Steinbach rolls out red carpet

JIM BENDER -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:41 AM ET

STEINBACH -- The borscht and perogies were on the boil in the Automobile City yesterday.

And a number of businesses put up signs to welcome their adopted daughters, the Russian women's hockey team, to town as the Russians prepare for the 2007 Women's World Hockey Championship, which starts April 3.

Although the prominently-Mennonite burg did not ask for Russia, it lucked out as a number of restaurants specialize in their preferred fare and many immigrants speak their language -- including two locals acting as interpreters.

"It's a great event to have here," said Russ Dyck, Steinbach's parks and rec department head and the facilities co-ordinator for the host committee. "It gives us an opportunity to show off our city and watch a world-class program for a week.

"And it's a good team to have here. Although they are not in the top four in the world, their name alone has huge hockey notoriety."

It took the Russians 27 hours to get here, arriving late Monday night. Not a single member of the outfit had ever been to Manitoba before.

"We don't even know much about Winnipeg, never mind Steinbach," said Igor Prusov, the Russian GM.

Prusov smiled when an interpreter told him in Russian that locals will be cheering for his squad when they play an exhibition game against Switzerland at the T.G. Smith Centre on Friday night -- the same as they did when Kazakhstan played here Saturday.

Dyck is expecting a full crowd (1,400 standing room) on Friday. Some local minor female hockey players will skate out with the Russians during introductions and two women who played for the Steinbach women's hockey team in 1937 -- Helen Dueck, 87 and Leona Rempel, 82 -- will drop the puck.

The host committee is also planning a luncheon where local hockey players can meet the Russian players, a dance to honour their guests tomorrow night and was hoping to arrange an autograph session.

"There's been a lot of interest already and it's really exciting to have them here," Deb Rempel, co-chair of the host committee, said after making some last-minute arrangements at the Days Inn where the team is bunking.

"It'll be really good for business around town," said Heather Plett, the hotel's assistant manager. "A lot of people will want to come watch them play."

And the Russians are all business on and off the ice.

"We won the bronze in 2001 but the team is always changing with the older players leaving," Prusov said. "This championship has the three strongest European teams -- Sweden, Finland and Russia -- and the expectations for this championship is that the team will finish fourth, sixth or seventh. Our goal is to finish the highest possible in the standings, then take it from there."

Although women's hockey is not as popular as it is in Canada or the U.S., Russia does sport five women's teams now and it held a junior women's championship for the first time this year, Prusov said.


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