DUBLIN -- Two Tri-Valley area youth hockey players had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expand their worldviews when they were hand-selected to represent the United States in a goodwill October visit to Russia.
Rachel Carranza, 15, of San Ramon, and Alexander Stoley, 16, of Manteca, were among 20 players and four coaches from California and Minnesota picked for the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission Hockey Exchange, a program designed to strengthen international relations. USA Hockey, the U.S. State Department and the Russian Ice Federation organized the trip.
The American contingent left San Francisco on Oct. 4 and flew to Washington, D.C. where they spent a day sightseeing. They continued on to Frankfurt, and after a crash course in the Cyrillic alphabet, headed Oct. 6 to Moscow. There, the group visited the Red Army Team's facility to watch a practice, and took to the ice at the Novogorsk Training Center for sessions led by legendary Russian hockey players and instructors.
During the weeklong trip, the envoy visited Red Square, the Kremlin, the Russian Presidential Palace, the Olympic Center and the World War II Museum. Players and coaches sat in on games with pro teams Dynamo and the Red Army. They visited a secondary school, where they were entertained by a student play. The group returned Oct. 11.
For Stoley, a member of the Golden State Elite Midget 18AA team playing out of the Dublin Iceland rink, meeting NHL stars like Pavel Datsyuk at the U.S. Embassy was an unforgettable highlight.
"I was star-struck because I watch them on TV, and it was great to see them in person," he said. Carranza, who played for the Tri-Valley Blue Devils and is a defender for the San Jose Jr. Sharks' 16U girls' team, credited the trip with making her a "more well-rounded person."
"I definitely have a better drive to travel the world now," she said.
The Oakland Ice Center, operated by Sharks ice hockey manager Emily Teachout, was picked as a coach and chaperon for the trip, and kept a daily blog of the experience. She said she was thrilled to see storied pieces of Russian hockey history, and was awed by the "surreal" Red Square.
"Talk about an amazing experience," Teachout said. "It was about something beyond hockey."
While hockey skills played a part in the selection process, considerations included strong leadership and other qualities. San Jose Jr. Sharks girls' head coach Karl Schoech described Carranza as an intelligent player who is coming into her own on and off the ice.
"I deem her a leader, and she's taken to that role very nicely," Schoech said.
Stoley's coach, Mike Holmes, called Stoley a "coach's dream" who leads by example.
"They had to be recommended not only as a good hockey player, but as a good student and person," Holmes said. "Alexander was an easy choice because he's all of those things."
Stoley said he was "speechless" to find out he'd been selected and enjoyed practicing with his Russian peers. Carranza's favorite parts were the Kremlin and socializing with players from varied backgrounds.
"It was unreal that I was actually there," Carranza said. "It was interesting meeting all these different people and finding out their lives were the same as ours. We have the same goals and aspirations."
Contact Jeremy Thomas at 925-847-2184 or follow him at twitter.com/jet_bang.
Along with two Tri-Valley teens, Oakland Ice Center hockey manager/Oakland Bears President Emily Teachout was picked to go to Moscow as a coach and chaperon for October's weeklong U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission Hockey Exchange. She kept up a daily blog of the experience, which can be viewed by visiting talentedturtles.blogspot.com.