Somewhere over Europe, at 30,000 feet –†As a traveler, I’m not much of a picture-taker. Instead, the images I form of a foreign culture and its distinguishing traits I collect from hours of interactions with its people. I seek out the animate as opposed to their monuments. Now that I think about it, a nation’s people are its monuments. Ideally, these encounters spawn new and exciting and altogether unexpected friendships. Such was my great fortune in Moscow and Mytischi this spring.
Ironically for me, though, a fair portion of our Worlds coverage has come to be characterized by the quality and volume of images we captured. And as late as day two or three of our excursion we had no notin that this would happen. When we devised a workplan for Caps’ management last month we imagined the trip’s two powers of generous prose, Vogel and yours truly, making laptop keyboards hum while Parker and Rucki tended to things techy. This we did, but in a pocket-sized Sony digital camera with video capability Rucks had an impression-collecting tool whose utility and quality I don’t think even he appreciated back on May 3.
Instantly, we had roving camera eyes collecting and distributing impressions of this year’s World Championships, with Rucki pointing his jewel tool at the ice sheets even from Khodinka’s upper deck. This bit of technology was something we hadn’t exploited before even at OnFrozenBlog. Meanwhile, Vogel and Parker had their remarkable Capitals’ web content schematics down to a perfectly practiced art form. But Rucki’s vantage exponentially expanded our coverage team’s focus. Daily we generated photo galleries, publishing at least one every day. With these stills and small video snapshots we were able to bring the life of Moscow cafes, its personalities, and of course the action on the ice alive, for a travelblog and, eventually, a stand-alone e-exhibit. Sometimes we found delight in the sculpted cream-top creations of our middle-of-the-night cappuccinos and published our mirth moments later.
By tournament’s end Rucki was practiced enough in this rewarding artwork to orchestrate a post- bronze medal game picture of combatants-turned-teammates Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. It was a portrait that was picked up literally globally, by print and electronic media from Stockholm to Silver Spring.
From the Web wonder duo of Vogel and Parker we had a strong theoretical sense of what we could achieve overseas with comparable access to athletes. But subject to the whims of the International Ice Hockey Federation, the best laid story plans are just that — theoretical. If two weeks ago we’d planned on publishing e-postcards and player profiles, today we hope our readers feel, if not quite having been in Moscow themselves, afforded a window to the action and culture that traditional media rarely can impart. This I do know: I’d like to attend a few more 4:00 a.m., impromptu puck lectures in hotel foyers held by NHL scouts. In our middle-of-the-night chats with them I learned as much about Nicklas Backstrom from hockey’s hardcore who live out of suitcases than I did from his shifts at Khodinka Arena.
I love to talk hockey, and I love more listening to folks who really know hockey. From this perspective I’d have holed myself up in an overhead carry-on bin across the Atlantic to listen to the stories of the scouts who converged on our hotel in Moscow. Many of these guys learn of your passion for their sport and relish the opportunity to impart their insider’s anecdotes to you. It doesn’t hurt if you buy them a round, too.
“Work,” and laboring hard at it, was a defining ethos of our excursion, and I take home a keepsake portrait of great hockey writing craftsmanship from working alongside Mike Vogel, a pro’s pro in this business. At the risk of stating the obvious, he honored me with his offers of collaboration. That sounds more structured and formal than the experience actually was. By the World’s medal round we’d simply pass a laptop back and forth, working from the same file screen during our middle-of-the-night draft sessions, assembling collages of what we’d seen, heard, and felt. Great forward lines possess intangible instincts and know-where-each-other-are knack, and foremost among my fondest associations of this trip were the moments during which Vogs and I were in-synch laptop linemates, weaving organic and polished narratives while the rest of Europe slept.
Spike Parker, however, redefined my notion of commitment to craft. He’s a one-man webcast crew, a tour de force of technology. We’re about five hours into our flight home now, and he’s out like a light, which relieves me. In a very real sense his job couldn’t fully begin until our writing had ended, so he saw more than his fair share of Russian sunrises. All of us are wine enthusiasts, and if we were ever to start our own winery I think we’d call Russian Sunrise.
Or . . . Tall Russian Hard-Bodied Hotties, by the Millions. Early in the trip Vogs and Parker shared with us Alexander Ovechkin’s boundless enthusiasm for the aesthetic virtues of the women of his homeland. The joke among us was that he understated their appeal. We first encountered their “charm” seconds after setting foot on Russian soil, at the Moscow Airport Customs and Immigration station. Even in curve-covering government uniforms they weakened our American knees with their willowy stature and blemish-free beauty. Eleven days of: blonde, brunette, and black- and red-haired goddesses, whose “swivel” (coverage team characterization) movements in bluejeans and ever trendy general Euro tightness gave us a natural remedy to writer’s block. Or caused it. From hotel to train station to arena and back, and then back out again on foot for meals and sustaining caffeine and spirits, we were at all angles ever in view of Russia’s most precious jewels†– Kremlin included†– in awesome and awe-inspiring volume.
Sharapova? Kournikova? Uglies.
But I found beauty deep within the Russian people as well. I return home with a stack of music made for me by Andrey, a Ukranian, university-aged restaurant worker in our hotel. Late each morning, over my first cups of coffee in the new day, Andrey and I would bridge our linguistic impasse by sharing our favorite music with one another, he with the Flat Iron Bar’s sound system and me placing my MP3 player’s headphones over his ears.† Khodinka Arena daily offered up a soundtrack of loud, pulsating Russian rock music aired during play stoppages and intermissions, some of which pleasantly stuck in my head long after the games had ended. From his age and the elaborate and fierce looking tattoos ringing his wrists and forearms, Andrey, I figured, would be a good source for information on Russia’s rock music scene, and I was right. He devoted one of his off nights to making a pile of sample CDs for me. He did this, his English speaking manager informed me, because he worried about me lavishly and fruitlessly wasting money in a Moscow music store. Music, like hockey, unites nationalities and forges friendships.
I will also remember Anna the press-level usher at Khodinka. Petite and piercingly pretty, she was a perfect barometer for the fortunes of Team Russia: professionally stern in her usher tasks, she’d comport herself expressionlessly, until the Russians scored, when her sky-blue eyes would widen and she’d raise her hands to her mouth to suppress, ineffectively, her glee. She also had a habit of swaying and mouthing the words to the arena’s rock music I liked, and I enjoyed watching that.
In Anna I sensed an unvarnished authenticity of emotional range in Russian people. The instant the red light behind Russia’s cage alighted in Saturday’s semi-final with Finland, signaling their elimination, I looked over at Anna and caught the onset of her sobbing.
Because I saw her so often in my comings and goings at Khodinka, after some days I found it amusing to make her an audience to my massively mangled Russian utterances. She indulged me well, smiling at my most grievous miscues and gently correcting them.
Near the end of the gold medal game Sunday night I walked up to her, mouthed the word “Ovechkin?” to her in an interrogative, saw her smile, and handed her a door-length, AO-in-action color fabric banner and Caps’ ballcap. She hadn’t finished unfurling the banner before turning and rushing an aisle over to show off the gifts to an usher colleague.
I didn’t want those semi-final tears as my parting image of her.