The Volga River is to the Russians what the Mississippi is to America. The giver of life, The spiritual soul of Russia. The Mother Volga is exalted in Russian folklore and literature. Multiple Russian cities sit secure on its banks as the Volga winds 2193 miles to its outlet in the Caspian Sea. Kazan, Nishny Novgorod, Astrakhan, each sounding more exotic than the previous. Do not forget Ulyanovsk, the birthplace of Lenin. Lenin was not a bandy player but Ulyanovsk is a bandy city. The local club is "Volga". Formed in 1934, Volga competes in the Russian Super League. Their original bandy rink was built in the 1920s in a now impoverished and neglected section of Ulyanovsk. Volga has moved to an indoor, artificially refrigerated complex, the "Volga Sports Arena". But the old rink still remains.
The US team has arrived in Ulyanovsk in the early afternoon of January 31, 2016. The following afternoon they will play Belarus in their opening match of the World Championships. First, an on ice training that evening. It takes place at the old Volga ice rink. Surrounded by a tall chain link fence there is only one entrance to the rink. News spreads quickly through the surrounding apartment complexes. The US team is skating on the old rink. Within thirty minutes hundreds of people are standing outside the fence. Most have only experienced Americans on television. They have never seen them up close, in person. Our liaison, Alex, approaches me.
"I have been asked if the people can be allowed in to watch the practice."
I don't hesitate in my response.
"Yes, let them come in"
The rink is then surrounded by the citizens of the neighborhood. Young boys and girls. Old men and women. Even some mothers with their babies in strollers They stand just outside the ice surface, only feet away from the US players. The thrill they are experiencing emanates out onto the ice. The US boys can feel its power and are immersed in this wave of human emotion. The practice will soon be over. Security begins to move the people away from the ice, towards the exit from the rink. I intervene.
"Let them stay"
"The US boys would like to meet the people"
The US players begin to leave the ice. They are surrounded by the people of Ulyanovsk. Hand shaking. Back Thumping. Photo taking. Autograph signing. This is not a one way encounter. The US boys are just as thrilled as the people they are interacting with. A man in his sixties comes up to Alex and I. He is neither wealthy nor sophisticated. But he is a man of pride, both personal and proud of being a Russian.
"This is how it should be" he proclaims.
"Our leaders, our countries may not like each other"
They may tell us we should not like you"
But we who are the people, we don't care what they say"
"We and you are friends. The people will always be friends"
This is beautiful"
And it is beautiful.
Four nights later and the US is playing in the quarterfinals, fifty miles east of Ulyanovsk, in the city of Dmitrovgrad. Seven thousand Russians fill the concrete stands and surround the outdoor rink. They have come to see the spectacle of a match between their Russian team and the United States of America. The crowd is alive and seems to exist as a single entity. The noise is deafening as they celebrate each of the first nine Russian goals.
"Rossiya, Rossiya, Rossiya"
The US scores to make it 9-1. The crowd goes silent. Coach Chris Halden and I concur that this silence should end. We step out from the US bench and face the stands. Using our arms and hands we exhort the the crowd to acknowledge the US goal. They respond, at first a light chant, then a roar.
"USA, USA, USA"
When the US scores a second goal the crowd does not need encouragement. USA, USA erupts in a harmony of humanity.
As the game comes to an end, the police stand in formation to keep the crowd from rushing the ice. The US players instead skate to and then step into the throng. This is much more than diplomacy and goodwill. It is a river of human joy and friendship flowing between two peoples. Thirty minutes pass before the first US players make it to the locker room. They know they have played a strong match against the Russians. But it is the extraordinary post match connection with the citizens of Dmitovgrad, the Russian people, that they will take with them for the rest of their lives.
A group of police stand by our bus as we board for the ride back to Ulyanovsk. One of them, a Captain, is standing next to a young girl. Her daughter. I take the USA Bandy scarf from my neck and present it to the young girl. The Captain puts her arms around me, crushing me in a tremendous embrace. She speaks to me with feelings that come from the thousands of Russians who came to the match and connected with the US players afterward.
"We love you"!
The feeling is most definitely mutual.
We love you too"! I respond as she embraces me again