Regardless, let us do some arithmetic concerning the NHL players playing in Kazan. Richards, who would have made about $2.6 million in Tampa Bay this season, and Lecavalier, who was scheduled to earn $4.4 million, each will earn $1.5 million if the NHL does not return to action. Kovalchuk, who has been with Ak Bars since September, could earn $3 million. According to a source with knowledge of the contracts, Ak Bars's 12 NHL players will together earn something in the neighborhood of $15 million. The non-- NHL Russians likely will earn between $175,000 and $600,000 each. The payroll is probably no more than $22 million, well below Bettman's proposed salary cap, and about $1 million less than the Nashville Predators' payroll last season.
But even a $10 million payroll in Kazan would be a guaranteed megaloser. If Ak Bars sold all 4,000 seats at all 30 regular-season home games--the top ticket costs about $10--revenue would be in the neighborhood of $1 million. The concession stands (most are folding tables set up in the arena corridors) do not exactly gouge the customers: A cup of tea costs less than 20 cents, a hot dog about 45 cents. There is some advertising signage in the arena and a glassed-in caf� overlooking the ice, but nothing remotely resembling a luxury suite. In the context of the geopolitical "realities" of this fascinating country, though, Superleague economics have a weird logic.
There are two Russias. There is workaday Russia, a country so frugal that a 50-ish bottle-blonde waitress upbraided Lecavalier in Russian for leaving a hunk of beet and a spoonful of broth in his otherwise empty bowl of borscht. Then there is a Russia as fantastic as the Kul-Sharif mosque, a land in which Kazan, where the average family gets by on 5,000 rubles ($166) a month, will spend drunkenly to win a championship. Officially the title will be a gift to mark the millennium of the city's founding in 1005--a choice between making 100 friends and pocketing 100 rubles. At least that's the story. As Shavaleyev says, "This [lockout] happens once every 10 years. I don't know when we'll see many of the players again in Russia. For us it's a celebration. A hockey holiday." And who doesn't spend a little extra on holiday?
Ak Bars is one of the arriviste powers in Russian hockey. Once the fiefdom of Moscow clubs--CSKA, the famous Red Army team; Dynamo, the KGB club; and Spartak, backed by trade unions--the sport has followed the money since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the yard sale of nationalized industries to the "oligarchs," Russia's business elite. The past 13 Superleague titles have been shared by Dynamo, Avangard Omsk (an oil team owned by renowned oligarch Roman Abramovich), Metallurg Magnitogorsk (steel mill), Lada Togliatti (automaker), Lokomotiv Yaroslavl (railways ministry) and Ak Bars, which began life in 1956 as Mashstroi (a combination of the words for car and build) and won the title in '98. For cities such as Kazan and Omsk, well outside the political and economic hub of Moscow, a glamorous team is "a great propaganda tool," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert on Russia's regions for the Carnegie think tank in the Russian capital. Theoretically their success also helps them curry favor with Putin, who, like his Soviet predecessors, has been promoting sport as a national ideal. "If the businessmen show they're putting money into sports," Russian political commentator Yulia Latynina says, "they know the government will ask fewer questions about where they got their money and how much they're paying in taxes."
Although last June the president of Tatarstan announced a large-scale project to develop local players and reduce the dependency on NHL imports--sounds like oil, doesn't it?--Ak Bars plowed ahead in the second week of December by signing Sabres defenseman Alexei Zhitnik, whose tidy first passes can kick-start an attack. Zhitnik was just another chip, raising the stakes in what is already a colossal gamble. If the NHL resumes play, Ak Bars, set to move into a new 10,500-seat arena next season, could implode, losing all its NHL players except Brathwaite and Alexei Morozov, who have no escape clauses in their contracts. Of course, if the NHL stays dark, the pressure really intensifies. "There is no doubt we will reach the final," Shavaleyev says of the league's eight-team postseason that ends in March. "The players might fail, but we didn't make any mistakes in taking them." Apparently Shavaleyev is Tatar for Steinbrenner.
All of which made the overtime loss to Dynamo hard to digest, much harder than the food at Venetsia, a splendid Italian restaurant five minutes from the Kazan rink. With the addition of seven NHLers in November, Kovalev decided to nudge along the bonding process by taking all the players and their wives and girlfriends--about 40 people--out for a postgame meal that was, by all accounts, quiet. The decibel level did not increase until 5:30 the next afternoon, when Shavaleyev marched into the dressing room and berated the team because of the amount of alcohol on the bill. According to players, he had phoned Venetsia more than once during the evening to ascertain exactly how much booze was being ordered.
Gee, what is this, Russia?
To run away is not glorious, but very healthy.
ak bars travels on a chartered Tatarstan Airlines jet, a YAK-42, which, despite appearances, refers to the model of the airplane and not the year it was built. The jet is superior to many others in the Russian sky--most domestic flights are no-frills to the point that you swear they'll demand exact change as you board--but it is not quite the luxurious ride that NHL players expect. Playing in the Superleague means making do: bringing to the rink your own soap and towels, and in the case of the visitors' dressing room in Togliatti, your own toilet seat. It means bunking in hotel beds so narrow that, in Voskresensk, Lecavalier's shoulders hung over the edges; gulping tasteless chicken-and-plain-spaghetti meals before every game; and taking mandatory pregame naps in the baza, the team base, on linen so coarse that it chafes the cheeks.