As we wait for the finals and the fun of seeing Boston get their ass’s kicked, I’ve been reading a book by an American minor league hockey player named Tod Hartje, who, in 1990, played a full season in the Ukraine and was the first North American to play hockey for a top club in the Soviet Union.
This book was recommended to me by my friend Hobo and he was right, it’s a great read.
Aside from the obvious strangeness of playing for Sokol Kiev, with language and custom awkwardness and cold war aftermath, what was impressive was the fact that Hartje’s teammates, and pretty well everyone he came in contact with, could drink him under the table. These were world-class drinkers.
I know a little about this sort of thing. I’m a victim.
I went to a New Year’s party in St. Petersburg where ten female school teachers put on a terrific party among themselves featuring plays, singing, eating, and drinking vodka. I was the only guy, and I didn’t understand one word the entire night. I wondered if they were talking about me.
They toasted everything they could think of. I don’t know what they toasted, but whatever it was, it was about every fifteen minutes. And everytime they toasted, they drank a shot of vodka. And because they did, so did I.
At the end, when it was time to go, I couldn’t do my shoelaces up. I was helped home, went to bed, and proceeded to have a two-day hangover.
The women were all fine. I was pissed but they were fine. Feeling good maybe, but they could do their own shoelaces up. At least that’s what my wife told me.
If you ever get the chance, read Hartje’s book From Behind The Red Line (An American Hockey Player in Russia). His journey begins by first disliking the Ukraine and Russia and thinking about going home to Minnesota, but he stuck it out and became close with his teammates and many others, although he never quite came to grips with the food and lousy rinks.
Russian people, as Haertje discovered, will invite you into their homes and treat you like Rocket Richard. It’s very disarming and lovely, and they’re quite a different bunch in their homes than in the streets. They’ll feed you and show you their treasures. Then they’ll try to give you their treasures. They can be very kind and generous.
And they’ll give you vodka, so don’t plan anything for a few days.