06/17/2013 05:55 pm ET Updated Aug 17, 2013

Of Sports and Building Bridges Between Russia and the United States

"... Americans and Russians both stand to benefit from increased partnership between our societies ..." -- John Kerry, Secretary of State, June 12, 2013

It is difficult to disagree with Secretary of State Kerry, who sent out a note to the people of Russia on the occasion of their National Day. In his congratulatory message he also alluded to the, at times, considerable differences and different perspectives between Russia and the United States that are nonetheless outweighed by the benefits of cooperation on many issues of mutual interest, such as trade and investment, counterterrorism and nonproliferation.

At a time when the hardened Russian-U.S. relations have not changed significantly lately, Kerry seems to have been able to build a good working relationship with his counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. After a recent far-reaching interview with Foreign Policy magazine, Lavrov, the longest-serving foreign minister of post-Cold War Russia, was described as "hard-charging, a relentless and smart negotiator." He describes how Russia today feels more assertive - "not aggressive, but assertive." Indeed, Russia, as of late, has reasserted its view of geopolitics, and the problems that negatively affect the relationship between Russia and the United States have resulted, at times, in stridently anti-American views.

It is, therefore, good news that in their five meetings so far, Kerry and Lavrov have developed a rapport. Personal chemistry is often formed over mutual interests, and, according to an official who was quoted in The New York Times, they spoke about "their mutual love for hockey."

Sport is serving as an important common ground between the two biggest nuclear powers in the world. Coincidentally, the opening game of the Stanley Cup finals took place on Russia's National Day. The Russian Foreign Minister had more reason to celebrate than the former Senator from Massachusetts.

For New Yorkers and those living in the Tri-State area, Russian-U.S. relations really came alive in June with the 11th Annual Russian Heritage Month, organized by the Russian American Foundation (RAF). And these relations can be experienced through the common language of hockey not only once, but twice.

Among the core components of Russian Heritage Month are the Annual Battles on Ice that will take place in Brooklyn and Manhattan on June 25 and 26. These friendship hockey games between New York City's Bravest and Russia's EMERCOM firefighters exemplify, in the words of RAF Vice President Rina Kirshner, "how the people of [Russia and the United States] can come together in support of each other and build special bonds which will further develop friendships of peoples, cultures and countries."

These games are also an important reminder of the importance of all first responders and serve to commemorate the victims of terrorist acts in New York and Moscow. The element of counterterrorism that Kerry mentioned in his address to the Russian people is being picked also in the Battles on Ice, where this year's special guests will be Boston's firefighters, paying tribute to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15.

Among the legendary Russian hockey players participating in the two games will be Viacheslav Fetisov, who, through his stellar hockey career and his accomplishments as a politician, built a dialogue between Russians and Americans of all ages. The competition and excitement will doubtlessly bring spectators to their feet, be they Russian, Russian-American or American. As politicians wrestle with difficult problems, such displays of sportsmanship will help foster greater understanding between the people of both countries.

And this is exactly the mission of the RAF and the Russian Heritage Month, which not only celebrates and honors the rich diversity of cultural traditions brought to the United States from the various regions of the Former Soviet Union, but also shares this heritage and these accomplishments with all Americans.

Under the dynamic leadership of Marina Kovalyov, RAF continues to excel in putting together this unparalleled annual program of events that reflect the sheer extent of talent in all forms of culture and sport. Honored for their contributions to the understanding of Russian heritage in the United States in 2013 were said hockey star Viacheslav Fetisov, veteran Broadway producers Barry and Fran Weissler, and artist Dashi Namdakov.

The cool political relations between Russia and the United States can be - and need to be - balanced with civil society engagement. The people of Russia and the United States are able to transcend political strife, to support each other, and to develop friendly relations and understanding. In Greater New York, home to more than a million Russian Americans, there is no Russian Parade on Fifth Avenue. But, under the stewardship of the Russian American Foundation, there are Russian Heritage Month and Battles on Ice. These are reasons to take advantage of the rich cultural program and cheer on the hockey players from Moscow, New York, and Boston. Secretary of State Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov would want you to.