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Translation: They play ice hockey! This sport comes up so often when you first start learning Russian that it is an essential word to know. It may also appear as хоккей с шайбой. If you are ever in Russia during the winter or spring, you will need to know a little about the sport and why the Russians love it!
The world’s fastest indoor team sport is played on an ice rink about 60m long. Players wear ice skates and use long sticks to control a vulcanised rubber puck and shoot it into the opposition’s goal. Not counting the goalkeeper, each team usually has five players on the ice, who change regularly because the sport is played fast and hard, involving violent body checks and with fighting condoned (although punished). From this description, it is easy to see why this contact sport is so popular in a culture where strength and the ability to fight are still highly valued, and are often portrayed by President Putin himself. Moreover, given that for half of the year the Russian climate is stereotypically cold and snowy, playing ice hockey is only natural.
Varieties of the sport have been played in Russia for hundreds of years; Bandy, or русский хоккей (Russian Ice Hockey), is particularly popular. In fact, the USSR’s first ever team was made up of Bandy players. However, from my own experience, this does not stop many Russians from considering their country to be the birthplace of the modern game, which is actually Canada.This argument may seem pointless from an outsider’s perspective, but it is in truth just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the competition between Russia and North America. Owning ice hockey became of great importance as the sport quickly came to represent the Cold War struggle between the world’s superpowers: the USSR and the USA. During this period, the USSR won hockey golds in seven of nine Winter Olympics from 1956 to 1988: one reason why some Russians hark back to the ‘good old days’ of the Soviet Union. The success of the soviet team was put down by western commentators to the suspected state-sponsoring of the team, violating the amateur nature of the Olympics. This view is supported by the lack of soviet success within just a decade of 1986, when other nations were allowed to use professional athletes. The same years saw the 1991 dissolution of the USSR. This rise and fall was mirrored in the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championships. However, even now, without the strength of the USSR, Russia has won 4 of the last 8 championships, and is currently ranked second in the world.
So, the fight is back on! The KHL – the league of the former Eastern Bloc – is only growing stronger, hoping to rival the world-leading NHL in North America. Furthermore, this May, the IIHF World Championships are being held in Moscow and St. Petersburg! Now you should know enough to get by in the world of Russian hockey! Also, if you ever feel the need for a revision break and want to get some practice watching the sport – you need practice, honestly – find the “IIHF Worlds 2016” channel on YouTube and, come 6th May, you should be able to watch the new Cold War play out before you!
N.B. If you ever want to try ice hockey for yourself, get involved with the UoB Lions Ice Hockey team this October. For complete beginners and experienced players alike.
By Alexander Caves
The UoB Linguist Magazine
Guild of Students,
University of Birmingham