Lokomotiv Yaroslavl / ESPN
Words: Elizabeth Merrill A trip to the rural corners of Lancaster County is like being locked inside a Cracker Barrel. The houses smell like freshly baked bread. There are rocking chairs everywhere, sort of a reminder to slow down and take everything in. Cruise down Route 72, through the rolling hills, and occasionally a horse and buggy will snarl traffic. But that's OK; there's no hurry. Unless, of course, you're chasing something big.
For weeks, the locals had no idea that a Russian hockey team was living among them, running stadium steps, riding a mechanical bull and yelling, "Yeah baby!" after intense workouts. In their Under Armour shirts and Hollister shorts, the players look like average American teenagers. They're not.
This story started two years ago, nearly 5,000 miles away, when a Russian plane crashed and the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl professional hockey team perished. The world is a great big place, but the hockey world is small. Everyone in the sport was affected that September day in 2011. Players from all over Russia signed up to be part of a new Lokomotiv team in honor of their former teammates, friends and opponents. An American, Tom Rowe, moved to Russia to coach them, even though he didn't speak a lick of the language.
The city of Yaroslavl, population 600,000, is read more: www.espn.com
My first exposure to the boys of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl was this scene right here. I purposely drove to the hotel were the players where staying a couple of hours early, before they headed out for their scheduled workout with American coach Steve Saunders. "Where these hockey players I keep hearing about? " I asked the lady at the front desk. She just pointed toward a long hallway, a door leading outside at the end. "The pool, always at the pool..." she said.
Did you ever just come upon a scene, or someone said said something and you just laughed in their face? I laughed in their face. They we're just asking for it when I opened the door, and to my sight - I let out one of my good ol' loud "Yo Joey!", my favorite intro from my years living in Brooklyn, NY. Of course their expressions told me that they didn't have a clue what I was saying, and I sure as hell had no idea what they said back to me.
I had this app on my phone, Russian to English translator, and it hardly worked worth a shit, but we did finally get somewhere in our conversation. YES, would you believe it!!! They were waiting for girls!!! American girls!!! Ha. I said "shit.. ain't no American girls gonna walk through that door, trust me!" "Look around you - what do you see?" "That's right - fields and cows - not girls!" "The girl thing ain't happening here Joey!" I said.
But, as it would be... what makes a professional athlete so durable, with that determination, that steadfastness, would take play right here by the pool, every day... waiting and waiting... I loved these guys, and on our goodbyes we exchanged emails. A few weeks later I emailed Vitali - He never did get that girl.