The sport isn’t too popular in Russia yet, but the Islanders hope to raise awareness with clinics that will teach the fundamentals.
As Donnie Howard’s family wandered around Red Square in 2009, his mom, Ioulia, said her 9-year-old son looked like he was from a foreign land as the crowd in Moscow took pictures of Donnie instead of the Kremlin.
Donnie wore a helmet and rode a scooter, since he wasn’t interested in walking so much around the city. And most peculiar to the Russians, Donnie held a lacrosse stick. The strangers were curious. They asked the family from Mercer Island if the stick was used to catch butterflies or if it was for ice fishing. The Howards tried to explain.
“But nobody could understand what lacrosse is,” Ioulia said.
Ioulia is Russian, and the Howards traveled to the country somewhat frequently when Donnie was young. But now that school and sports have started to take over his time, Donnie hasn’t been in about five years.
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Thursday, he went back to Russia for a 10-day trip with nine of his Mercer Island High School teammates. And just as Donnie did when he was in elementary school, they’ll all have lacrosse sticks in hand.
Lacrosse has grown in Russia, but it’s still a young sport there. Ioulia, who helped organize the trip, hopes the experience can serve as a cultural exchange for the boys, as well as a chance for them to share their lacrosse expertise. The group of players will be accompanied by their coach, Ian O’Hearn, and 16 family members. They’ll spend time in St. Petersburg, Moscow and Yaroslavl, a city that’s about a four-hour drive northeast of Moscow.
“Any time you have the opportunity to go experience a culture you don’t know very much about, some really huge positives come out of that,” said Laura Jantos, whose family will be going on the trip with her son, Max. “They get to do it with a level of familiarity and confidence because of the lacrosse side of things.”
Throughout the trip, the team will host youth clinics to teach kids how to play the sport. The Mercer Island players held a gear drive, so they’ll also be able to leave equipment in Russia. Donnie has played lacrosse since he was 5, and in two years, he’ll be on the team at Boston University. He loves the sport and said this is a way he can spread that passion.
Some of the Russian kids — whose ages will range from about 8 to 14, Ioulia said — will have previous experience with lacrosse, but others may have never seen the sport. They are targeting children who have played hockey, since the sports are somewhat similar, O’Hearn said. Zach Friedlander, a senior going on the trip, likes to describe lacrosse as having positions that are like soccer but resembling hockey with some of its rules and its physicality.
The clinics will focus on fundamentals, O’Hearn said. But the Mercer Island boys will be instructing the kids through a language barrier, which could be tricky. Will St. Mary, who will be a senior next year wondered whether it’d be smart to bring game film. That’d be easier than explaining using words, he said.
“I think it’s going to have to be very visual,” Friedlander said, adding that he should learn a Russian phrase to ask kids to repeat his movements.
The Mercer Island players will also have friendlies with Russian men’s teams. Some of those players speak English and have previously lived in the United States, where they learned the sport.
The games will be between mixed teams, so it doesn’t turn into a contest of Americans vs. Russians in a setting that resembles a 2017 version of the Miracle on Ice. After all, Donnie’s dad, Don, said the trip is meant to help show the boys that “the world is made up of people and not governments.” Lacrosse is simply a way to facilitate that understanding.
“In general, sports can bring people together,” Friedlander said. “And by some teenagers from the United States — from Seattle, Washington — to travel overseas and try to teach new people a game they might not know or have never really heard of, that could be pretty incredible.”
The idea to take a group of lacrosse players to Russia started with the Howard family. They were considering another trip to Russia, and Donnie asked if he would be able to bring a friend. That turned into two friends, and finally he wanted to invite the whole lacrosse team.
“Some of (the Mercer Island players) were like, ‘Lacrosse and Russia? That seems like kind of a weird place to go to play some lacrosse. Why don’t we go to the East Coast where it’s a lot bigger?’ ” Donnie said. “But I think a lot of them are excited because it’s a completely different country across the whole world.”
Ioulia asked O’Hearn if he would consider the opportunity, and he was immediately on board. After playing lacrosse in college, O’Hearn coached in Europe and Australia, so adventuring abroad wasn’t a foreign idea for him.
“We look at us as ambassadors of lacrosse to Russia,” Ioulia said. “But there is much more than just playing the sport in this trip.”