By PATRICK SLACK
The National Hockey League (NHL) lockout has put a damper on the winter of most hockey fans.
However, it ended up turning out pretty well for Ben Newman.
The Little Falls senior met several locked-out NHL stars, visited historic landmarks and met with top-level government officials recently, all part of a sports diplomacy trip to Russia with a group from USA hockey, Oct. 4-14.
The program, sponsored by Sports United through the U.S. State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, pairs athletes from the U.S. with those in other nations as a means of bridging differences between cultures while strengthening relationships.
Newman found out about the trip in August from a neighbor who had read about it online.
He filled out an application, along with a personal essay describing the kind of student, athlete and person he was, then waited.
In early September, the call he had been waiting for came that he had been selected as one of five boys from Minnesota to go on the trip, along with five Minnesota girls and 10 players from California.
A month later, the group flew out to Washington, D.C., where it spent a day sightseeing at landmarks including the White House and Lincoln Memorial, before receiving a briefing at the State Department to go over the details of the program.
The next day, Newman and the team traveled to Frankfurt, Germany, before completing the trip to Moscow, Russia, after a seven-hour layover.
After a chaotic first two days when his luggage was stuck in Frankfurt, Newman settled in quickly.
“We’d wake up, play hockey in the morning and then go visit shops in the Kremlin,” Newman said.
“Then at night we’d get to see KHL (Kontinental Hockey League) games,” which featured several locked-out NHL players, he said.
Newman and his teammates played one game with a group of 17- and 18-year- old Russian amateurs, with the other days spent practicing with Russian coaches and members of area club teams.
One night, the team received a surprise on a visit to the U.S. Embassy, with a who’s who contingent of Russian hockey dignitaries on hand.
“It wasn’t something we were expecting,” Newman said. “We didn’t think we’d get that opportunity. It was awesome.”
Among the NHL players Newman was able to meet and shake hands with were the Washington Capitals’ Alexander Ovechkin, the Detroit Red Wings’ Pavel Datsyuk, the New Jersey Devils’ Ilya Kovalchuk and retired standout Sergei Fedorov.
Newman, one of the top running backs for Little Falls his junior season, had to forgo his senior football season and miss two weeks of class, but said the decision wasn’t difficult to make given the circumstances.
“Not really,” Newman said. “This is something you’re not going to get to ever do again. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“It was more about the cultural experience than hockey,” he said. “Just the experience of going to a place I’ll probably never go back to.”
“My teachers were really good about it, not really rushing me when I got back,” he said. “It was a little tough to get back on track. But it was definitely worth it.”