Wednesday, March 19, 2014

It's Who You Know a.k.a. how I started watching hockey

I think before coming to Kazakhstan I'd been to three hockey games. 

One was a Providence Bruins game when we were younger, and we left in the middle.

The other two were during Word of Life's Super Bowl event, a youth rally that involves staying up all night and . . . learning more about J3sus? Not totally sure, but during the hockey portion of the night I was absorbed with watching my fellow students and pretty much didn't even realize there was anything happening on the ice. 

So when we decided to go to a hockey game here in Karaganda I was kind of unenthused. But we were going with students, and it was a cultural experience, and it was something to do on a Saturday night, so, that happened. We learned the team name (Saryarka!) and how to say goal (шайбу!) and we were good to go. And the game was fun and everything, but I didn't feel the need to ever go again. I checked that off the list. I was ready to move on to football.

Polina (second from left) translates for the team
We've now seen four games, three of which have been playoff games, and two of which have been in the best seats, right behind the players' box. We chant the players names and we say dumb things like, "Я люблю тебя, Bова!"* I'm still waking up from confetti in my bed from when they showered the crowd with it after their quarterfinals victory. 

And how did all of this come about? You Rhode Islanders will understand me: connections. It's not what you know (in this case, the hockey schedule, which we didn't know anyway) but who you know (in this case, the team's translator.) Polina has season tickets to the games and all-access pass because she translates for her aunt, who is the team's doctor. The majority of the players are from Russia or Kazakhstan, but for the English speakers on the team, Polina helps them out. Thanks to her, we got to meet Kip Brennan** and Sabahudin Kovačevič.***

Bet, Teka, and I with Kovačevič

The Karaganda team (Сарыарка, which we're told is the name of the oblast where Karaganda is located) is currently in the semifinals and is the only Kazakhstani team. One of my administrators at Daryn tells me that when the hockey stadium first opened no one attended the games and the doctors and teachers in the city were required to go with their families, I suppose to act as trendsetters. (She confided in me that she much preferred American football to hockey, particularly the Oklahoma Sooners, which I chose to ignore because, roll tide!) Last year this team was in the finals, so it makes it that much more fun to root for a team that actually has a shot at winning. 

These hockey games are a language lesson unto themselves: being sandwiched between native fans shouting at the players in their native tongue we're able to spend a few hours in language immersion, which had paid off with a handful of new words and improved listening skills. (For the Canadian players some fans occasionally shout, "Ca-NAH-da, goal!") I like to think my ability to dance in my seat has also improved from the music they play while the clock is stopped.

Second semi-final game, final score 6-3 Saryarka!

I wouldn't say I've become a hockey enthusiast in general, but having Bet explaining the ref calls to me and offering insight into the game's rules has definitely grown my appreciation for the sport. I tend to have low interest in what I don't understand, but as my understanding of hockey grows so does my attention span for it. I actually just googled what was happening currently in the NHL. Look at me caring! As an expat/foreigner/inherent outsider, what I appreciate best about becoming a Сарыарка fan is being part of something. When I ask my students whether they watched the away games on TV, it's nice to see the look of pleasant surprise at my interest. It's a small gesture, but sporting team pride is just another way to show how much I've come to care about this place. 

*Can I tell you how adorable one of the goalkeepers is? After victories he dances to Gangam Style on center ice and brings the stuffed animals people throw on the ice to the orphanage.
**Formerly an NFL player. Click the link and see an example of his hockey skill set. Polina says he seems scary on the ice (he's an enforcer) but when the team visits the orphanage he tells the kids stories about putting out cookies for Santa Claus; an interesting juxtaposition.
***Competed in the 2014 Sochi Olympics as a member of the Slovenia team. 
****Kazakhstan only has two teams in this otherwise Russian league, and Polina explained that when KZ wins they kind of get treated like we treat Canada when they win the Stanley Cup. In many ways Kazakhstan is to Russia as Canada is to the USA. Perspective.

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