U.S. and Russia: Hockey Is Our Common Friend

Last week, I had the honor of showing an old friend of mine -- Hockey Hall of Fame writer Jay Greenberg -- around Moscow. We got a good deal on Russian hats, took in a game and made some new friends afterward. A good time was had by all.

One of the first Russian words I learned when I took my current position with the KHL was a commonly used expression for "friend." Transliterated from the Cyrillic alphabet the word "друг" can easily be mistaken in English for "drug." The spoken pronunciation sounds a bit more like a "droog" from A Clockwork Orange. Either, which way, hearing the word the first time or two made me furrow my brow!

The mistranslation can sometimes go the other way, too. I've heard that, on a Russian radio station that played older American rock and pop songs around the post-Glasnost era, there was a 1980s-era Huey Lewis and the News song that was once mistranslated as "I Want a New Friend."

Whether that's true or not, I have no idea. It doesn't even matter. The point is that everyday language is rife with pitfalls and easy misunderstands. One of the beautiful things about hockey is that the sport -- like art or music -- is a universal language. It's something we can appreciate, love, support and nurture.

I have had many friends ask me if it is tough for me -- as a proud American who was employed by the NHL for 17 years -- to work for the KHL and live in Russia for much of the season. The hard part for me is being away from my family. The hockey part is easy and universal.

Back in September, I rode the Moscow metro, going from CSKA's home rink to downtown. While on the train, I saw a father and son. The dad was lugging his son's hockey gear. The son sported a Dynamo Moscow jacket and a Pittsburgh Penguins' Evgeni Malkin hat.

Hockey people enjoy running into other hockey people, regardless of the locale or their language barrier.

In my best Russian (which is still none too good, but I am working at it), I said hello and asked where they were going. They told me they were on the way back from the son's hockey practice.

Putting politics, cultural differences and language barriers aside, I felt a kinship to the hockey dad and his boy. The gleam in the kid's eyes and the dad's pride standing beside him transcended everything else. Hockey was the bond that formed a connection but this really was about a much bigger bond of being a father and remembering what it was like to be in the son's place, too.

Something else to keep in mind: Hockey is a global sport that has a powerful effect on all that play or just love the game.

Folks have also asked me how I communicate with the KHL officials with whom I interact. Given my very limited Russian, but I am learning; How can I instruct a young referee who speaks no English? How can I talk to league higher-ups or team executives who may have a question or comment?

The answer is very simple: We speak the language of hockey and make ourselves understood.

As I mentioned a couple months ago, I've developed a method for instructing officials that works whether their first language is English, French, Russian, Japanese or Tikkanese (Esa Tikkanen's personal hybrid of Finnish, English and gibberish). Part of it revolves around providing familiar visual cues as I draw on a rink board. Secondly, it involves using simple, clearly enunciated words that related to objects with which everyone is familiar.

For example, when discussing skating techniques for positioning around the net, I may use body language and drawings while saying something such as "BANANA around the net, TELESCOPE into the post, C-CUT backwards in a straight line... crossovers, NYET."

This is how you speak the language of hockey. The officials with whom I work in Russia catch on quickly to what I'm saying, with no more significant difficulty in grasping the concepts than the North Americans officials I've trained and directed.

Their enthusiasm is encouraging for me as a coach and teacher. What's more, I think that the passion I bring to the rink is something they instantly pick up upon, too. It's a mutually rewarding relationship that really doesn't require them to speak English or for me to know more than a few key words in Russian.

When all is said and done, hockey people are one and the same no matter our country of origin, economic situations or the politics that divide governments. Hockey is our mutual друг.


Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.

Today, Stewart is an officiating and league discipline consultant for the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and serves as director of hockey officiating for the ECAC.

The longtime referee heads Officiating by Stewart, a consulting, training and evaluation service for officials. Stewart also maintains a busy schedule as a public speaker, fund raiser and master-of-ceremonies for a host of private, corporate and public events. As a non-hockey venture, he is the owner of Lest We Forget.

Stewart's writings can also be found on HockeyBuzz.com every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. He is currently working with a co-author in writing an autobiography.