As cold water is to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far place.
--russian proverb, from old testament
The first thing Vincent Lecavalier sees out the window of his hotel suite every morning is the beatific blue of a mosque that looms within the low walls of an ancient citadel. Four minarets stand sentinel around the spectacular snow-dusted dome, and when the winter sky turns from dirty dishwater to deep black each afternoon, gaily colored lights come on and change the Kul-Sharif mosque from a house of worship into a theme park for the soul. Lecavalier, a pillar of the Stanley Cup--champion Tampa Bay Lightning, grew up in suburban Montreal, where the Forum was considered the temple of hockey--a provincial conceit if you juxtapose that old barn with the religious eye candy in Lecavalier's temporary home eight time zones to the east. "It's like a palace," he says. "Every time I look at it, it reminds me I'm far away."
The mosque and surrounding fortress are the heart of Kazan, a 1,000-year-old city in the Republic of Tatarstan. Here, more than 450 years ago, the Russian tsar Ivan the Terrible defeated the progeny of the Golden Horde in a pivotal battle that had nothing to do with a salary cap, 24% rollbacks or arbitration rights. While a ruinous lockout imperiled the NHL season back in North America, Lecavalier and his Tampa Bay teammate Brad Richards followed their competitive and capitalist instincts to a city where Lenin once studied. They became the farthest-flung wanderers in hockey's new diaspora, having ventured almost halfway around the world to a place that four months ago they couldn't have picked out on a globe had you spotted them the K and the a. Lecavalier's and Richards's experience in this city of 1.2 million, 500 miles east of Moscow, is a metaphor for the NHL, which has no idea where it is at the moment either.
For now, at least, Kazan is hockey's Mecca, where you can cross the street to pray in a mosque and then, if you have 135 rubles (a little less than $5) in your jeans, you can walk three minutes to an arena suited to junior hockey and see the sexiest team in the world--Ak Bars Kazan--play the game at its highest level.
Even before the NHL began its fiscal death match, the 16-team Russian Superleague had earned the reputation as the second-best league in the world. Of course, being considered the second-best hockey league a year ago was equivalent to a fork being considered the second-best utensil with which to eat soup. But then NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and players' association executive director Bob Goodenow began toasting each other with Jonestown fruit punch. When the lockout was declared on Sept. 15, Russia, which sent 46 players to the NHL in 2003--04, became the pros' destination of choice.
Think about it. Fifteen years after Slava Fetisov and Igor Larionov fought the Soviet system as valiantly as they played on the ice and earned the right to spend their twilight years in North America, traffic is flowing the other way. To hell with Lenin and Trotsky. The real Russian Revolution is the change in allegiance from the CCCP (the cyrillic initials of the U.S.S.R.) to CCM (the hockey company) within one generation. "And if the [ NHL] season is canceled," says Ak Bars defenseman Darius Kasparaitis, who played for the New York Rangers in less ironic times, "you'll see 100 more guys trying to sign in Russia."
Kazan is the epicenter: Hockeygrad-near-the-Volga. Even accounting for Superleague rules that allow no more than three non-Russians in the lineup, Ak Bars's wanton talent grab dwarfs any notion of world domination the New York Yankees ever entertained. Ak Bars, 20-14-3 and in fourth place in the Superleague standings through Sunday, is the best team rubles can buy. Besides Richards, who returned to North America last month for treatment of a sports hernia but intends to rejoin Ak Bars soon, and Lecavalier, it has Nikolai Khabibulin, the Lightning's superb goalie; Ilya Kovalchuk, the mercurial Atlanta Thrashers left wing; Alexei Kovalev, the ridiculously gifted free-agent winger; Kasparaitis, the rambunctious Lithuanian blueliner on whom the Rangers lavished a six-year, $25.5 million contract in '02; and six other players who were in the NHL last season, including goalie Fred Brathwaite. According to Ak Bars officials, Czech sniper Jaromir Jagr, who is with Avangard Omsk, inquired about playing in Kazan but was rebuffed. Jagr's agent, J.P. Barry, says Kazan was just one of several places Jagr was interested in. In any event, Ak Bars did not want hockey's spoiled child--Ak Bars wanted Canadians.
"I really like Canadian hockey players," says coach Zinetula Bilelyadinov, widely known as Coach Bil. "When they're born, they come from hockey. They play with heart all the time."
Ak Bars--the name means snow leopard in the Tatar language--values not merely talent but seriousness of purpose, the quality that marks Canada's game. The team sets its sights on Lecavalier, the most valuable player in the recent World Cup, and Richards, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner for the 2004 playoffs. A few North Americans had drifted to Russia in the past several years, end-of-the-roaders like goalie Andr� (Red Light) Racicot and forward Jim Montgomery, names familiar only to serious puckheads. Lecavalier and Richards were something new in the Superleague, NHL players on the cusp of greatness. Lecavalier is a big, strong center, an instinctive player who does not need to carry the puck to be effective. Richards is a center--right wing with an impressive hockey IQ who scores and passes and invariably makes his linemates better.