After tragedy, Russians rebuild in U.S.
MANHEIM, Pa. -- 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 deeply connected to its hockey team, and this past winter, in the middle of an overachieving season, Lokomotiv president Yuri Yakovlev asked Rowe whether there was anything he could do to help the team get better. Rowe suggested the team train in the United States the next offseason. Yakovlev opened his checkbook, and an unprecedented trip was set. The team would enlist the services of Steve Saunders, a workout guru who has trained everyone from Cincinnati Bengals linebacker James Harrison to singer Miley Cyrus. The Russians would come for five weeks to learn about conditioning and diets.
On April 20, they arrived at JFK International Airport in New York City, and Saunders held up a sign that read, "Welcome, Lokomotiv." He loaded them in a van and his Cadillac Escalade. The boys gazed dreamingly at the skyscrapers, not knowing where they were going.
About 15 minutes into the drive, Saunders felt compelled to bring them back to earth. He turned to Alex Kruchinin, the only player who spoke fluent English.
"Where you're going doesn't look like this," Saunders said.
Four hours later, Lokomotiv was in Manheim, Pa., at a charming hotel called the Lancaster Inn and Suites, the team's temporary home. A sign in the lobby advertised the opportunity to explore a "real" local dairy. Outside, on the porch, was a row of rockers.
The whole thing sounded like a reality show: eighteen Russians, in Amish country, with a high-octane American trainer. Saunders brought them here, of all places, because he's from Lancaster County. He grew up with Amish neighbors who had an outhouse and no electricity, and he always believed that fewer distractions led to bigger results.
But even Saunders didn't know how this would all work. He doesn't speak Russian; they, for the most part, don't speak English.
"The running joke on the staff was that we don't want any international incidents while they're here," Saunders said. "Having them in Lancaster gave me a lot of control. And it gave them nothing to do."
It is a cliché to say that Russians are stoic and strong. Do the players keep to themselves because they're out of their element or because they're Russian? Do they eat their meals, heads down and in silence, because of fatigue or sadness?
Perhaps the biggest bridge between this team and the old one is Lokomotiv assistant Nikolai Borschevsky. He played in the NHL, coached for years in the Lokomotiv system and knew most of the 37 players, coaches and staff members on board the plane bound for the 2011-12 season opener in Minsk that crashed just after takeoff.
Borschevsky, wearing dark sunglasses, talked about this current team's serious demeanor and focus. But he wouldn't go anywhere near the past.
"I don't want to talk about that," he said. "Sorry."
Grief follows them. It's inevitable. Every day in Yaroslavl is a reminder of what they're missing. There are the pictures of the old team that hang prominently in the arena, smiling headshots of young men dressed in matching shirts and ties. They're hopeful, looking as if they're about to leave for a road trip.
Last season, the team moved back to the Kontinental Hockey League, and it was a yearlong tour of tributes and tears. Lokomotiv, named after a railway, rang a bell three times before each home game in honor of the victims.
Road trips weren't much easier. Plane rides are never easy anymore. And when the players landed in cities that were the hometowns of their fallen teammates, they went to the cemeteries and placed flowers on the graves.
It was heavy stuff for a bunch of 20-year-olds, and so was the pressure to perform in a city 160 miles from Moscow that is so passionate about hockey that its fans are compared to the uber-involved Montreal Canadiens fans of the NHL.
So no, some people just don't want to talk about the past, at least not here, so many miles removed from all the pain. This is a time and a place to focus on the future, on guys such as Egor Yakovlev, the first player to join the team a month after the crash. Yakovlev is a 21-year-old defenseman who's conscientious and kind and has unlimited potential.
Like so many others, he joined Yaroslavl because he wanted to honor his friends who died in the crash and carry on the team's tradition. He wanted to make a difference. Lokomotiv was a powerful franchise before 2011, winner of three titles and contender for another. The city didn't just lose a team that day; it lost its history. Many of the players started as kids in Lokomotiv's feeder system.
Sometimes Rowe worries about Yakovlev because he puts too much pressure on himself.
"It's not pressure. It's motivation," Yakovlev said through an interpreter. "Because we don't only play for ourselves but for the guys too."
They ate candy before games -- dark chocolate, milk chocolate -- and chowed down on cookies just for good measure. The sugar, supposedly, gave them energy. When Rowe arrived as head coach last year and noticed their pregame eating habits, he was somewhat horrified.
But he was new and had plenty of other problems on his hands, so he let it slide for a while. Baby steps. That's what Borschevsky, his assistant, told him. For years, Rowe, who worked in the Carolina Hurricanes' organization, was known as a hard-charging, demanding coach. But now he had to see things differently. These were kids, and they were grieving.
Never in a million years did Rowe think his career path would take him to Russia. When he broached the move with his wife, Bernice, ever the supportive and adventurous soul mate, even she stepped back and said, "Well, let's talk about it." But that's the thing about hockey. That world was calling him.
He felt the city's pain immediately after taking the job. Strangers would approach him and his wife on the streets and thank them for coming to Russia.
"It would get very emotional," Rowe said. "The fans would be very emotional about what happened."
Rowe took the job, in part, because of Brad McCrimmon, Lokomotiv's coach who died in the plane crash. McCrimmon was a Canadian with a wife and kids. Rowe liked him and figured if McCrimmon saw something special in Yaroslavl, he would too.
He wanted to model his team after the Detroit Red Wings. He wanted to develop enough players so Lokomotiv could play four lines and have a strong puck possession game. He played eight or nine rookies on a regular shift last year.
But for the team to be truly successful, there was so much for the players to learn. Russian hockey, he said, is full of skilled and creative players. Artists. But they lack the discipline they once had for dry-land training.
Rowe's players didn't need just strength and speed work. They needed to learn how to eat, cook and take care of their bodies. Saunders isn't a chef, but he knows what it takes to fuel a body.
The first major protest of the Russians upon their arrival focused on the menu. They wanted their breads and heavy soups. Saunders said no. He set up a cafeteria in a large banquet hall across the hotel parking lot and fed them protein-packed meals with meat, fruit and vegetables. He knew exactly who was following the diet and who was cheating.
The thing about Lancaster is that it's hard to hide. On several occasions, Saunders was driving down the highway when he saw a pack of Russians walking toward McDonald's for a late-night snack. Saunders laid on the horn and told them they were busted.
The Russians laughed. They didn't need a translator for that.
The Power Train gym in Manheim is a macho homage to the fit and famous. On one wall is an autographed poster of Mariners slugger Raul Ibanez. Near the front is a poster of Liam Hemsworth hyping his movie "The Expendables 2." "Can't feel my fingers!" the young actor scribbled in black marker. "Good s---!"
Saunders, who is so absorbed with training athletes -- putting 60,000 miles a year on his car traveling throughout the area to work with Steelers, Eagles and Ravens -- isn't quite as in tune with Hollywood. He was on a vacation in Myrtle Beach, S.C., with his wife and kids when a call came from Hemsworth's people requesting his services ASAP. Saunders, figuring that Emily would get frustrated with the distraction, tried to make the call quick.
"Liam Hemsworth?" Saunders asked, ready to assign it to an assistant.
His wife, hearing the name, prodded him to take it. He's an up-and-coming actor, she told him. He's engaged to Miley Cyrus.
The Saunderses have five kids. His wife picked many of the first names, but Saunders got his two cents in with the middle names. She named a boy Major; he made it Major Thunder. Another child is named Stone Cole.
When Saunders was approached to work with the Russians, he initially thought it sounded strange. Then again, a few of his jobs start out sounding strange. He didn't speak Russian and would need to immerse himself in all their activities for more than a month. Of the 18 who came to the United States, nine were junior hockey players. He worried about them landing on the police blotter.
But it wasn't a concern for long. This team approached it as a business trip. The players did two, sometimes three workouts a day, and by the time they returned to their hotel, they were too tired for much of anything. But Saunders already could see abs where there once was flab.
He hired a translator but discovered that "breaking balls is a universal language."
They picked up on things quickly and caught on to some of his lingo. "Yeah, baby" made them smile and get excited. So did "Last one."
Saunders has seen a lot over the years, but some of these kids get him fired up. There's a tall, lanky player named Dmitry Maltsev. Saunders loves his killer instinct. Maltsev has just begun to understand what he's capable of but won't brag about it. He'll do anything for his teammates.
"If that kid doesn't play in the NHL," Saunders said, "I'm retiring."
Their days in Manheim have appeared to be unremarkable. A guy who works the front desk at their hotel said they were polite, said thank you a lot, and generally looked either exhausted or bored. They hung out at the pool. During downtime, they got cabs and went to the outlet malls.
Saunders took them to a Philadelphia Flyers game and on their first roller coaster, at Hershey Park, but the long weeks wore on them. Near the end, they craved sleep over adventure.
Late last week, the Russians ran the stairs at Millersville University, where Saunders played college football. They scaled the bleachers while workers prepared the football field for graduation. When they ascended to the top for the last time, Saunders called them in. He told them, through an interpreter, to dress casual for a surprise at 6 o'clock. A handful of players were heading home Monday, and he wanted to throw them a party.
He ordered a mechanical bull, a dunk tank and some barbecue. But by the end of the night, they were content to kick a soccer ball around in a circle.
The bulk of the team will start its journey home Friday. The players will head for New York and spend the night at a hotel near JFK. For a few hours, they'll see the America they envisioned.
Saunders didn't think he'd feel so sad about them leaving. Chances are he'll never see most of them again.
"I'm bummed," he said.
Three players left for home Monday. Saunders met them in the hotel lobby and said his goodbyes. He hugged them and shared a smile with Maltsev.
"NHL," he told the kid. And then they got into a van, headed for faster places.