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.
January 10, 2005
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 André (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.
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.
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 café 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.
"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.
Still, Ak Bars's NHLers keep checking the Internet, trolling for gossip about a lockout that has sent many players back to a homeland that feels foreign now. This spring there might be Superleague title for Bars, a historic birthday present for Kazan, but the team's players are getting itchy as the NHL's drop-dead date nears. Running away is more healthy than glorious, but going home is not always an unalloyed blessing either. "How difficult," asks Kasparaitis, "is it to put a toilet seat in a rink?
"I REALLY LIKE CANADIAN HOCKEY PLAYERS," SAYS COACH BIL (RIGHT). "WHEN THEY'RE BORN, THEY COME FROM HOCKEY. THEY PLAY WITH HEART ALL THE TIME."
OF THE 144 MILLION PEOPLE IN RUSSIA, THE LAST ONE YOU WANT TO ANNOY, BESIDES PRESIDENT PUTIN, IS SHAVALEYEV (LEFT). HE BRISTLES WHEN HE WALKS. HE BRISTLES EVEN WHEN HE SITS IN HIS SLEEK OFFICE.
"I HAVE STUFF HERE"--INTERNET ACCESS, BOOKS, ENOUGH DVDS FOR TWO LOCKOUTS--"BUT I NEED SOMETHING ELSE," SAID RICHARDS. "FAMILY AND FRIENDS ARE A LOT MORE IMPORTANT."