As I sit down to write this final dispatch from Magnitogorsk, I am greatly saddened that this will probably be my last day ever spent in this wonderful, fascinating place. Evgeni Malkin's parents were right when they told me that it is not like Pittsburgh, despite the obvious steel connection. But it is very much like Pittsburgh in that there is a charm about the people who have poured their heart into making this a city with a soul.
Two of those people -- Anton, the marketing employee with the Metallurg Magnitogorsk hockey team (left in picture), and Kirill, the chief communications officer with the Magnitogorsk Steel and Iron Works (right) -- I will be forever indebted to. Not many people speak English here, including the Malkins, so I would not have been able to do any interviews without them. Anton has shown me the best his city has to offer and has been incredibly generous with his time and knowledge. Kirill put in all of the leg work to help me get my visa and gave me a very extensive tour of the factory.
I do not know what the average Magnitogorsk person thinks of me being an American, but in the conversations I have had I have not felt unwelcome at any point. I even was invited to sing karaoke with a gentleman named Oleg on Saturday night. He wanted to sing American songs because he thinks they are better. So we sang Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Californication," and regretfully, he was a Creed fan, so we also sang "My Sacrifice." Ultimately, me singing Creed in front of a group of people was my sacrifice to Oleg, and Magnitogorsk. Anton shot video of it, and I hope that it never sees the light of day.
The interesting part of being out on the town was that nobody could believe I was American. Most people here have never met one. I had to show my passport numerous times as proof. Plus, they just assumed that Pittsburgh was in Canada, because they know that hockey is bigger there. I hope I at least educated some people in that regard!
One of the things I could offer the folks with the Metallurg organization was perspective on marketing and American sports. They of course couldn't believe when I told them about college sports and my days going to Michigan games with 110,000 others. I gave them some insight into what franchises in America do to get people to come to games. Metallurg, despite being a successful team, does not sell out most of its games in a 7,000-seat arena. I told them about the Terrible Towel, and they were very interested and might try something like that. I also told them about pre-game hype videos that get the fans going before the game starts and create pride in the team's history and accomplishments.
Here are a few of my favorite experiences from over the weekend, when I had some time to explore (when I wasn't sleeping off my jet lag!):
* Anton took me to an Armenian restaurant on the outskirts of town. It looked like the type of American diner you'd find off the highway in the heartland. I had some of the most delicious pork I've ever had.
* We then drove down to the Ural River on Sunday night, and about 15 cars were parked on the edge of the ice. I imagine there was some illegal activity going on, but the most exciting thing was watching the cars attempt to drift on the ice.
* We then went to a pool hall, where I learned that Americans are playing a much easier game. In the Russian game, the balls are bigger (yeah yeah laugh away, I don't know how else to explain it!) and you can hit any ball into any other ball, and the first team to make any eight balls wins. It's extremely difficult because the table is way longer and the pockets have smaller holes. I was embarrassingly bad. If Anton and his friends came to the U.S., they would run the table most nights, I assume.
* Next up was Ice City. An entire square in town has ice sculptures, including this one of the Olympic rings.
* Not surprisingly, nobody here cares about the Super Bowl. I hardly did either, considering I had to wake up at 5:30 a.m. to watch streaming video from my laptop. As soon as it got out of hand, I went back to bed. Plus, it's just not that fun watching the Super Bowl without your buddies.
* Lastly, I leave you with the obligatory mascot photo. This is the Steel Fox.
On to Sochi!