Steve Jecha holds a singular accomplishment in the annals of international bandy. From 1991 to 1995 he played fullback for the US team in the World Championships in Helsinki, Hamar, and Roseville USA. He did not earn the nickname "Swift Steve" because of his speed on the ice. The Swift instead was referring to the speed, the hyperdrive, at which his ever active brain functioned. Steve did not think outside the box. There was no box in the world that he existed in. So it was no stunner when after the 1995 season he decided he would switch from fullback to goaltender. He became a good one. Swiftly. By 1997 he was in goal for the US at the World Championships in Sweden.
As a US goalie Steve faced a large number of shots when playing against the A pool nations, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Many went into the net but that was not a consequence of Steve's abilities. It was the result of the US playing teams that were vastly superior. Steve remembers facing the Russians in Archangelsk. Fifteen Thousand Russian fans had come to see a goal tsunami. As the score mounted he could hear a rumbling in the crowd that coalesced into a single cheer, chanted over and over, fifteen thousand voices strong. With no understanding of the Russian language he could only assume the chant was for
After the match Steve asked a couple of cheerful, English speaking Russians what the crowd had been chanting.
"Let Them Score" was the answer. "Let Them Score".
And when it happened the crowd erupted.
Do not, however, mislabel such a goal as a mercy goal. Mercy is shown when skaters stop moving so fast, when passes are just off the stick, when shots are inches wide of the goal. All designed to keep the the score from crossing the arbitrary humiliation line. The goal was instead a "Dignity Goal". Allowing or facilitating an overwhelmed opponent to score at least once. Mercy and Dignity may come from the same blood line but they are at best cousins. The concept, the humanity, of allowing an opponent to maintain some dignity must run deep in the Russian soul. The same cannot be said for the Swedes. In almost all early USA national team matches versus Sweden it appeared that a US goal would be an affront to their national pride.
As bandy expanded into new countries the US found itself on the giving end. Able to score in large numbers against many opponents we remembered well from our early bandy childhood the lessons learned from the Russians. We rejected the Swedish lesson. In 2009 we met the Mongolians in the B Pool World Championships in Vasteras. At only 4 seconds into the match Jon Keseley scored for the US. The fastest goal to begin a match in world championship history. The score hit 12-0 with mercy already in play. This was not enough. I was the coach. The word was conveyed to our defenders.
"Give them opportunity"
Steve Nelson skated to the goal where Billy Kron was in net. A brief discussion ensued.
"NO". came the loud response to me from Billy.
"YES." I yelled back.
You can't just hand out a dignity goal. It still has to be earned. The players will not all fall down. They won't pass the ball to the opponent. They will not part like the Red Sea. They must, however, give the opponent room to move, to create, to finish if possible. And with the opportunity Mongolia created a good scoring chance. The shot was about waist high. It found its way just past Billy and into the net. The Mongolians celebrated as if they had just won the match. On their bench their coach, an Orthodox Russian priest, clothed in full regalia began to dance. He showed good coordination in his Ryasa, a full length black robe that flowed to his feet. His Kamlavka, the stiff black head covering, somehow stayed on his head.
The day following the Mongolia game a group of us, wearing our red USA jackets, encountered a group of Mongolian players in downtown Vasteras. They were all wearing their team jackets, knee length, black with MONGOLIA in large letters on the back. On the chest was the Mongolian flag. A magnificent coat. Warm too. It would be both functional and unique in the winter of Minnesota. I sure wanted one. The response was
And then the coach, the Russian Orthodox Priest, appeared.
"You are the coach of the US team"?
"You are a good man"
"You understand dignity"
He then called over the tallest Mongolian player, my height of 5'10". He directed the player to exchange coats with me.
At the tournament ending banquet, before the US team was called up to receive our gold medals, the best players of the tournament, including the best goaltender, were announced. I was sitting next to Billy Kron when the Hungarian goalie was named best of the tournament. I turned to Billy.
"That could have been you if you had not let that goal in against Mongolia"