Bluejacket defenseman Matt Derby embarks on sports envoy trip to Moscow

Cambridge-Isanti junior Matt Derby recently returned from representing the U.S.A. on a Youth Sports Envoy trip to Russia. He and 19 other American skaters spent days with the Russians on the ice, sharing a bond through the love of hockey.

Isanti’s Matt Derby with his table full of souvenirs brought back from his Youth Sports Envoy trip to Russia Oct. 5-14. Twenty U.S. hockey players bonded through practices and scrimmages with Russian players at the Novogorsk Training Centre outside Moscow. Photo by Greg Hunt

An e-mail invitation from the U.S. State Department was sent to hockey coaches which was how Derby of Isanti was informed of the trip. An essay and application were completed, along with passport verification to get visas.

“I got the call on the last day of the State Fair,” recalled Derby in an interview on his family’s hobby farm north of Isanti. “I just wanted to get a new perspective on how other countries coach hockey, and just to go have a good time meeting new people. The only get-together we had with the other players was a conference call with the Minnesota kids, talking about what we wanted to do.”

Ten skaters and two coaches from San Jose and Venice, California joined the 10 skaters and two coaches from Minnesota for the trip (10 boys/10 girls). Along with Isanti represented, the Minnesotans hailed from Little Falls, Como Park, Blake and Maple Grove. The funded trip was the final of eight exchanges that were part of a 2009 agreement between the State Dept.’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the Russian Ministry of Sports, Tourism and Youth Policy. The exchange reciprocated a 2011 program that brought 24 Russian ice hockey players and coaches to Washington, D.C.

On to Moscow

The U.S. contingent met in Washington D.C. for a team-building session at a hotel, along with meeting with State Department representatives for more information. The next flight was to Frankfurt, Germany with a layover, then it was another flight into Moscow.

“That’s where most of the Minnesota boys found out our hockey gear got lost in Frankfurt,” said Derby. “We got our gear three days later. We had to wash the clothes we had and had to walk around in somebody else’s jacket for a while. Moscow’s weather in early October is a lot like ours– a little more rainy, with the light drizzle all day long. We had one day in the middle of it that was sunny.”

Matt Derby (second from left, Row 1) and his fellow U.S. hockey members at the Moscow rink.

The hockey exchange took place in the Red Army rink, with ice time each day of the visit. The group was housed in the Novogorsk Olympic Training Centre.

“We’d skate with the Russians during warm-ups, then we did basic high school drills. They’d resurface the ice, then we had small games on our half of the ice. The games were normally U.S. versus the Russians,” Derby continued. “They were fun, but with a high-competition level. There was very little hitting. The last day, we had a scrimmage with players from an amateur hockey league.”

Sight-seeing was another great part of the trip. Highlight stops included the Red Square, souvenir shopping in the underground mall (taking a cylindrical elevator down to reach), the Dynamo Hockey Hall of Fame, the Kremlin, and seeing the world’s largest bell (which broke before it was ever rung).

A typical scrimmage during hockey practice between the Russians in white and the U.S. skaters in dark blue.

“The Kremlin was a lot of fun– very neat,” he continued. “The security wasn’t as high as you’d think getting into the Kremlin. They told us very few Russians get to go into it, so it was a privilege to get Americans into it.”

When the U.S. players visited the embassy, they were greeted by Russian NHL stars Alexander Ovechkin (Washington) and Pavel Datsyuk (Detroit). Matt brought back a ball cap filled with autographs.

Matt’s take on the trip

Matt, son of Chris and Linnea Derby, learned a lot about Russian youth while understanding more about the world.

“Walking around, you noticed the high security. When people joke about there being a lot of security, they’re really not joking,” he said. “Money and cell phones in front pockets all the time– nothing in the back pockets. Traffic was really fast-paced, then it would come to a quick halt.”

On the value of the exchange, he analyzed, “I felt like we helped the Russian kids who we skated with and hung out to understand where we are from, and they helped us understand where they are from. It helped us get rid of some those negative images that society has ingrained into our brains. You can actually smile over there. Russians like to joke around a lot. They take an English class, and we had two kids who were very good at English and helped with translations when it was needed.”

Matt will be a junior defenseman for the upcoming season of Bluejacket hockey under new C-I head coach Mark Kissner. He also is skating in the Minnesota Advanced Placement (MAP) Hockey League at Blaine’s Super Rink for additional training.

“I really want to help our new coach here by bringing back what I learned in Russia to our program to try to help us out,” Derby finished. “The way the Russians play is a lot more effective than the way the U.S. plays. They’re more about team play than individual play– more about passing and not hitting.”