ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- My World Cup of Hockey 2016 Russian adventure began Sunday morning after I picked up my luggage at the airport in St. Petersburg, walked into the arrivals area and encountered a man holding a sign with "Gulitti" written on it.
Because of a delayed text, I was unaware that the NHLPA had arranged for a driver to pick me up. Weary after almost 11 hours of flying (connecting through Moscow), I followed the man to his car anyway. Maybe this wasn't the wisest decision, but, fortunately, it turned out fine.
Although the driver spoke very little English and I speak no Russian, he indicated he knew which hotel I was going to, saying "Renaissance Baltic." At one point, we passed through a toll to get on highway, which he proudly proclaimed a "Russian speedway."
When we reached roads closer to the hotel, he pointed happily to various landmarks, reciting their names (I think), and I nodded as if I understood.
Being here has given me an even greater appreciation for the Russian players who come to North America to play in the NHL and don't know English when they arrive. It's an isolating feeling to not understand what people around you are saying.
I know some elementary words and phrases such as "spasibo," which means "thank you" and "Dobroe utro," which means "good morning." That doesn't get me very far.
Just getting a taxi to and from Yubileyny Sports Palace for Team Russia's training camp practices has been a challenge. Fortunately, there is Uber here, but I have walked the mile and a half a couple of times, which gave me a chance to get a closer look at some of St. Petersburg's rich history.
A half block from the hotel's front door is St. Isaac's Square, where you can see St. Isaac's Cathedral, which was completed in 1858. Across the square is the statue of Nicholas I and Mariinsky Palace.
Heading north toward the arena, you pass Palace Square with the State Hermitage Museum/Winter Palace on the right. The Romanov Tsars used to call the Winter Palace home. Now it's the main building of a museum that houses one of the finest art collections in the world.
After passing the Winter Palace, you cross the Neva River on the Palace Bridge and can see Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral to the northeast. The city's connecting rivers and the ferries that travel them make it understandable that some call St. Petersburg "the Venice of the North."
Some people here speak English, particularly in the hotels and some of the restaurants in the area where I'm staying. It helps that many of the players on Team Russia speak English because they have been in North America for a few years playing in the NHL, but coach Oleg Znarok does not.
With no translator at his media scrums, I rely upon NHL.com's Russian correspondent, Sergey Demidov, to tell me if Znarok says anything interesting.
Team Russia plays its first pretournament game against Team Czech Republic at Yubileyny Sports Palace on Thursday (12:30 p.m. ET; ESPN3, SN, TVA Sports). Then we all head for Prague on Friday for a rematch between the teams at O2 Arena on Saturday (10:30 a.m. ET; ESPN3, SN, TVA Sports).
I'll send my next dispatch from there, where I'll meet up with NHL.com's Shawn Roarke.