1. Working as a Team
The Flyers Alumni tour of Russia was the brainchild of Flyers Hall of Fame defenseman Joe Watson.
"I was wanting to do this for a long time, ever since [Russia-based natural gas export company] Gazprom sent a team to Philadelphia. But it was over the last year or so that I was really working on putting this together, and we pulled it off. Brad Marsh helped out as well," Watson explained.
Marsh, the longtime Flyers defenseman and now the Flyers director of community development as well as the president of the Flyers Alumni Association, saw the trip as an opportunity to represent the Flyers brand internationally and also an opportunity to get together with fellow hockey people.
"To me, this trip had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with the hockey and the people. We saw some guys we knew from before, and met some new ones, as well. But the best part, quite honestly, was getting out there and being reminded of what hockey -- and the Flyers, because that crest was recognized everywhere -- means to people around the world," Marsh said.
The tour stops and rosters were coordinated by Scott MacPherson and Chuck Borge.
The Flyers took a nine-player contingent to Russia: Watson, Marsh, Jeff Chychrun, Terry Carkner, Shjon Podein, Al Secord, Lindsay Carson, Chase Watson (Joe's nephew and the son of Flyers Hall of Fame defenseman Jim) and AHL Hall of Fame goaltender Freddy Cassivi. Both Cassivi and Chase Watson are regulars in Flyers Alumni games around the Delaware Valley, although neither played for the Flyers.
During the tour, the Flyers Alumni were supplemented by a variety of players arranged primarily through MacPherson. These included many former NHL players such as Bobby Carpenter, Andrei Nikolishin and Flyers Alum forward Andrei Kovalenko. Ex-NHLer Alexander Semak played in the Kazan and St. Petersburg games, while Kovalenko was in St. Petersburg and Moscow.
The Flyers team also had defenseman Sergey Gimayev, a longtime Red Army and Soviet national team player who today is a national hockey commentator on Russian TV.
2. Warm Welcome in Frigid Kazan
The temperatures in Kazan (the capital city of the Republic of Tatarstan) were around minus-seven degrees during the Alumni's visit, and it snowed to varying degrees every day. Nevertheless, the warmth and hospitality with which the Alumni were treated in Kazan radiated. In fact, even though Kazan has a successful team in the Kontinental Hockey League (Ak Bars Kazan), the Flyers Alumni visit was huge news locally.
Upon arrival at the airport in Kazan, the Alumni received a welcome usually reserved for visiting dignitaries. Camera crews and reporters were at the airport as the Alumni stepped through the doors to be greeted by young women in traditional ceremonial Tatar clothing and bearing gifts of local food specialties.
The president of Tatarstan, Rustam Minnikhanov, is an avid sportsman in general and a big hockey fan. When the Flyers played a Team Tatarstan squad on the second night in Kazan, both the republic's president and the minister of the interior suited up and played in the game.
"We were treated like kings in Kazan," Watson said. "The people were wonderful to us. It was incredible. Ed Snider would have been so proud because we were there representing the Flyers, and that's why the people were so excited."
For many of the Alumni, the biggest highlight in Kazan was the kids hockey clinic they helped run. A group led by Marsh, Watson and Chychrun visited a special sports-centered school where hockey is a crucial part of the curriculum. The head of the Tatarstan Ministry of Sports, himself a former player on the Soviet Wings, was on hand to greet the Alumni.
"What I will remember is the kids in the clinic, how happy they were to see us and how eager they were for any little tip we could pass along in the short time we were with them on the ice," Marsh said. "The kids had good hockey skills, too."
Before the clinic, the Alumni were treated to exhibitions of traditional dances, songs
from the region as well as another greeting with food. Afterwards, the Alumni sat down to what could only be described as a full-fledged feast of Russian and Tatar food and drink.
3. Flyers Alumni vs. SKA Alumni
The game between the Flyers Alumni and the SKA team assembled by Gazprom drew a big crowd to the primary arena in St. Petersburg. The SKA team rode a three-goal outburst in the first period to a 6-3 win. The Alumni finally got some momentum in the latter portion of the game, but the comeback bid fell short.
Afterwards, the Flyers Alumni stayed at the arena as guests of SKA and watched the KHL game between the current-day SKA team and Torpedo. SKA features former NHL superstars Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk. Ex-Flyer Nikolay Zherdev plays for Torpedo.
"More than the game itself, what I loved was the atmosphere in the building, including for our game earlier, with how engaged the fans were from start to finish, and even during the stoppages and intermissions. That's the cool thing about European hockey -- the fans sing, and wave flags and make noise. The cheerleaders dance at every stoppage. The music is perfect for stomping and clapping and chanting. That was really cool," Marsh said.
4. Alexei Yashin clinic
In Moscow, the Flyers Alumni paid a visit to a kids hockey clinic (a "master class" as it was called) conducted on the massive outdoor rink on Red Square by former NHL star Alexei Yashin. Once again, the Alumni received a warm welcome and were swarmed for autographs and photos.
"My favorite part: There was this boy in a Flyers hat at the clinic," Watson recalls. "When I pointed to his hat and said ' Flyers.' boy, did his face light up. That was just tremendous."
As a gesture of gratitude, the affable Yashin -- who played for the SKA side in the St. Petersburg game, donned a Flyers Alumni uniform as a guest Flyers player for the tour finale in Red Square.
5. Outdoor shinny in Red Square
The 3,000 square meter rink in Red Square was not conducive to a regular five-on-five hockey game as the Flyers concluded the tour with a game against a Russian team that featured various pro hockey alumni. Instead, the game was conducted like an informal shinny game -- every player from both sides on the ice simultaneously, few rules, and no official score kept.
To a man, the Alumni enjoyed returning to their roots of playing a kid's game for the fun it but none got more out of it than 1990s era fan favorite Podein.
"Truthfully, this was one of the best days on the rink in my life, right up there with being with my son at the Winter Classic [Alumni] game in Philadelphia. I was blown away," Podein said.
The tour concluded with the Alumni attending a Moscow concert by a new friend they made on the trip. World famous jazz saxophone player Igor Butman, who was a promising junior hockey player in his youth before focusing on his music, suited up as a guest Flyers Alumni player in St. Petersburg and for the White Team in the Red Square shinny match.
Afterwards, the Alumni got to see him play in his own true home arena: a jazz club in Moscow.