Having just returned from my first ever trip across the ocean, I am now dealing with the after-affects of that travel. I pulled into the driveway of my palatial Baltimore estate minutes before midnight on Monday. A luggage snafu had separated me from my dirty laundry, and that added another hour to the end of the trip. I woke up at 9 a.m. Moscow time to shower and begin packing for a 10:15 departure from the hotel. Midnight in Baltimore is 8 a.m. in Moscow, meaning I was at last concluding a 23-hour travel day.
My lawn was the first thing I noticed. It came up to my knees. I mowed it before I left, but now I thought I heard the faint hissing of snakes coming from the grass. I opened the front door and entered, finding all the mail I’d missed in a neat, two-foot stack on the kitchen table. The cats didn’t come running, so I guess they didn’t miss me.
Both kids were sound asleep, so I hugged and kissed my wife and showed her a few of the things I’d brought back in my carry-on bag. Then I collapsed into an instant and very deep state of unconsciousness, the likes of which I have rarely experienced in my sleeping career. It was seven hours of nothing, no dreams no fitful tossing about. Just deep sleep. It was far too short, though.
My wife roused me at 7:30, and I made my daughter’s lunch and got her off to school. The Dude was home sick for a second straight day, so we let him sleep. I got back home and tried to catch up on two week’s worth of what I had missed. Lots of junk mail, plenty of useless e-mail, a few phone messages I didn’t need to return. Not much else, really.
I brewed up a pot of coffee and began to steel myself for the lawn mowing task ahead. It was when I first sipped that coffee that I was able to admit what I already suspected: I miss Moscow. I miss the people, the bustle, the scenery, the Metro, the walking, the hotel lobby, the coffee-fueled discussions of music and literature with my travel companions … but most of all, I miss the coffee.
I wasn’t prepared for that at all. My wife (who has lived in France and Japan and who has traveled to numerous other countries) has long been trying to get me to go on a European vacation. I’ve always resisted. There is plenty of North America that I haven’t seen, and I’ve never been the best air traveler. This trip to Moscow has softened me up for any of her future endeavors to get me to go to Europe. I’ve always been the guy who would rather drive than fly, would rather sleep in a tent than a hotel. Not so much any more. I’d go back to Moscow. I’d go back to Europe. I’d go anywhere this tournament is, or wherever a compelling hockey tournament is played.
The tournament itself was great. The World Championship is a criminally underrated tournament in North America, particularly in the United States. And you can find plenty of small-minded types here in the States who will say things like, “Who cares about a hockey tournament in Europe?” Let them watch football. Arena football.
See the tears of the Russians in attendance who have watched their dreams of a gold medal for the home team on home ice evaporate with a heart-breaking 2-1 overtime loss to the Finns. See those same Finns weep openly after their own gold medal dreams die at the hands of the Canadians a day later. Then ask “who cares.” You can recover from a bad game or two (or more) and win the Stanley Cup championship. Team Russia played a nearly flawless tournament here and came away only with the bronze. Getting beat to one loose puck was the difference between bronze and a chance at the gold.
Hockey is a global sport. There were no children throwing a football on the streets or in the parks of Russia. No kids aspiring to be Terrell Owens or any of the other model citizens than populate the NFL. No baseball diamonds, either. We saw one basketball court in our time in Moscow, and it was in the process of being refurbished. Hockey is the game there.
Almost everywhere we went, people would see our IIHF badges and would try to engage us in conversations about the game, about Washington, about Alex Ovechkin. Hockey is the glue that binds us. Nobody asked us about the Redskins or the Nationals after they learned we were from Washington. I regret that my Russian was nowhere near good enough to talk to converse with these people, but passion is an international language. You could see it in their eyes, feel it in their handshakes, and hear it in their voices. And when Team Russia played at Arena Khodynka, you could feel it, see it, hear it and wonder if it might blow the lid off the place.
One night, after hopping off the Metro train, I was encountered by a young Russian who grabbed me by the shoulders and looked me in the eye. I was startled briefly but it passed when he said, “Hockey,” and pointed to the credential dangling from my neck.
“Yes, Hockey,” I replied. “Alex Oveckhin.”
“Ah, Ovechkin,” he beamed. “Washington Capitals. Ovechkin very clever man.”
“Yes he is,” I replied.
At this point, he hugged me and said, “Friends forever.”
Then he pointed to his female companion and said, “Now we will go to the club and have some dancing.”
This was not an isolated incident.
At the conclusion of Sunday’s gold medal game, the IIHF released its groups for next year’s World Championship in Quebec City/Halifax. It also released its ranking of nations based on “long-term quality of the countries’ national team program.” That ranking went 46 nations deep, and included countries such as Serbia, Estonia, Bulgaria, Japan, Mexico and Turkey. Wonder where those countries rank in American football, baseball and basketball.
The Stanley Cup was first awarded in 1893. The first World Championship gold medalist was crowned in 1910. No one asked me, but here’s some advice for those who would say this tournament is meaningless or that no one cares: Talk about what you know about. You use less of our time that way.
Thanks to Ted Leonsis for having the faith in us and the vision to send us to Moscow to cover this tournament. It was truly an opportunity of a lifetime, and I enjoyed every sleep-shorn minute of it. Thanks to Kurt Kehl for his level-headed advice and guidance, both before we left and while we were gone. Thanks to Nate Ewell, Paul Rovnak and Julie Petri for keeping tabs on the Hershey Bears while we were gone, and for keeping the home folks apprised to their efforts. Thanks to John Walton, whose dulcet tones and excitable musings would bounce off the high ceilings of our hotel lobby at all incredulous hours of the morning. You helped keep us going there JW, and we look forward to resuming the chase with you in Hershey this weekend.
Thanks to Dmitry Chesnokov for his patient prodding throughout the season, urging me to go to Moscow for the Worlds if it were at all possible. And thanks to Dmitry for his help in facilitating our trip, and for helping four weary travelers find their footing in a strange land. He went far beyond the call of friendship, and days after he left Moscow to return to the States we marveled at how valuable his advice and help was for us. He continued to e-mail us and help even after he had returned to American soil.
Many more are worthy and deserving of a measure of our thanks, and we’ll see to it that they’re thanked personally. Before I put a ribbon on this thing and get back to writing about hockey on this blog, I have to thank my three travel companions and comrades: Spike Parker, Mike Rucki and John Keeley. We developed a good working chemistry together and we needed it. We spent far more hours huddled in the hotel lobby working than we spent in our hotel beds sleeping. Such circumstances would try the patience and dispositions of many, but we maintained a remarkable degree of composure throughout.
Spike and I have worked together for years, and I never fail to marvel at his ability to overcome technological hurdles and impasses. Such was the case on this trip. His creativity also extends to his photo and video work, which added immeasureable depth and color to the content we shipped back from abroad.
Mike has a very underrated eye with a camera, and is one of the most resourceful folks I know. Through him we were invited to a party with Team USA at the U.S. Embassy, and he was very adept at opening other doors for us all as well. Besides the photos, he was adept at getting sound files for us and he and I seemed to be on this same bizarre pop culture plane throughout our time in Moscow. At least once a day, he’d say something just as I was thinking and/or was about to say the very same thing.
John is quite simply one of the best pure writers I know, and we’re lucky that he’s so passionate about hockey. He melds his love for the game and the language so well and so effortlessly. One of the highlights of the trip for me was being able to watch many games with him, sharing observations and ruminations as the game wore on. We really developed quite a rhythm for watching and writing by the end of the week, and I look forward to picking up where we left off in Hershey this weekend and in Washington this fall.
Ah, Moscow. You have forever removed the simple joy of my morning coffee here in the States. I will return. I have to. Or Coffee Mania needs to expand to this side of the ocean and open up a store or 63 in the Washington metropolitan region.