Overcoming Language Barriers in Hockey Instruction

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My friends and colleagues in North America ask me this question all the time: “How do you deal with the language barrier while working in Russia? It has to be hard to communicate when you only know a few words of Russian and few of the people you work with speak English.”

My answer is always the same.

It really isn’t too difficult at all. Hockey is a universal language, and I have many years of experience using that common language to communicate with non-English speakers.

During my playing days, I had no communication problems while living and playing in Quebec City for the Nordiques. Using hockey terminology and/or paying in American dollars did all the necessary talking wherever I went and whenever I needed to convey something to folks who only spoke French.

As an officiating boss in Russia’s KHL, it is really not all that different. Hockey concepts are pretty universal across the game. There is a lot of common terminology, with perhaps a few dialectical adjustments. Meanwhile, skating is mechanical and based on the non-verbal laws of physics.

When doing instruction, I draw examples on a rink board to give visual cues. Speaking in clearly enunciated words, I may say something like “BANANA around the net, TELESCOPE into the post, C-CUT backwards in a straight line…NYET crossovers.”

This is how you speak the language of hockey. In this instance, I am describing some of the skating techniques for optimal positioning that I described to HockeyBuzz readers in my Accordians, Telescopes and Bananas blog.

The officials with whom I work in Russia catch on quickly to what I’m saying. These kids are smart and, just as important, they want to learn. Their enthusiasm is encouraging for me as a coach and teacher, and I think that the passion I bring to those roles is something they instantly pick up upon, too. It’s a mutually rewarding relationship that really doesn’t require them to speak English or for me to know much Russian.

There is a famous story about a trip that the legendary Fred Shero took to a coaching workshop in Moscow during the era when the Iron Curtain was still firmly in place in Russia. Shero idolized Anatoli Tarasov, the father of Russian hockey, and had read Tarasov’s book on coaching countless times. The Stanley Cup winning coach was both flattered and humbled when Tarasov invited him to meet in person after one of the clinics.

Tarasov greeted Shero warmly. He then instructed the KGB agents who followed around the foreign hockey people at the coaching clinic to leave the two of them alone. There was no interpreter present, either. Instead, two of the greatest hockey minds ever to live spent hour after hour sharing thoughts and ideas. They spoke two common, fluent languages — hockey and vodka — which made understanding English and Russian irrelevant.

I am not a vodka aficionado by any means, and never will be, but I am fluent in hockey. As such, I have come to experience first-hand what the Fog did during his adventure in Moscow. Hockey tears down cultural walls and is a language in which one can always learn more. There is a joy in teaching and a joy in learning that transcends all geographical boundaries and can never be confined by the limits of mundane “language barriers.”

****** Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.

Today, Stewart is an officiating and league discipline consultant for the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and serves as director of hockey officiating for the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC).

The longtime referee heads Officiating by Stewart, a consulting, training and evaluation service for officials. Stewart also maintains a busy schedule as a public speaker, fund raiser and master-of-ceremonies for a host of private, corporate and public events. As a non-hockey venture, he is the owner of Lest We Forget.

In addition to his blogs for HockeyBuzz every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, Stewart writes a column every Wednesday for the Huffington Post.This post originally appeared on www.hockeybuzz.com and we thank them for permission to rebroadcast it here.

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