NEW KENSINGTON, Pa. — A group of local hockey players will fly to the Russian Republic of Tatarstan on Thursday with a common goal: to represent the United States in a friendly tournament against some of the best competition in Eastern Europe and Asia.
The Esmark Stars will celebrate their 35th year of operation the same way they began their journey: by sending their under-16 squad half way across the globe.
“Our very first year of existence we went to Finland to play,” Head coach David Kosick explained. “Ten years ago we took a team to Belarus, too.”
It’s the first trip to Russia for the association, which has also sent teams to Norway, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Sweden.
LET THE GAMES BEGIN
The Stars are the first in a line of associations backed by the Friendship Bridge Association to compete in Tatarstan. It begins a series of friendlies between the two countries, a way to introduce the youth to each-others styles of play.
The tournament takes place at Neftekhimik Ice Palace in Nizhnekamsk, home of the KHL’s Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk. Opponents will include Avangard Omsk, Salavat Yulaev Ufa, Ak Bars Kazan, Neftehimik Nizhnekamsk, Neftyannik Almetyevsk, and Metallurg Magnitogorsk.
To those who follow the Pittsburgh Penguins closely, Magnitiogorsk is the club that developed superstar Evgeni Malkin. Other associations hosted players like Jaromir Jagr and Alexei Morozov during their post-NHL careers.
The players making the trip to Russia are doing so prepared, and overly excited to get the chance to compete against some of the best-trained athletes in the world.
“[The chance] to get to play against better players. We played the No. 1 team in the country last year and from what I’ve heard they’re going to be better than that,” Keith Smilowitz said. “It’s just great to play against good competition. I always love playing against higher levels. I trained with juniors and pro’s all summer, so it’s going to be a great experience.”
When the competition presents itself, goaltender Nathan Dickey is aware of the skill he may face, but has a balanced outlook for the tournament.
“There’s a little bit of intimidation, but other than that it’s just good, fun competition.”
NOT ALL BUSINESS
The trip isn’t all about hockey, it’s also a chance for the young group of players to enjoy learning about Russian culture. When asked about what the players are looking forward to, there was an unanimous answer.
“Probably the Red Square” Ethan Zupanc said. “I’ve heard a lot of things about it, so it’ll probably be fun.”
“I think Moscow is going to be beautiful,” Dickey agreed. “A bunch of the culture, we’re going to experience the food. It’s going to be a great trip.”
MAKING THE CONNECTION
An easy bridge for the Stars came from within: u-16 head coach Yuri Krivokhija. The native of Minsk, Belarus enters at least his seventh season coaching in the Esmark Stars program.
“Yuri is a Belarusian who played in the Russian and World Junior programs,” Kosick said. “His familiarity with Russian and Russian systems got this thing off of the ground, European players have come and played for us over the past ten, ten to twelve years.”
Krivokhija spent the better part of his playing career in the U.S. and locally had a stint with the Johnstown Chiefs.
His connection with the local youth game is very impressive. After a four-year stint as the coach of Canon-McMillan, he served two years behind the Mt. Lebanon bench.
Krivokhija currently serves as a scout for the Johnstown Tomahawks of the NAHL.
Esmark’s games take place Aug. 24-31.