World junior championship: Ufa gives new meaning to riding shotgun

Ufa, Russia – Waking up in Ufa this morning we were welcomed by at least a foot of fresh snow.

The winter weather here is par for the course and the snow provided a nice respite from the freezing temperatures that hovered around –30C  the night previous – and that’s without the wind chill.

Trying to get a cab to the rink for Team Canada’s morning practice proved difficult as most motorists were trying to navigate the snowy, icy roads. The helpful staff at the media hotel, going beyond the call of duty once again, managed to land us a ride to the rink with a plainclothes police officer who was sitting in the lobby.

Amil, our police escort of sorts, packed four of us media types – Chris Stevenson (QMI Agency), Terry Koshan (Toronto Sun),  Joanne Ireland (Edmonton Journal) and yours truly into his grey Mazda.  Koshan got into the car first, and had to move the contents lying on the backseat – which included a thermos and a loaded handgun.

Koshan’s a good guy, but the sight of him waving us into the car while holding what looked like a Glock, is not what you want to see first thing in the morning (or anytime, really). He eventually gave the gun to Amil who promptly dropped it into his driver’s side compartment.

“Don’t worry it’s (a) toy,” said Amil. “Just toy.”

In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have asked: “Why is a police officer carrying a toy gun?” But I’m going to blame that one on sleep deprivation.

The 15-minute drive – it took five minutes just to get out of the snow in the parking spot – on the slippery roads was pretty harrowing, so I just tried to focus on the black Mafia Wars air freshener hanging from the rear-view mirror. Getting out of the car we noticed that the finish of his car was strange – almost corrugated – so we wondered whether that might have been some kind of bulletproofing. Either that or we’ve been watching too many James Bond movies.

It was an interesting start to our morning and we were very grateful Amil gave us a lift and a good story.

STONE COLD CRAZY: Talking to members of Team Canada about their experiences to date in Russia have hit on some similar themes:  The cold and the traffic.

“It’s cold and there’s snow everywhere,” said forward Jonathan Drouin. “It’s kind of different from where I am right now in Halifax. Over there there’s not really that much snow, so it’s nice to see.”

Even for assistant coach André Tourigny, who coaches in Rouyn-Noranda, Que., where they’re used to getting dumped with snow, the conditions here are severe.

“It’s a lot colder here,” said Tourigny. “It’s really cold.

“(Rouyn is) still pretty warm compared to here.”

And then there’s the driving which is more like a free-for-all on the streets of Ufa.

“It seems like there are no lanes here,” said forward Nathan MacKinnon. “People are battling for position.”

It’s pretty much no holds barred in terms of changing lanes – when you can see them through the snow – and pulling out into traffic. Team Canada even has the benefit of a police escort when they travel back and forth between the rink and their hotel.

“I don’t think there are any rules here when it comes to traffic,” said forward Ty Rattie. “We’re driving in buses and people are pulling U-turns and parking in the middle of the road. I’m not too sure what the rules are but I’m not too sure I could drive here, that’s for sure.”

Tourigny said he contemplated driving here once, but was talked out of it by a friend.

“Two years ago I was supposed to come here for some scouting,” said Tourigny. “I was going to rent a car, but there was a guy who told me, ‘Don’t rent a car here! Make sure someone else drives for you.’ Now I understand.”

Still, Team Canada is enjoying their time immersed in a new culture as much as they are in the hockey atmosphere.

“It’s pretty cool,” said Rattie. “It’s been a great experience and something that you’re not going to forget any time soon.”

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