This is not a report about the two-week stay of Canadian hockey pros that came to Belarus to share their experience with our kids and coaches, show what the real Canadian hockey looks like and introduce the sports know-how developed across the Atlantic. This is something more. This is a story of what these people had in mind when they came here, how they were getting along with the new environment and what they will be taking back eight time zones away from this country. This is an attempt to get into the heart and soul of ordinary Canadian guys that happen to be marvelous hockey players.
“Oh, yeah, this feels good, very “karasho”, yeah,” moans the former champion and now the head coach of the Northern Edge Elite Hockey School in Canada sitting in a cloud of boiling steam in what is called Russian banya, or bath, or sauna. His colleagues were sitting on their berths like chicken on a perch, looked ruffled and were trying to joke, but their minds were focused on the guy in a funny bath hat that “tortured” their teammate with a wisp: zing!, zing! and then pop! and then zing-zing-pop again. This voluntary refined torture is called a rather strange name “to steam off” and is a kind of holy ritual in the former Soviet Union, followed by mandatory wishes of “easy steam” and relaxed table talk with Russian kvass or strong tea.
Foreigners will hardly understand why you have to bring your body temperature to the extreme and hit yourself with a bunch of birch twigs, but when the right moment comes you dash through the door nearly pulling it off hinges, let a steam cloud out of the sweating room and plop in a small pool with ice water. Your eyes are shining, your hands turn into two oars, you splash like a whale flooding the pool room and your mouth cries out in sheer ecstasy “Oh, Lord, it’s so great!. Karasho!”
So these Canadians are well aware of what the notion “Russian banya” means. But it is not the brightest memory of this country, they say wrapped in snow-white linen, drinking cold kvass and devouring draniki [grated potato pancakes with crisp]. They are champing right in front of me trying to place as many cakes inside as possible. “This food is just awesome!” I can read on their faces.
The chief of the “brigade on the tour”, Todd Woodcroft, the assistant of the head coach of the Belarusian national team, Glen Hanlon (back from the times when Hanlon coached Washington Capitals), a prankster and joker, suddenly gets very serious and says “Every night after eight or nine hours of hard work on ice we were admiring the results of our efforts and felt fresh and strong. We looked at the happy faces of the kids, their sparkling eyes and realized that we were involved in a great matter, and those kids were falling in love with hockey more and more. We are sure the “Stanley Cup” match that crowned the tournament for kids in Minsk will not be their last match. You’ll see that some of these guys will once get back to Belarus to show the real Stanley Cup here. You mark my words.”
They are all enthusiastic and happy when telling me they had thought Belarus would be very different, but it turned out so clean and beautiful, with amazing nature and charming people. “Their hospitality surpassed all our expectations. A beautiful country with pretty girls and a consolidated team of friends,” Stephen Juricik tells me, his eyes shining. “This was the best welcome we had ever had. We were impressed by the talent of the young players and the food.” (The right moment for another large piece of cold beef and a dranik to disappear in his mouth). He moistens his lips just like a cat that has finally got himself an unusually big fish and suddenly reminded me of Hanlon who was happy about the Belarusian cuisine, too. What do they eat there in America, anyways? Don’t they eat enough?
The guys are laughing, they seem to have forgotten about their homes and hard work they will have to do. They feel good here, safe and comfortable. They say they have established firm contacts with people here, and this bridge-making and ice-breaking crusade will certainly continue. They claim they understand now that a human body needs very little sleep to feel fine, and that in ten years’ time the guys they have just coached will remember the Minsk meeting with Canadians as the starting point of their careers.
— It was not the arrival of some Canadians that stands behind this progress, says Woodcroft. — We were not playing the lead parts, because the main protagonists were the staff of the hockey federation, the kids and their folks, I mean all those who took part in the training camp.
The Canadians spent much time on ice in Minsk, but there seemed enough time for them to see the things that Belarus is truly proud of: the Mir Castle, Khatyn memorial compound, the Dinamo stadium, there they rooted for “our guys” (as they put it) in the Belarus-Albania clash and many other places of interest. Khatyn deeply impressed them. They were standing there in the rain and did not want to leave. “This rain will hardly ever make us feel a thousandth part of the pain the Belarusians had to suffer,” they said afterwards. There was rain in their cheeks, or maybe tears. The macho hockey players were unable to suppress their emotions…
We were all breathing heavily when leaving the Silichi winter sports center. (“You have downhill here?” the Canadians were asking me) John, Geoff, Todd, Steve, Crag, Rob, Jos, Lloyd, Tim and the other John were very impressed by the skiing facilities of the flat country and exchanged the few words they learnt during their short but memorable stay in Belarus.
“Privet, do svidanija, atlichna, ya duzha lyublyu Bielarus, lyod, machanka, piva, napadayuschiy, salyanka… (Hello, bye, I love Belarus very much, ice, beer, meat and pancakes, forward, soup). They mispronounce almost all this words, of course, and then comes a joke that all the guys find immensely funny. Geoff is trying hard to recollect the Belarusian word for the ice stick and cries out “Shlyushka!” (which resembles the word “whore”). “No, it is “klyushka”,” corrects the manager of our team, Svyatoslav Kiselyov, and explains why all Russian speakers laughed. “Shlyushki on ice” had been everyone’s favorite game until the players arrived in Minsk.
— John, would you like to come here again? I ask him when we say our good-byes.
— Sure thing. You have a soul, and it takes a… what you call “durak” (a fool) not to get back here.
We don’t say farewell, we say “till next time, guys.”