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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Amateurs Bandy About in Arkhangelsk




ARKHANGELSK, Northern Russia -- They're the finest hockey players the United States has to offer. They've traveled nearly 10,000 kilometers to play for their national team in the world championship. They've trained for months for this moment. And they're bad.


Really bad. Six games, six losses, five goals scored, 51 conceded, no points.


This isn't a story of a slump in the ice hockey fortunes of the U.S. national team, this is bandy hockey and the XXI World Bandy Championship held in Arkhangelsk.


In temperatures as low as minus 32 degrees Celsius, the amateur U.S. team battled with the world powers of bandy, Russia, Sweden, Kazakhstan, Finland and Norway, in the tournament, which ended Sunday with the home team beating Finland 5-0 for the championship.


And even though the U.S. Embassy hadn't heard of them, and there's been no press coverage in the United States, the motley crew of real estate agents, chemists and businessmen that make up the U.S. team are now the most famous foreigners in Arkhangelsk since Allied forces invaded during the Russian civil war.


"The Russians have treated us like rock stars," said U.S. goalkeeper Steve Jecha.


Bandy is a cross between ice hockey and soccer. The game is played outside on a soccer-sized rink with 11 players and a small orange ball instead of a puck. It's a faster, subtler version f no thundering body checks allowed f of its more violent cousin on the ice.


In Russia, bandy celebrated its centennial year in 1998, but it was only 20 years ago that it first appeared in the United States.


But instead of national leagues as in Russia and Sweden, bandy in the United States is limited to one place f Minnesota f where Scandinavian immigrants introduced the game.


Most of the U.S. team in Arkhangelsk is from Minnesota, and most of the players are in their late 20s or 30s, having come to the game late after tiring of being pummeled in the ice hockey rink.


"You have to be cleverer to play bandy," said Jecha, who is currently on crutches after suffering severe frostbite in one toe during a match.


Pitched against hardened professionals like Russia and Sweden, the team was, not surprisingly, hammered 12-1 and 11-0.


"Its almost anti-American," said veteran player Kurt Steinberg, 38. "We're going out and getting our asses kicked."


But the tournament still saw their best ever performance against a world power when the U.S. team scored three goals in their last game, against Kazakhstan on Saturday.And they can still dream. "We always think we have a chance to win," said Steinberg. "Maybe tonight they'll hit the post 15 times and maybe we'll hit the ice the wrong way and it will go in."


But despite being the Jamaican bobsled team of the bandy world, the Americans f who each paid their own way to come to the tournament f are still the stars of Arkhangelsk, a town obsessed with bandy.


Posters, banners and ice sculptures dot this northern city, advertising the biggest sporting event in its history. Ten thousand fans packed the stadium for the final, with many more pressing their faces between the railings or precariously balanced on high viewing points in the block of apartments nearby.


As the U.S. team headed off at halftime to warm up in their bus, hoards of children leaned over the terraces asking for their autographs. One young woman with Russian flags painted on both cheeks grabbed one of the players, shouting, "I love you. You are my dream. I want to marry you. I'm serious."


That's typical of the rock star welcome that they had throughout their visit. Going out at night, they have been swamped. "It's strange. You go to the toilet, and it takes you an hour to get back," said one player.


Attracting most of the attention was Jaster Selder. With both ears pierced, nose stud in place and Michael Jordan-style hairless cut, the 6-foot-3 black forward is a favorite of the fans. He's also quite good f a flamboyant speed player who got the United States' lone goal against Russia.


After the goal, Selder turned to the crowd, which after the first five goals had started cheering for the United States, and cupped his ear in an appeal for support. "The crowd went nuts," Selder said.


After the game the team celebrated their 12-1 defeat by walking straight off the ice and into the nearest bar f still in uniform and skates. Selder tells with relish of how, at the championship awards ceremony Sunday, he was talking to Mikhail Sveshnikov, probably the greatest player in the bandy world and just named tournament MVP, when a woman comes up and asks for his autograph.


"This guy has just won the MVP and she asks me," Selder said. "Nowhere else can I have this attention. I love it."


Selder is one of the few on the team who can describe himself as a professional sports player.


In Sweden, Selder, who has dual citizenship, plays for the European roller hockey champions, the Stockholm Capitals, as well as for a Swedish first division bandy team.


Russian sports journalist Vladimir Yurin, who has covered numerous world bandy championships, says the U.S. team has made a lot of progress since he first saw them in 1989. "Everyone likes them," Yurin said. "They paid something like $1,200 themselves to come here."


Admittedly some fans are less effusive. "They're the weakest. They're not very popular," says Mikhail Bondarenko, 14, who sneaked into the finals for free. But even he was trying to get the American team's autograph.


Before flying out, the team presented a hockey stick to their favorite bar, saying good-bye to stardom until the next world championships in two years in Finland.


"We have this joke. We go home and tell people and they go, 'What sport? Brandy? Bandy?'" said assistant general manager Chris Halden. "But we don't care. We've been rock stars for 10 days."