki Harvard
Steve Mandes Harvard
Adam Pineault Boston College
David Robertson Brown
Wylie Rogers Alaska Fairbanks
Josh Sciba Notre Dame
Bobby Selden Northern Michigan
Ryan Suter Wisconsin
A.J. Thelan Michigan State

Well the 22 players on the US National Under-18 Team returned to America from the World Under-18 Championship recently to tell their parents and friends that those people have no idea how good they have it.

Two weeks in the heart of Russia will make a young man that introspective.

The annual tournament is the ‘first’ of three men’s World Championships sponsored by the International Ice Hockey Federation. It may bring together the most talent as well. With the exception of Canada, and to a lesser extent the US, all participants have their top players. Unlike the World Juniors, none of the top-end players have been lost to pro hockey at 18 or 19 (i.e. – Kovalchuk, Heatley, Tanabe). This event is pure talent on stage representing their countries for the first time, and being evaluated in their draft year. Even in a year marked by security and travel concerns, combined with a remote and less-than-luxurious location, there were still over 200 NHL scouts registered for the event.

The United States entered this year as the defending champion, after fielding a tremendously talented club in Slovakia last year featuring the likes of Ohio State’s Ryan Kesler, Colorado College’s Mark Stuart, Maine’s Jim Howard and Boston College’s Patrick Eaves.

Extra security measures were employed by both USA Hockey and the organizing committee as a result of concerns surrounding the war and terrorism. Add a 28-hour trip overseas that included two bus rides and three plane flights, and Team USA’s 3-3 tie with Belarus in the opening game of the tournament just 36 hours after arrival was understandable. Team USA blew a three-goal lead in the third period, as the lack of a good in-flight movie caught up to them.

The Americans, short several of the top players in the 1985 age group, battled through the first round, though. Team USA registered consecutive 3-2 wins over Slovakia and Sweden, beating the Swedes on future Wisconsin Badger Robbie Earl’s second goal of the game with under 30 seconds to go. Team USA then shut down perennial powerhouse Finland, 2-0, behind the goaltending of the only non-college bound player on the team, Mike Brown, to win its group and earn a first-round bye in the medal round.

Along the way, the scouts were buzzing about the play of Ryan Suter. Team USA’s captain, the son of an Olympian and another future Badger, Suter was on the ice against the best players from the opposition every shift. In fact, he seemed to be on the ice every shift. He’s a can’t-miss NHL prospect who loves to play the game.

And how is life in Russia? The country is a case study in contrast. On one hand, much of the infrastructure – literal and figurative – that was built under the communist regime is crumbling.

On the other hand, Team USA spent much its spare time at a state-of-the-art, 50-portal internet café which was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and was constantly full. These guys have capitalism down to an art.

Yet, in front of the building old women sit on stools selling week-old newspapers and some form of sunflower seeds by the handful.

There is also the tremendous contrast in architecture. The newest facilities have that American “suburban” feel, while the ancient churches and buildings of the 19th century are tremendous architectural gems and have held up well to the test of time. Then there are the buildings built by the communists – after several days of looking at them, I am surprised President Reagan had to implore Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall.” He probably only had to lean on it and it would have collapsed. The folks from College Painters could make a fortune in Russia!

Life for Team USA at the Yublienaya Hotel was not exactly the lap of luxury. The Yublienaya was built in the ’50s, and although clean and neat, we have now located all the mattresses from Bedrock.

The arenas parallel this contrast in architecture. The 40-year-old “Ice Palace Avtodisel” was anything but a palace. An old, cement structure with a paint scheme that included peach, pink and faded green, the Ice Palace would make a great old college arena with some work – strike that, lots of work. The only good parts of the arena were the locker rooms – Team USA had a 10-man sauna in its room. Upstairs you'd find the “Party” box, a red-velvet lined box with an oak paneled party room behind it where the old leaders of the proletariat obviously anguished over the fate of the common worker in the Soviet Union.

However, the Arena 2000, home of Yaroslavl Lokomotiv, could not have been any more different. The ‘new’ arena is listed as the best arena in Europe with under 10,000 seats, and rivals any top college or minor league building in the US. With six large locker room facilities; 9,100 seats; a six-sided jumbotron; about 30 sky boxes and an sky restaurant, the new arena is the cutting edge for Russia. Although the hosts take it a little too far – they don’t allow any food or beverage in the seats, and demand that fans return to their seats in time for the start of the period (they just can’t get away from giving orders over there, can they?).

And how about the culture clash between teams? While “Eurotrash” dance music and country roars from the US locker room, the Slovaks are down the hall bopping to Eminem. In fact, we were so isolated that the only source of English language outside our team and Canada was the occasional Eminen video on MTV Russia…that’s right, and they have “Cribs”.

Back on the ice, an anemic power play finally cost the Americans, as they could not pot a goal on 10 tries against Canada in the semifinal and lost 2-1 in overtime. The heartbreaking defeat was followed by a contest against the host Russians, who had been surprised by the Slovaks in a shootout, 2-1. In the bronze medal game, the young American team was introduced to Alexander Ovechkin, the next big thing coming out of Russia. Ovechkin scored twice and kept the US defense busy all night. The USA battled back from deficits of 2-0, 3-1 and 4-2, but could not catch the high-scoring Russians and fell just short of a medal with fourth place. The finish, however, was the second-highest for the US in the five-year history of the event.

Beyond the tremendous contrasts in this society in transition, one obvious thing is the Russian passion for hockey. Russia’s first round games were sold out, and the fans create a noise level that makes Yost Arena feel like a chapel.

Noisemakers are not only legal in Russia, they are encouraged. Combined with the flags, and incessant chants, an opponent can be unnerved quickly. One of the favorite chants is “Shi-Bu”, which means “Shoot the puck” and rains down in a sing-song cadence during all power plays. Ahh, some things are the same in all languages.

Scott Monaghan, the Director of Operations of the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, was the Team Manager of the U18 National Team. A former college hockey sports information director, he has worked as a manager at five World Junior Championships and five World Under 18 Championships.

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