By Chandley McDonald
In early October, 20 young ice hockey players and four coaches traveled to Moscow for 10 days as part of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s vision of “smart power,” which embraces a full range of diplomatic tools, including popular sports exchanges.
The program supports the U.S.-Russian Bilateral Presidential Commission’s (BPC’s) efforts to bring people together for greater understanding.
The ice hockey players, 10 boys and 10 girls aged 14 to 18, accompanied by four coaches, were selected from hockey clubs in California and Minnesota in coordination with USA Hockey.
The State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ (ECA’s) SportsUnited Division has brought more than 1,000 athletes from more than 60 countries to the United States for sports visitor programs. Since 2005, SportsUnited has sent 274 U.S. athletes to 58 countries in sports envoy programs.
Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Ann Stock, who was on hand when the players and coaches departed Washington, spoke of their role as cultural ambassadors after they left: “I am so excited that the State Department was able to send some of America’s aspiring world-class hockey players to meet their Russian counterparts. These young people are the future of our relationship with Russia. They were excited to meet new friends, learn about new cultures and be cultural ambassadors under the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission.”
The trip to Moscow reciprocates a 2011 program that brought 24 Russian ice hockey players and coaches to Washington. This visit is the eighth exchange resulting from a 2009 agreement between the State Department and the Russian Ministry of Sports, Tourism and Youth Policy, under the auspices of the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission’s Education, Culture, Sports and Media Working Group.
During its visit, the American group joined its host, the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, and its players in practicing, coaching sessions, “friendly matches” with other ice hockey players and cultural programs. The group stayed in Moscow at the National Olympic Training Facility.
Prior to departure, when asked what he expected to learn from his experience with Russian players, Elliott Tyler Moorman, a 17-year-old forward from Minnesota, said, “I look forward to seeing how their teams train, to the practice games and to learning more about Russian culture. I took European history in school last year, and this will be the perfect opportunity to explore it firsthand.” Moorman planned to send his impressions back to friends and family by updating his Facebook page and tweeting. He also anticipated making Russian friends and staying in touch after returning home.
Rachael Ann Peroutky, a high school senior from Minnesota and a forward, celebrated her 18th birthday in Moscow during the trip. Playing hockey since she can remember, Peroutky anticipated making valuable cultural connections with Russian girls her age who share the same enthusiasm for the game.
Bret Kingsbury, from Bakersfield, California, is one of the coaches. “I grew up in the era of the Cold War,” he says, “and I am keen on seeing an older culture than ours, getting to know the Russian people and recognizing some of the things we share.” Kingsbury said he’ll be interested to see the players’ reaction to the Russian experience and how that will translate into leadership on the ice and in school.
The California and Minnesota participants come from different hockey communities. Almost all high schools in Minnesota have ice hockey teams as part of their regular school sports program, while California has city teams made up of players from area schools because few schools have ice rinks or skating as part of their school athletics program.
“I saw an ad for the Youth Ambassador Program that piqued my curiosity,” says Rachel Carranza, a 15-year-old defenseman from California, who plays for the San Jose Jr. Sharks Girls 16U team. She filled out the application that contained questions as well as a short essay and waited to hear. “I was so excited when the news came by phone and email,” Carranza said, “and now I can’t wait to experience the culture and see Russia.” The anticipated “take away” from her trip to Russia? “Playing hockey with girls my age and experiencing the culture. I think it will make me a better leader in the classroom and on the ice. I can share the culture exchange aspect with my friends at home and tell them about daily life in Russia.”
Coach Kingsbury summed it up: “Sports is an equalizer to cultural differences. Sure, each team wants to win, it’s the common competitive goal. But after the game everyone shakes hands and congratulates each other on good play. That’s the beauty in this kind of exchange.”