Laura Bowman felt uneasy, just moments before her flight landed in Moscow. Bowman doesn’t have a fear of flying. The nervous excitement came from the unfamiliar, not quite knowing what to expect of her upcoming Russian experience. That fear was quickly put to rest as she and her teammates stepped off of the plane, directly onto the runway, like she’s seen in the movies.
“None of us had ever walked off the plane onto a runway before, and the airplane was so large behind us,” Bowman said.
The scene helped put the Minnetonka High School senior’s mind at ease – about not knowing the language, the country or even her teammates all that well.
Bowman was a member of the U.S. Ice Hockey delegation that went to Russia from Oct. 5–14, to engage and learn about the country’s culture through the lens of sports. The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, in partnership with USA Hockey, sent a group of 24 American youth ice hockey players to Moscow through SportsUnited, the bureau’s division devoted to sports diplomacy programs.
In total, five boy and five girl players from Minnesota were included on the trip, including: Bowman (Minnetonka), Emilie Brigham (Andover), Lauren Wedell (Arden Hills), Kaitlin Storo (Chanhassen), Rachael Peroutky (Farmington), Matthew Derby (Isanti) Elliot Moormann (St. Paul), Benjamin Newman (Little Falls), Rory Taylor (Minneapolis) and Ben Cencer (Clear Lake). Scott Macho, head coach of the South St. Paul High School boys hockey program, and Jessica Christopherson, head coach of the Coon Rapids girls hockey program, coached the team.
The weeklong excursion was an experience the group will remember forever.
“Once we were there, they really rolled out the red carpet for us,” Macho said.
The Americans practiced with Russian players at the Novogorst Training Center, where the country’s national teams train. The Russian and American coaches would take turns leading the practice sessions steeped in skill development. Despite the language barriers, the groups were brought together through the common bond of hockey.
“The connection on the ice led to a connection off the ice,” Macho said. “It was neat to see the cultural growth between the two. Both sides worked hard to learn how to speak the other’s language and to be able to communicate. It was great to see how the game of hockey blended both cultures together.”
Although there were cultural and language barriers between the Americans and Russians, both sides learned from the other.
“It definitely changed my view of Russians,” Bowman said. “They were so inviting and always were watching out for us. It felt like we were all from the same country or town. There weren’t Russians and Americans; we were all hockey players.”
Off of the ice, the Americans were treated to tours of Moscow, visiting famous Russian monuments like Red Square and the Kremlin. The group also visited a secondary school to learn more about Russian culture.
“They made us gifts and put on a play for us in English, event though they didn’t know the language all that well,” Bowman said.
After the school visit, the Russian children came back to Novogorst with the Americans and together watched the 1972 Summit Series. Legendary former Soviet Union player Alexander Yakushev joined the group and participated in a question and answer session with the players and coaches.
Of all the experiences, for Bowman, getting to know the Russian students was the highlight of the trip.
“At first we were tentative because they didn’t know much English and we didn’t know much Russian,” Bowman said. “But there were two kids that kind of served as translators. We spent five days with them and we all became friends. We are still chatting with them on Facebook and by email. It’s a friendship that won’t be ending any time soon.”