- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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"Every day," Lecavalier says, "you see a little something you've never seen before."
True. This is a country where the referee can't go upstairs to review a goal, but upstairs can come down to them. Against Khimik Voskresensk, Lecavalier flicked a backhander that seemed to cross the goal line. The referee ordered a video review. He entered the penalty box, made himself comfortable in front of the monitor, studied a replay and then called for more angles. The Khimik video-camera operator, perched on the roof of the four-seat press box, clambered down with his Panasonic, climbed through the stands, skirted the Zamboni entrance (where he was momentarily detained by a bull-necked security guard) and trotted to the box, where he set up his camera for the ref's perusal. The review took 14 minutes. In video replay, that's War and Peace.
Lecavalier's goal is waved off. Leading 2--0 midway through the third period, Khabibulin allows a softie on a seemingly innocuous shoot-in from the red line, and Ak Bars comes unglued. The players stop skating, give up another goal 21/2 minutes later and lose on a goal by former NHLer Valeri Kamensky with 75 seconds left. Coach Bil is distraught. In the near-empty bus after the game, he asks, in plaintive English, "Where are my NHL players, my NHL stars?" At that moment he probably would like to ship everybody to Siberia, which is, in fact, where they are headed on the YAK-42 red-eye for a nationally televised game against Omsk two days later. This time Ak Bars squanders a 3--0 lead against Jagr's team. Avangard scores its fourth goal after the puck flies into its bench and is knocked back onto the ice by a player. This time the video review takes 10 minutes, a mere Anna Karenina. Avangard wins 5--4 on a goal in the final two minutes. With Ak Bars's loss, the best team rubles can buy slips to third place in the Superleague standings. The last time a Russian road trip went this badly, Napoleon was the coach.
Still, while stretching before the Avangard match, Richards recounted an argument he had had with Lecavalier. "He was telling me he'd rather play in Kazan than in a couple of NHL cities," Richards said. "I just had to walk away." Unlike Lecavalier, who has programmed the Russian anthem as his cell phone ring, Richards had difficulty wrapping his mind around his winter hockey vacation. Certainly being benched in the third period of his first game after his unit scored a power-play goal against Magnitogorsk did nothing to assuage his doubts. That night at dinner he said, "I've got Russian journalists asking me why I was benched. It's embarrassing. As I recall, [Ak Bars] called me, I didn't call them." Two weeks into his stay Richards said he liked his teammates, the organization and the game despite the fact that hooking on the ice is even more flagrant than the hooking at the Omsk Tourist Hotel.
Every morning--until his injury chased him home--he woke to his view of the mosque. "It's not like I hate this country," said Richards, who, when he boarded the YAK-42 for the first time, pantomimed blowing his brains out. "I just know I could be home right now, in my new house, watching football. Vinny's different. He lived in a hotel in Montreal this summer and one in Boston a few years ago.
"I have stuff here"--Internet access and books and enough DVDs to last two lockouts--"but I need something else. I've learned that family and friends are a lot more important." Despite his initial misgivings, Richards told SI last week that he's making every effort to get back to Kazan.
Because he was cocooned at a fabulous five-star hotel in Kazan (he and Lecavalier were about $10,000 out-of-pocket for the privilege) Richards was less susceptible to the humiliating infantilization that bedevils Brathwaite. The goalie, who earns $600,000, lives in an apartment like most of the Ak Bars players. Unlike them, however, he must negotiate daily life with a vocabulary of fewer than 50 Russian words. He is 32 going on two, forced to point to what he wants in stores and restaurants or to depend on teammates for translation. Brathwaite, the first black hockey player in a country with notoriously poor race relations-- Anson Carter was greeted by a banana thrown on the ice when his barnstorming NHL Worldstars played in St. Petersburg last month--has been further marginalized by the arrival of Khabibulin in November. "Nik's great, one of the best goalies in the world," Brathwaite says, "but I didn't come here to watch hockey. If I wanted to watch, I could have stayed home [in Ottawa] and watched the [junior] 67s." Picking at his lunch late one snowy Sunday afternoon, he adds, "I came to Russia with my mind open and my eyes closed. It hasn't been as much fun as I thought."
Indeed there is a distinct paucity of fun, which occasionally is doled out one beer at a time. During one of those habitual delays at the Samara Airport after a win against Lada, Brathwaite asks Coach Bil's permission to buy his teammates a beer in honor of his 32nd birthday that day. He agrees to the beer, shocking most of his Russian players. But the strangest thing about the Ak Bars experience--stranger, for instance, than being chided by a cabbie after the game for buckling a seat belt--is that NHLers from the old Soviet Union seem more ambivalent about it than North Americans. For the blunt Kasparaitis, the problem is the rampant diving and the lack of bodychecking. For most of the others, it is the remnants of the old Soviet-style approach to players. "In the NHL you do what you want as long as you're ready to play. You're treated like men, like professionals," says Kovalchuk. "Here they know everything about you, keep an eye on you wherever you go. Bil's an old-style Russian coach, big time."
Adds Khabibulin, "Bottom line: The money's [better than it used to be], but the mentality's the same."
In a country where money is none of your damn business, it was the primary draw for NHLers. Jagr's dislike for the old Communist authorities was so great that he carried a picture of Ronald Reagan in his wallet and adopted number 68 in honor of the Prague Spring. Yet in November, he left his hometown team in Kladno, Czechoslovakia after 17 games, because national loyalty does not pay the bills--a seven-figure salary from Avangard does. Brathwaite could use a solid season with Ak Bars as a springboard to a backup job in the NHL, but a large part of Russia's allure was a salary greater than he made last season in Columbus. Kovalchuk, who would be in his fourth season with Atlanta, probably will earn more with Ak Bars than he would have with the Thrashers.