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Some take it to the next level.
Tri-captain Kat Sweet and sophomore Caitlin Cahow took their game around the world.
This summer, the teammates on the Harvard women’s ice hockey team traveled to the other side of the globe to Kazakhstan for an eight-day stint with the group Athletes in Action.
Of course, the trip was really a nearly three week long trek into the unknown for a lesson in adaptability and appreciation—and, oh yeah, hockey.
We Aren’t in Kansas Anymore
It took four planes, one bus and 93 hours for Sweet and Cahow to arrive in the town of Ust-Kamenogorsk, where they, as part of the Canadian Athletes in Action team, faced off against Kazakhstan and Russia in what was loosely called the Freedom Cup.
They left behind the posh accommodations and comforts of the United States in favor of somewhat questionable conditions in the dust of Kazakhstan.
Sweet and Cahow stayed at the Sanitorium during their time abroad, an ironic name given what it was, according to the two players.
“As frightening as that sounds, it was actually probably equivalent to a five star hotel in Kaz terms,” Cahow said. “We’re talking cockroaches the size of this [Leverett Dining Hall] table. Kat was almost killed by a tarantula.”
But the housing in Kazakhstan did not throw the teammates nearly the way the food did—living off of the “meat logs” at the dining table proved to be the biggest challenge of the trip.
“I have no idea what we ate for three weeks,” Sweet said. “They would just put this stuff on our plates. I eat everything, and I just couldn’t get that down.”
Even just the process of getting to Ust-Kamenogorsk was not an easy task. Sweet and Cahow were on a bus—and it wasn’t your average coach bus—for 30 hours.
“We’re talking no TV’s, no AC, no windows that open,” Cahow said.
The only ventilation from the stuffy bus was the vents on the top of the bus, through which sand and dirt poured in.
“At one point, I was standing in the front of the bus,” Sweet said. “I tried to see the back, and I couldn’t, because of all the dust in the bus.”
Whenever a player needed to use the bathroom, she knocked on the window, and the driver pulled over. There were not even trees to hide behind.
And at one point, the bus redirected onto a dirt path when the road stopped.
“It’s so hard to describe,” Sweet said. “We were in this town where there were no rules, really. You could do whatever you wanted in the road.”
But once the Canadian troop made it to Ust-Kamenogorsk, they found some pleasant surprises.
One night, the teams made plans to go to a sports bar, unsure of what to expect, since they had not seen a TV since their arrival.
Hoping for just a glimpse of world events, highlighted by the 2004 Olympics, the women were amazed by what they found.
In the middle of the bar was a mirage—half of a basketball court, bowling lanes, pool tables, and air hockey. After a heated basketball game, the lights came down to create a dance club complete with Russian techno music, Eminem, Will Smith and other relics of the early 90’s.
“If they bring this place to Boston, it’ll be the hottest place ever,” Sweet said.
“Nobody would have believed it,” Cahow said.
Like the sports bar, the recently renovated ice rink upon which the team played contrasted greatly with the rest of Ust-Kamenogorsk. The team took the ice at the former training site of the 1984 Soviet ice hockey team, who lost in the gold medal game to the upstart Americans.
“In the middle of this town, there was this immaculate rink,” Sweet said.
Yet some simple features were still missing. Despite pristine locker rooms and shower facilities, the rink lacked toilets. In lieu of western-style commodes, there were simple holes in the ground with treads on the side.
Getting Down to Business
Town simplicities and facility irregularities aside, the hockey was anything but primative. High caliber players from Russia, Kazakhstan and Canada faced off in the intense international tournament.
“It was supposed to be four teams, but China dropped out at the last minute because they thought we were the Canadian National team,” Sweet said. “So it was just three teams—us, Russia and Kazakhstan.”
The Canadian contingency was a hodgepodge of U.S. collegiate players—ranging from Sweet, Cahow, a player from Yale, and one from Cornell—to young Canadian talent. Interestingly, the team’s goalie was only fifteen years old.
The Russian and Kazakhstan teams, on the other hand, contained some national players.
“So all of these people had dedicated their entire lives to playing hockey,” Cahow said. “Then there was us, who were a rag-tag group. There was definitely a pretty wide gamut of talent.”
Russia emerged with the best record after each team had played each other twice, so on the final day of play, Kazakhstan and Canada teamed up for an all-star combat against the winners, even combining lines.
“It was really bizarre trying to play with them,” Sweet said. “I played with this 40-year-old woman on her line. And I was like ‘drop it!’ and she clearly doesn’t know what drop it means because she doesn’t speak English. And she’s yelling at me in Russian.”
YOU DON’T KNOW HOW LUCKY YOU ARE
Through their competition and cooperation with the Kazakhstanian team, Sweet and Cahow came home with some lessons about hockey and what it means to play it.
Before the all-star game, the Canadian and Kazakhstanian teams shared the ice for a practice run by the coach for Kazakhstan.
“It just made me appreciate how hard they work,” Cahow said. “We had a game that night, and we skated hard in that practice. Then when we went out to warm up for the game, and the Kaz coach was running that, too. And we ran. I was exhausted before the game.”
It was clear to Cahow and Sweet how much hockey meant to the local team and their compatriots. The women played with old sticks, worn pads and dull skates.
“They play with these huge wooden sticks that probably haven’t come out in 15 years,” Sweet said. “This one girl was playing, and the blade of her stick was completely broken—there was a hole. And she played a whole game with it, like that’s her stick. She couldn’t afford anything else.”
Many of the Kazakhstanian women played under constrained circumstances, too, often having to fight to play hockey, even at the highest caliber.
“There were girls on the team who were like, ‘My parents hate that I play hockey. They want me to stop,’” Cahow said. “We’re talking about people who are going to represent them in the Olympics.”
But in large part, hockey also helps bring people together in the simple country. The captain of the Kazakhstan team was 40-years-old, and she played on the same line as her 14-year-old daughter. Her husband rounded out the family presence by coaching the team.
Sweet and Cahow also visited a youth hockey program of 14-year-old boys who were training in the mountains. The boys requested autographs and treated the Americans like celebrities.
After their experience, Sweet and Cahow left Kazakhstan with lighter bags and heavier hearts as they, along with the rest of the Canadian team, donated much of their equipment to the local team.
“A bunch of us just handed out our equipment and our old sticks,” Sweet said. “We left a lot of stuff with them.”
Sweet and Cahow also hope to make future fundraising plans to bring more hockey equipment to Kazakhstan.
The duo, as they head into the 2004-2005 season, hope to bring back their rejuvenated love for the sport of hockey.
“[In Kazakhstan] I don’t think I thought about it as much,” Cahow said. “I think I just enjoyed playing over there so much that it’s something that I wanted to bring back with me here.”
The intense Harvard hockey program might even seem comforting after the unusual summer experience.
—Staff writer Carrie H. Petri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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