Lecavalier and Richards were on their way to a Yankees playoff game against the Red Sox in the Bronx, guests of George Steinbrenner, when reports on Ak Bars from two NHL scouts arrived via e-mail on Richards's BlackBerry. One was wildly positive. Good news from a far place.
As Ak Bars kept landing marquee players--Kovalchuk and Kasparaitis and especially Khabibulin--signing up started to make more sense to a pair of 24yearolds who had been hardwired to play hockey. Maybe the game had fallen down a rabbit hole. But as Nikolai Ladygin, a Toronto Maple Leafs scout and one of their coaches a decade ago at Notre Dame College in Saskatchewan, told them, they had a chance "to kill three rabbits: play hockey, make money, see Russia." So on the final Saturday of November, their brains fogged by jet lag and their bodies cloaked in Ak Bars white, green and red, the colors of the Tatarstan flag, they stood on the blue line with their new teammates as the first notes of the Russian national anthem sounded.
Lecavalier stifled a grin before quickly regaining an appropriately respectful gaze. Later he explained that the anthem had made him think of Rocky IV.
It is better to have 100 friends than 100 rubles.
the showdown between No. 1 Dynamo and No. 2 Ak Bars is not ending well for Kazan. Kovalchuk rams a Dynamo player along the boards 92 seconds into overtime, drawing a minor penalty for roughing, and then offers his assessment of the referee's work from a distance of about three inches, earning a second penalty, for misconduct. The calls might be subject to interpretation, but Kovalchuk's meltdown is not--nor is the puck Khabibulin fires in the general direction of the ref seconds after Dynamo scores and the incensed goalie fishes it out of his net. Dynamo 3, Ak Bars 2. The Moscow team skates off the Kazan ice in a hail of spit and venom, abuse no less startling than the taunts directed at the reluctant headliner of the night, the beleaguered zebra. According to Ak Bars players, who are all too willing to translate, the fans are chanting, "The referee's a faggot."
" Russia," Kasparaitis notes, "is not PG13."
Twelve hours after this horror show, which ended a Bars unbeaten streak of nine games, Hockey Morning in Russia does not look very fine--unless you count the fine of 60,000 rubles (about $2,000) Kovalchuk has been assessed for his penalties. The club posts it in the dressing room as a warning. Ak Bars is not happy, which means Ravil Shavaleyev is not happy.
Shavaleyev is the team's vice president and its architect. Of the 144 million people in Russia, probably the last one you want to annoy, besides President Vladimir Putin, is the compact, 47-year-old Shavaleyev--a former Kazan defenseman nicknamed the Mad Tatar. His vigor is beyond dispute. He bristles when he walks. He bristles even when he sits in his sleek second-floor office. He can be extraordinarily gracious (Ak Bars plans to take the team to a resort in Dubai during a February break in the schedule), but he could make caffeine jittery. Club employees stiffen when Shavaleyev sweeps past. By way of explanation, Ak Bars defenseman Sergei Klimentiev, a Ukrainian who played three seasons with Rochester in the American Hockey League, offers this: He earns $600,000 a year; his mother, a pediatrician in Kiev, earns $60 a month. You irk the organization at your peril. Early this season spare forward Danis Zaripov was caught with two beers on a charter flight, in violation of team rules. He was fined two weeks' salary, a stiff tab for a team named Bars.
Of course, Zaripov's exact salary is shrouded in secrecy. Indeed, disclosing contract information might be Russia's last taboo. The reticence about money--"This subject is out of discussion," Shavaleyev says--has led to wild speculation about Ak Bars's profligacy. The Russian press whispers that the team is spending $50 million this season, an unprecedented amount in Russian hockey. This has been reported in North American newspapers as a payroll figure, but it's more likely the team's budget, which presumably includes operating expenses such as cars and apartments for players and bonuses like the $2,000 per player for road wins and $1,500 for home wins.