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It’s Just a Game

September 15, 2011

We’ve all heard it before. Usually as some consolation for over-achievers or those who spend a grossly over-proportional level of attention and passion on a sport.  Maybe we yelled too loud at the TV.  Maybe we’re still mad at ourselves over the missed open net (or missed save) from last night; that persistent “I should have had that” feeling.

For those of us who have initiated this response from someone, we know that they will just never understand. It’s in our blood, we feel it, and we will never change.

The day when we first heard of the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv team, I was scheduled to play with a local St. Petersburg adult team.  Like everyone, I was just shocked and couldn’t find the words, nor did I know what to say to my Russian hockey guys.  Could I even say anything?  It’s not a NHL team, I’m out of my jurisdiction.  Could I even understand their pain?

I texted Sergei: “sad day for russian hockey … are we playing tonight?”

I skate with some players that are/were in the KHL junior league and even one who played on the local KHL team last year.  So I knew that some or most of our guys would know some of those who went down on the plane.

His answer was perfect: “we will meet trouble together … we’ll play”

I showed up to the rink, did the normal hand shakes and hellos, just quieter.  Not much quieter, you could barely just tell.  The guys were still joking, smiling … there was just a slower movement to everything.  We got there earlier than normal, we took our time getting dressed.

Usually the earlier dressers head out to the bench and wait for the zam to finish.  Not this time, they sat in their seats.  I didn’t really notice this until I sensed that we were all waiting for something.  Conversations died down, the locker room got quiet.  Sergei stood up, had his smart phone in his hand, and read out the list of the Lokomotiv team and staff that died earlier that day.  One name after the other.  No long funeral-like procession, no rushed grocery list.  Just a reading of the names of people who lived for this game.  When he read the last name, I think the coach, there was no official moment of silence … just a collective sigh, and we took the ice.

It was probably the most intense adult hockey game I’ve experienced in years.  There was no hatred or rivalry, only competition.  We hustled to the corners harder, we looked over our shoulder to check who we were covering more frequently, we didn’t take those long lazy turns.  Maybe that was our tribute, to play as perfect a game as possible for the guys who exemplified perfection.

I don’t know Russian, I can’t talk to most of these guys … but we came to the bench each shift breathing harder, draining the water bottle more.  We looked at each other, and many times just smiled at each other as if to say “I don’t know why we’re trying so hard tonight, but its so much fun!”

After the game, we were slower to change and shower but that was only because we were completely exhausted.  Neither the team nor the disaster was mentioned, we shook hands, said goodnight, and went home.

It’s almost 2:00 AM here in  Russia, and I chose to forgo some sleep to catch the Capitals vs Flyers Rookie game broadcasted online.  This Saturday night I’ll attend the first home game for the KHL SKA St. Petersburg team.  It’s the beginning of yet another season.

Our lives are not full of endless next seasons.  We have our beginning and end.  We don’t get to start with a fresh sheet of ice too often.  This tragedy in Russia does help give some perspective to the role of a sport when compared to other things in life.  Family, friends, love, success … they are all more important than a sport in the big scheme of things.  But as we know, everything in life is temporary.  No one lives forever.  Except the game.

The game is always there.  Somewhere in the world, there is a zamboni driver closing the boards and inviting another group of skaters onto a clean sheet of ice.  There are hundreds of languages in the world, and I know only a handful of words and phrases to use in this country.  But it is the game that breaks down this barrier.  It is the game that lets us pay our deepest respects to those players and coaches without saying a word.

To many, it’s just a game.  To us, just sometimes, the game is all we need.

Looking forward to returning from the Motherland in November!  Go Caps!

-Will

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One comment

  1. Just kids like us… thats what hit me the hardest. They grew up playing hockey before they could walk, and they kept at it because they loved it and were fortunate enough to be good at it. When I heard of the news the first thing that came to my mind was all of the players I have ever played with… playing out of love for the game, not because they had contracts or their parents forced them to. The 6am practices, returning from a late night bus ride at 4am only to get back on at 8am to head to another game, going broke buying new twigs… all things we shared with those guys. The news hit hard all the way around the world and we hope the best for the families and the city of Yaroslavl…



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