Back home from a week in Russia, competing for Team Canada in the 18th Winter Deaflympics, Campbell River’s Ryan Howich kept returning to one word to describe the customs, behaviour and even food of the host country.
“It was weird,” said Howich, 20, who helped the Canadian men’s hockey team claim the silver medal in the games in Khanty-Mansiysk. “It was an unreal experience. Everything’s different.”
That include the food — “The food’s not different; they have the same things,” he said. “But they keep it in water and boil everything.”
And while Canada has an almost legendary reputation for politeness, to the point that it is a recurring punchline for comedians, it was no laughing matter for Howich and his Team Canada mates to discover it is not universal behaviour.
“Nobody holds a door for anybody else,” he said. “If somebody bumps into you, you know how we say, ‘Sorry’? They don’t even look at you; they just keep walking.”
On the other hand, the hockey players — particularly those from Canada — were treated like rock stars, he said.
“It felt like being in the NHL or something,” Howich said. “People are coming up and asking for autographs, wanting to talk with you. They said if Canada didn’t come they wouldn’t even have Deaflympics hockey.”
The Deaflympic Games are sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee and are structured exactly like the Winter Olympic Games, but are open only to the hearing-impaired.
The games began in 1924, making them the second-longest running multi-sport event behind only the Olympics themselves.
Russia won the gold-medal final 6-3 after Canada had topped the Russians 2-1 in the final group-play game to finish as the unbeaten top seed with a 23-4 goal differential.
En route to the final, Team Canada blasted Kazakhstan 14-0, topped the U.S. 4-2, and downed Finland 7-1 before edging Russia and setting up the gold-medal rematch.
“Each team was way different,” Howich said. “No teams were at the same level; there was a real variety.”
Howich, who came up through the Campbell River Minor Hockey program and competed for the Tyees rep program, equated the skill level of the teams to a cross between juniors and recreational men’s league. He noted, however, the Russian squad boasted several players with professional experience.
Team Canada was made up of players ranging from 16 to 35 years of age.
In addition to his silver medal, Howich returned from Russia with other mementos of his experience. Athletes exchanged pins, buttons, patches and other items with those from other countries.
And Howich received one gift that crosses all cultural divides.
“I got some chocolate from Russia,” he said.