The NHL lockout couldn’t have been better timed for two hockey ambassadors.
Coon Rapids girls’ hockey former captain and current head coach Jessica Christopherson joined Anoka senior Emilie Brigham and 22 others on a 10-day trip to Russia as part of a player exchange organized through the two country’s governments Oct. 5-14.
Christopherson was one of four coaches selected to usher 20 high schoolers (10 boys, 10 girls, five from Minnesota and five from California), while Brigham was selected to participate in the player exchange that reached beyond hockey.
Before heading out for Russia, the group gathered in Washington D.C. for a little site-seeing before a meeting at the State Department to go over the trip.
“It was above and beyond anything we could have expected,” Christopherson said.
“The assistant Secretary of State made it very clear to us that we were cultural ambassadors of our country with the goal to build relationships through sport. And that was the thing that played out nicely. We were instantly connected through hockey. It was hard to communicate but they immediately connected on Facebook and Twitter.”
The American group lived and practiced at the Russian national team’s home in Moscow, Novogorst Training Center.
The Russian hockey players also stayed in the training center for the week to help both groups bond.
The trip wasn’t limited to the training center as the group toured around the area, including the Kremlin and Red Square.
“It is hard to narrow down a favorite part,” Brigham said. “I enjoyed the simple things like walking around downtown Moscow. The Kremlin and Red Square; trying new foods like Borscht [Beet soup] and going to a couple exciting KHL games.”
Christopherson said they didn’t run into many cultural barriers, aside from language and currency at a couple stores.
Christopherson said she learned a lot from the experience including new training ideas she hopes to put into place this season.
“They did a lot of variations on what we already do, be that extra loops, a jump here or there, staying on edge around here,” she said as training sessions ran around two hours. “The kids were great. We threw something up on the board and they just did it.”
Planning practices was a co-op experience with the Russians and both coaching groups took away new ideas.
The language barrier was one of the only cultural differences during training sessions. “We needed a translator to understand drills and instructions on the ice,” Brigham said.
Not only did they meet several Russian hockey dignitaries, attend two KHL games (featuring several current NHLers) and visit some of the top sites in Moscow but visited a school to help foster relationships between the two countries.
Both agreed that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Christopherson ended a blog entry, “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.”
Brigham put the visit in perspective. “We all share the love of hockey but we also have other interests and lifestyles,” she said. “Getting to know one another [both U.S. and Russian] was a blast. Overall, it was an amazing experience and I am very grateful.”
Going to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow was another highlight where they met with several top Russian hockey players for a ceremony. They also toured the Ministry of Sport in downtown Moscow and saw lots of history before a press conference with the U.S. Embassy and Ministry of Sport.
The US group signed a Russian national team jersey which is on display at the museum.
In addition to visiting the Kremlin, the group toured the Grand Kremlin Palace, which is a government center in Moscow and the residence of the president.
The architecture of the Red Square and history of the surrounding buildings was what blew Brigham away the most.
St. Basil’s Cathedral was her favorite site because of its ornate beauty and abstractness.
The group visited a secondary school in Moscow and it was a breathtaking experience for the group.
Not only was the group met at the door by the enthusiastic students and teachers, they made necklaces with handprints to signify hands of friendship.
It was a bit more involved than a visit as Brigham was part of a group that went into various classes like science, Russian, English, math and handicrafts where she learned how to make maple leaf roses from maple leaves. “It was a blast,” she said.
Only some of the kids spoke English and in Brigham’s class; an 11-year-old boy was the only one in the room so he translated for everyone. They celebrated a nine-year-old’s birthday by singing Happy Birthday in English. His teacher pulled out a new box of Legos for him they hugged each other.
“That was so touching and a great example of how sweet everyone we met was,” Brigham said.
The school put on a skit of “Narnia” in English only which touched Brigham at how much effort the school put into their visit.
“Only a couple teachers knew English so for about 10 kids to put on a play entirely in English was awesome,” she said.
The afternoon ended with everyone singing famous Russian songs together. “It was very symbolic of our trip’s mission to unite with people through common interests,” Brigham said.
The U.S. group trained with Russian players and coaches and met with well-known Russian legends like Igor Tuzik (vice president, Russian Ice Hockey Federation), Vladlslav Tretlak and Alexander Yukashev (1972 Summit Series, 1980 Miracle on Ice), Vitali Prokhorov (Olympian) and Sergei Federov (Detroit Red Wings legend now general manager, CSKA Moscow).
With the NHL locked-out, several top Russian players met with the group including Alexander Ovechkin (Washington), Pavel Datsyuk (Detroit), Ilya Kovalchuk (Philadelphia) and IIya Bryzgalov (Philadelphia) as they prepared for KHL-league games.
They watched an HC CSKA Moscow practice, formerly known as the Russian Red Army, and met with Datsyuk and Brazgalov afterwards. Federov also said hello to the group.
CSKA defeated SKA St. Petersburg 4-2 in the first KHL game the group watched as Datsyuk had two points and Kovalchuk had a hat trick with another assist for CSKA.
Kovalchuk met with the group in the media room after the game. The other game was between Dynamo Moscow and Metallurg with Ovechkin’s Dynamo team winning 3-2.
This wasn’t Christopherson’s first coaching chance in Europe. She was part of the University of St. Thomas staff when the team toured Sweden in 2006.
The two were part of the eighth and final Youth Sports Envoys organized by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in partnership with USA Hockey and Minnesota Hockey, who selected the participants.
Both went through a selection process – Brigham’s included an essay about leadership on her team and community. They wanted to find hockey players who were well-rounded in school, sports and community activities, Brigham said.
The program, named SportsUnited and founded in 2003, was set up by the two respective administrations to strengthen relationships between the United States and Russia among other nations.
Last winter Russian youth hockey players went to the District of Columbia.
According to the program’s website it has brought more than 1,000 athletes from 60 countries together to the U.S. to participate in Sports Visitor programs. Since 2005, the U.S. has sent more than 220 athletes to over 50 countries through the Sports Envoy programs.