BERNE – In the 1984 movie “Moscow on the Hudson”, Robin Williams plays a Soviet saxophone player who, during a circus tour, decides to defect to the U.S. but “finds adjusting to American life more difficult than he imagined”, as the plot is described on the Internet Movie Database website.
Well, it’s not the 1980s anymore. Times keep changing. A good sign of that is the fact that for the second year in a row, Team USA brings its starter goaltender from the Russian league. Of course, it’s the same man, Robert Esche.
Last season, Esche played with Ak Bars Kazan, this season with SKA St. Petersburg in a league which is called KHL meanwhile. He led the league in shutouts, with nine, and recorded a respectable 1.87 goals-against-average in 38 games.
“The Russian league has come a long way, it’s a terrific league,” Esche says.
Unlike the Moscowite saxophone player in the movie, Esche hasn’t had big problems adjusting to life in Russia.
“We Americans may have an illusion of how Russians are going to treat us. It was great in Kazan, and it has been great in St. Petersburg, they’ve treated my entire family great, and done great things. Yes, it’s different from what we’re used to but we’re learning and we like it,” says Esche whose mask boasts the images of the American and Russian flags, and Peter the Great, the founder of St. Petersburg.
They like it so much that he will return to St. Petersburg next season.
At 31, Esche is playing in his fourth World Championship. In 2000, the U.S. made the quarterfinals, but lost to Slovakia. In 2001, the Americans took bronze in Germany, and last year, the team was ousted from the tournament in the quarterfinals again when Finland beat them on overtime. And when he got the call to join this year, Esche was happy to accept the invitation.
“I’ve had two good seasons in Russia, and a good tournament last season, so I liked to think I was in the cards. Obviously, [Boston Bruins’] Tim Thomas is still playing in the NHL, too,” he says.
“As a goalie, you just expect to do what’s asked. Al [Montoya] might play the next two games, one, or not at all. I’ve been here with Damian Rhodes who was 2-0 but I ended up playing against Russia. Another time I was 2-0, but didn’t end up playing in the crossover game. You just have to be ready when needed,” he adds.
The American goal in the tournament remains the same.
“Everybody here wants to win the gold medal, and we’re no different. When young guys can come together and achieve a special goal, it sets the standard for years to come, and eventually the U.S. is going to do that,” Esche says.
And to do that, they have to get the team to gel, and adjust to the wider rink and a different kind of hockey. Coach Ron Wilson is working on that every day now, trying to get his players to use the additional space in the best possible way. Having an experienced goalie who’s used to the wider rink may help.
“You have to play with what you got and what the team does. Russian players look for time and space, they want it to create something. When we do a good job with eliminating that, we’re successful,” Esche says.
For him, personally, the adjustment seems more subtle.
“It’s still hockey and as a goalie, I still have to stop the puck.”