Hockey Night in Russia

St. Petersburg, Russia

So when I planned my trip to Russia, I knew that the Russian professional hockey league, the KHL (Kontinental Hockey League), began its season in early September. I also knew that during the time I was going to be in St. Petersburg the local team, SKA St. Petersburg, would be playing its exhibition season. However, I did not know if there would be any games going on while I was in town. I eagerly checked the SKA schedule for weeks before my trip and… nothing. I badly wanted to attend a hockey game here in Russia, not just because I am a huge hockey fan, but also because I really wanted to experience a game in Russia.

My fascination with Russian hockey dates to 1972 when Canada played the Soviet Union in the 8 game Summit Series at the height of the Cold War. I vividly remember watching the first four games in Canada and the final four games telecast live from Moscow. The games from Moscow began at 8:00 a.m. in the morning in Victoria B.C. (my hometown). The series was so important in Canada that televisions were brought into our classrooms so that we could all watch the games telecast from Moscow. Canada entered the series arrogant, believing, it was unthinkable that anybody could challenge us at “our game”. However, the Soviets had built their Red Army machine led by a very young goaltender named Vladislav Tretiak, and Team Canada left native soil trailing the series 2-1-1. Ultimately, Canada won the final three games of the series, including the final thrilling game in which Paul Henderson scored the winning goal with just 34 seconds left in the game, to win the series 4-3-1.

Poster of hockey game – SKA v. Carolina Hurricanes

So my fascination was born early and for me it was unfathomable to think I would be in Russia without seeing a game. I continued to check the SKA website and about a month before I left, I spotted what I thought was a very familiar name on the website: Ivan Zanetta. Based on my limited translation skills, it appeared that a fellow named Ivan Zanetta was the head coach of SKA. Well I happened to have gone to University (Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario) with a fellow named Ivan Zanetta. He was on our hockey team and I knew him quite well. I thought it was such an unusual name it had to be the same guy so I Googled him and sure enough up his name pops. Head coach of SKA and graduate of Laurentian University. Well I’ll be damned. Now I HAD to attend a game.

Anyway, luck was on my side. About a week before I left, I finally learned that SKA would be playing the Soviet Wings (Moscow) on August 29 at 5:00. Perfect. There was no way I would not be in attendance. So when I arrived in St. Petersburg, the first thing I asked my guide to find out about was the hockey game – location, confirmation of time etc. Marina found out the information for me, and I could not wait to attend the game.

So Sunday night (August 29 ) arrived. I put on my Team Canada hockey hat, and I made the 30 minute hike over the Neva River to the Yubileyny Ice Palace (small arena) for the game. I arrived 30 minutes before the start and found out there was no charge for the game. I have no idea how the guy at the gate knew I was asking about a ticket, but he rattled off some Russian, made a motion as if he were shooting a puck with a stick and then made a sweeping movement with his hand as if to say the hockey game is free – come on in. And so I did. I headed for the Russian equivalent of the concession stand and immediately had my now all too common deer in the headlights look when the gal jabbered at me in Russian. “Uh Angliski?” I asked already knowing the answer. “Nyet” OK then… I began the task of pointing and just taking my chances. Turns out I ordered something equivalent to a cross between a hot dog and a croissant. I also pointed to the beer tap and took one of those as well. The gal wrote the amount down on a paper plate (150 rubles – about $5 – no beer inflation here) and I took my food and drink upstairs to the seating area. As I was about to enter the arena, a very stern looking guy puts his hand up and I get the big NYET. Uh … what I have done? He rattles off some Russian, points to the food and drink and shakes his head. Are you freakin’ kidding me? This is the country where people are standing around on the street drinking vodka out of a bottle (seriously) and you can’t take a beer into a hockey game. Jeez.

Cross dog and beer

So I ended up sitting on a chair beside the entry way watching folks come in while I ate my cross dog (my name for the crossiant dog) and drank my beer. Quite frankly, the cross dog was scrumptious and the beer was really good. I heard announcements being made so figured the game was about to start so I gulped the rest of my beer and headed into the arena. I walked up about ten rows and made my way into the middle of the row and sat down. Talk about feeling like you are on parade. People just stared at me. I even got paranoid and wondered if I had spilled beer all over myself (I had not). Anyway, I took my seat and waited for the game to start.

At this point I began to wonder if there was a way I might be able to speak to Ivan. The seating area was not at all conducive to yelling out to someone. There was a huge gap between the bench and the stands and there was no seating at ice level – only on the second level. As the teams took to the ice, I realized the coaches had to walk from one side of the arena to the other and the railing area in the corner of the arena on the team side might be close enough for me to shout at Ivan at the end of the game. I would see how the game goes before trying to make contact.

So the players take the ice and the game starts. Right out of the gate, the Soviet Wings score much to the disappointment of the crowd. But, SKA battled back and as the period rolled on, they took control of the game and really dominated. The first period ended 2-1 SKA.

Near the end of the period a whole group of new fans arrived (must have been at a pre-func). Anyway, these folks were the hard core fans equipped with large flag, drum and an awful lot of enthusiasm. Think rowdy soccer fans. Once these folks got warmed up, they never stopped singing, shouting, clapping etc. all in unison. It was something else to witness.

Good save

As I sat in the stands cheering, I would have folks periodically make motions towards me or nod at me when I shouted something (hey just cause I was in Russia didn’t mean I wasn’t going to act the same as I would at any hockey game – when a ref misses something I’m going to yell). Anyway, it appeared that my comments, although completely unintelligible to everyone else, at least communicated the sentiments felt by others around me. By the end of the first period, I actually had two Russians smile at me (and I promise you that was a real first in this country where smiles are as rare as a Canuck playoff win – must be a holdover from the Soviet era).

Anyway, at the end of the period I wandered around and went looking for the women’s bathroom. Some guy was kind enough to direct me to the right side of the arena (away from the men’s entrance when I made the mistake of heading in that direction). I headed into the bathroom only to find squat toilet number 2. Alright then. Two countries and two squat toilets. At this point I decided that I would try to make it 12 for 12 (although I think the chances in South Africa may be remote).

Ivan Zanetta and SKA

Back for period number 2, SKA really took over and built up a commanding 5-1 lead by the end of period number 2. As I sat watching the game I was struck by how different the Russian style of hockey was from what I was used to in Canada and the U.S. There was very, very little checking. In fact, I think I only heard a couple of board sounds the whole game. Now I am not sure if this was because it was a pre-season game or because this is the style, but I tend to think the latter since the style for pre-season games in North America remains the same irrespective of the type of game (although there may be less of the rough stuff in pre-season and playoffs). Anyway, the style of play was vastly different from the North American game. Lots of skating and lots of puck control and virtually no body. Weird. This might explain why Team Canada beat the **** out of the Russians on February 24 at the Olympics both literally (7-3) and physically. Team Canada came out and laid the body on the Russians from the initial drop of the puck and never looked back. In fact within about 10 seconds of the start of the game Ovechkin was flattened against the boards and the Russians seemed to shrink from that point on.

So as the game got out of hand, I found myself fascinated by the rabid fan group to my right. They continued this noisy raucous song with hand clapping and drums (it sounded something like “We are the SKA. We bla bla bla. We sail around the sea”. But it clearly wasn’t because it was in Russian). Anyway, as I watched, it was apparent that the fans were being led by one fanatical young guy. He was head cheerleader and they all followed his lead. I decided at that point to go stand in the corner by the railing (where I had planned to go anyway to yell at Ivan at the end of the game) and get some shots of the SKA fans.

The leader of the SKA fans (in white)

At the end of the 2nd period I headed over to the corner and waited for the start of the final period. As the third period commenced, a very large Russian took up a spot next to me. I did not pay any attention to him, but I could feel him watching me. Uh watch the game big guy. Anyway, I snapped a few pictures and continued to watch the game, but every few minutes I could see this guy out of the corner of my eye watching me. I finally turned and stared right back at him. He looked at me, pointed at my hat and smiled. I smiled back and then noticed the jacket he was wearing. Soviet Wings with a number on the sleeve. Aha. A player not on the ice. He motioned to the hat. I then realized why this guy had been staring. He wanted my coveted Team Canada gold medal hockey hat. ACK. Don’t even think about it big guy. Then it happened. He pointed at my hat. Pointed at his hat. Motioned back and forth. Uh no way fella. First I’m cheering for SKA. I don’t want your Soviet Wings hat. Second I’m not giving up my limited edition hat. I shook my head. “Nyet”. He frowned with lower lip out. I laughed. Took off my hat, held it to my heart and shook my head again. He smiled got the message and shrugged his shoulders. OK. Mission accomplished. No Russian takeover of the Team Canada hat.
The final score

The game wrapped up with SKA winning 7-1. As luck would have it, Ivan stopped to talk to some guy by the bench so all the other coaches left for the dressing room ahead of him. I waited and as he approached near where I was standing I shouted from above “Hey Ivan. Laurentian University.” His head did a swivel and he looked around and then up and saw me leaning over with the Canada hat on. He pointed at me and I said again “Laurentian University”. He responded “Really? You? What year?” “82” I responded. So Ivan points at himself and shouts back “1980. I was there then.” “Yes you were. You know me. UC Residence. Deb Crabbe.” He held his hand to his ear. “Can’t hear you. But I know you.” “Yes you do” I shouted at him. “Damn. Unfortunately, I gotta go to the dressing room.” “OK Ivan good to see you.” “You too”. He waived and off he went. I wanted so much to tell him I had seen Charles and Bedford recently (Ivan was in their class and played hockey with them), but no chance. It was just good to be able to say hi to an old friend in the middle of Russia.

So game over I headed back to the hotel with a huge grin on my face. Mission accomplished. Got to see a hockey game in Russia. Got to experience some of the very European style of cheering. And got a shout out to Ivan. Great time. Great day.

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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