A couple of days ago, the Toronto Star published an incredible article by Rick Westhead about the lives of players playing in the KHL, including former Sabre Maxim Afinogenov. This is definitely a must-read.
MOSCOW—The 18-year-old hockey phenom slumped over on the team bench.
If Alexei Cherapanov wasn’t dead, he would be in a matter of moments.
A first-round draft pick of the New York Rangers who was still playing with the Russian club Avangard Omsk, Cherapanov had suffered a fatal heart attack during the final moments of an Oct. 13, 2008, Continental Hockey League (KHL) game in Chekhov, a bedroom community south of Moscow.
Canadian Reid Simpson, a former NHL player who worked as Chekhov’s assistant general manager, sensed something was horribly wrong and scrambled from his team’s box seats down to the ice.
By the time he got there, Cherapanov’s body had already been taken outside and placed on the pavement. Dozens of spectators, smoking cigarettes, walked over and snapped photos on their cellphones of the lifeless teenager’s body.
Fifteen minutes later — a full 45 minutes after his collapse — the paramedics who hovered over Cherapanov’s corpse drove him to a nearby hospital.
Doctors were helpless. The hockey player was clearly dead, but that didn’t register with Nikolai, the Chekhov KHL team’s owner.
Nikolai, whose family name remains a mystery even to his own employees, burst through the emergency-room doors. “How can this happen? Bring him back,” Nikolai yelled at the doctors, according to Simpson.
The doctors understandably panicked.
Nikolai has a reputation for bringing a loaded gun into his team’s dressing room after a bad loss.
Gun-slinging owners, mandatory overnights in remote team bases, sometimes before home games, and even planting illegal drugs on high-priced players whose team owners want to stop paying is all part of life in the wild KHL, a hockey league that, high-profile warts notwithstanding, has quickly established itself as the second-best in the world outside the NHL.
The KHL was started in 2008 with the support of then-Russian President Vladimir Putin. Its aim was to create a strong cross-ocean rival to the NHL, a league that the best European players, particularly the best Russians, would call home.
The KHL has attracted Alexander Radulov, a former Nashville Predators star forward, goalies Ray Emery and Evgeni Nabokov, and veterans such as Jaromir Jagr, Alexei Yashin, Maxim Afinogenov and Alexei Kovalev, players whose skills may be on the decline but who still draw fans.
Spurred by Putin, who sees the KHL as a showcase for national pride, KHL team owners, which include natural gas, mining and construction companies, are throwing millions at journeymen and stars — more money than they could ever see in the NHL.
Simpson made $400,000 tax-free each year over two seasons with Chekhov. The most he ever made in 12 NHL seasons was $500,000.
“You’ve got taxes, team dinners, going out, tips, there’s just a lot more that you blow your money on when you play in the NHL,” he said. “You come to Russia and there’s not as much you do besides play hockey. You make $400,000 in the KHL and it’s like making $700,000 in North America.”
Afinogenov arrived in St. Petersburg last year after playing 651 NHL games with the Buffalo Sabres and Atlanta Thrashers. While he made $15 million in an NHL career that stretched from 2000 to 2010, he never earned more than $3.5 million a year.
His five-year contract with St. Petersburg’s KHL team will pay him more than $20 million (again tax free) over five seasons.
“I remember calling my agent Donny Meehan and telling him I was coming to Russia and he said to me, ‘don’t go, you can still play in the NHL,’” Afinogenov says. “But I’m happy here. It’s good hockey, good money.”
Fat paycheques aside, Simpson and others agree the KHL remains “a pretty crazy place.
“You would have to have spent some time in Russia to understand,” Simpson said, adding that at least five times, he’s seen car crashes where “a person that was dead was left on the road with medical staff or police standing around looking like not much was wrong. That’s Russia.”
Pre-season training camps drag on for at least two months and, in a trend heralding to Soviet times, some KHL coaches demand players wear 50-pound weights over their shoulders during conditioning drills.
Players with Moscow’s legendary Spartak franchise are sequestered in a hotel the night before home games.
“I had no idea before I got here,” says Andre Benoit, a Canadian defenceman with Spartak, which began 1946 and whose alumni include Pavel Bure and Ilya Kovalchuk. “It’s really hard. Every home game I’m stuck the night before in a hotel almost across the street from my family.”
Other KHL clubs demand players stay pre-game nights in basas, remote bases in the middle of nowhere with small beds with thin mattresses, poor heating and worse food. A bad game can mean a second night’s stay.
A handful of teams regularly fall behind in paying their players, and even when they do pay, some clubs insist on paying in cash.
“This is not a place you want to be carrying bags of money around,” says one current KHL player. “And it’s not easy to wire money overseas back to Canada.”
Several North Americans said they keep stacks of currency in paper bags in their freezers. Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan’s Jon Mirasty, who plays for Chekhov, said he had been paid only twice since arriving in Russia in August.
There are problems players face when teams decide they’re no longer needed.
“One guy I know, playing for the KHL team in Kazan, was arrested after the team had (marijuana) planted on him,” says Simpson, who now lives in Chicago. “They took him to jail, wanted to sweat him out, pressure him to agree to go back to Canada without getting paid.”
The same thing happened to John Grahame, a Canadian goalie who played during the 2008-09 season for the KHL team in Omsk, a city in Siberia.
“He was arrested by police for going to a dance club because the team didn’t want to keep paying him,” Simpson said.
Simpson himself was on the verge of accepting a coaching job with the New York Islanders but a former teammate urged him to keep playing in Russia.
“I didn’t do it for the money, I did it for the experience,” Simpson said. “I enjoyed it, but I remember at one point towards the end of my first season with Chekhov going to the rink and they handed me some papers in Russian to sign.”
The team told Simpson the documents were a formality.
“I had them translated and it turned out the paper was an agreement saying the team didn’t have to pay me my last two cheques,” he said. “I didn’t sign it.”
Players have long regarded Russia as an unpredicatably dangerous hinterland. Former Soviet star Alex Mogilny said KGB agents were so relentless following his defection in 1989 that they followed him through the streets of Buffalo. In 1996, the mother of NHL player Oleg Tverdovsky was kidnapped and held for 11 days by five associates of a former coach who was jealous of Tverdovsky’s $4.2-million NHL contract. His mother was freed by police, who intercepted her and her abductors on a Russian train.
A former NHL executive who was trying to attract investors to rekindle Moscow’s famed Red Army hockey team was recently arrested and held by two drunk police officers.
The executive, who asked that he not be identified, said the police wouldn’t release him until a friend showed up at the police station with $2,000.
“They even took my watch,” he said. “It was terrifying.”
Benoit, 27, from St. Albert, Ont., is the typical North American who lands a job in European hockey.
A nimble 5-foot-11 defenceman, he was never drafted by an NHL team and played four seasons in the American Hockey League and two in leagues in Sweden and Finland. Eventually, he appeared during the 2010-11 season in eight games with the Ottawa Senators before signing a one-year contract this summer with Spartak.
He lives in a sixth-floor apartment in downtown Moscow with his wife Kelly and their two daughters, Emma, 3, and Hailey, five months. Downstairs is a Starbucks and across the street is a McDonald’s, but there are few other reminders of home in Benoit’s neighbourhood. Moscow is grey and bleak in December, a depressing stretch of year when it’s middle-of-the-night dark until at least 10:30 a.m.
The Benoits navigate the traffic-choked streets using a hired SUV and driver.
“I worry about them being out on their own here,” Benoit said.
“The toughest part is the language,” says Kelly Benoit, whose father, Rick Walmsley, was a longtime NHL goalie. “We don’t really get out much. There’s a water park north of the city we like to go to when Andre has a day off, but that’s about it.”
Benoit has been in Russia only a few months but he already has plenty of stories to share.
Like many pros, Benoit typically wears out at least three pairs of skates a season.
About a month ago, he called Spartak’s equipment manager and ordered another pair of $1,000 custom Reeboks, size 9 and 1/4.
After a few weeks, Benoit phoned Reebok and learned that the skates were sitting in a warehouse. Spartak had refused to pay for them.
The team’s president had vetoed the purchase. Give Benoit a pair from the September purchase, the equipment manager was told.
“I told them that was ridiculous, and after a bit, they came back to me with this good news,” Benoit said with a laugh. “They said I could go ahead and buy the Reeboks on my own, and they’d give me a pair of their extras that I could sell to make up some of the difference. It just left me shaking my head.”
Yet for all the stories, it’s impossible to ignore the progress Russian hockey has made in four years.
KHL commissioner Alex Medvedev (no relation to Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev) says the league has learned from its club’s miscues.
The 23 KHL rinks are required to have defibrillators, hard cervical collars, aspirators and tracheotomy kits, intended to prevent another death like Cherapanov’s.
Next season, teams will have enforced player salary caps. Clubs will be severely penalized for making off-the-book “black money” payments to players, says Medvedev, who also serves as a high-ranking executive with the government-owned company Gazprom.
“We know we have problems but we are trying to correct them,” Medvedev said. “Are we the NHL? No, but the NHL has been around for 100 years. We’ve been here for four. Where was the NHL after four seasons? We already have a great league and it’s getting better. This is our game, too.”
Russia started its first organized league in 1946 during its post-World War II recovery. Russian coaches were the first to use microphones during practices. They pioneered the idea of pairing a forward line with the same two defenceman throughout a game, so players became more familiar with one another.
After the Soviets lost to the U.S. in the 1980 Winter Olympics, in a game that would become known as the Miracle on Ice, at least one Soviet player left his Olympic silver medal in a garbage can in Lake Placid. In Russia, as in Canada, second place is nothing to celebrate.
Medvedev says the KHL plans to expand to 60 teams by 2015. A Western Europe conference will feature 30 teams in cities such as Prague, Milan, and maybe Berlin. A Swiss club recently signed an agreement to join the KHL by 2014. An Eastern conference may include 30 clubs in places like Seoul and Tokyo.
The KHL television channel generates $15 million a season in broadcast revenue, up from $5 million in its first season. Within five years, Medvedev says the KHL aims to generate half the national TV income that the NHL does — a bold claim considering the NHL generates nearly $300 million per year from its national TV contracts with Canada’s CBC and U.S. broadcaster NBC.
Its games are broadcast in 25 countries such as Finland, Sweden and Germany and, starting this season, players’ names are written on their uniforms in English for non-Russian viewers.
The broadcast quality, however, pales next to the glitzy NHL. Some game telecasts have shown a puck sitting at centre ice between periods. Others simply show the game’s line score of point-getters and penalties.
Critical analysis is not encouraged. Last season, the Russian player agent Alexei Dementiev was working as a colour commentator for a game between Magnitorogsk and Chelyabinsk. He suggested on air that the game was dull and predictable and the KHL fined Dementiev $17,000 for “tainting its image.” The league backed off after Dementiev threatened to sue.
This season, referees have been imported from Scandinavia, and players say officiating has improved. The league has also endorsed the creation of a players union.
The KHL has also started two feeder systems: One is comparable to the American Hockey League and the other to Canada’s major junior leagues. That startup, said Soviet hockey legend Slava Fetisov, is the single best development to come out of the KHL’s creation.
“In the 1990s, agents were basically selling young Russian players to junior teams in North America,” said Fetisov, the KHL’s chairman. “So many would go and burn out after a year and we’d never hear from them again. They’d be out of hockey. It got so bad that for years in Russia, so many good young players left that the country didn’t even hold a national championship for 16 or 17 year olds. Can you imagine?”
On a recent evening in St. Petersburg, 12,000 fans packed the decade-old Ice Palace arena for a game between hometown SKA and Salavat, a team from Ufa in Siberia. Before the game, two dozen cheerleaders and SKA’s mascot, an unnamed brown horse, worked the crowd.
Pop songs like LMFAO’s “I’m Sexy and I Know It” rocked the palace during breaks in play. Like the NHL, a large screen over centre ice showed couples in the audience and urged them to kiss. A video board wrapped around the arena demanded in Russian that fans cheer, “Win, win, win.”
Vendors sold roasted and buttered cobs of corn for $1. There was a lineup 20 deep for wieners tucked in pastry ($2) and pints of beer ($2). In some ways, it was better than the NHL: the team even offered fans a free coat check.
“To me, it’s just as good as any NHL arena,” said Afinogenov.
Fetisov said KHL hockey, played on large Olympic-sized rinks, is elegant and refined, a style he, fans, and some players prefer to the bruising NHL.
“How many players in the NHL are from Europe this year?” Fetisov asks. “Just 30 per cent now. Soon, (Europeans) will all come to the KHL, and the NHL will be left with the best players from North America only.”
The International Ice Hockey Federation says 22.8 per cent of the NHL’s players in 2010-11 were European, the lowest total in 11 years. In 2003-04, the last season before the lockout, 30 per cent of NHL players were European.
Times weren’t always good for hockey in this west Russian metropolis, a popular tourist destination known as the Venice of the north for its rivers and canal system.
Five years ago, the St. Petersburg arena was half empty for games. The few fans in attendance watched quietly.
“It was like they were watching the ballet,” says Natalia Chereshneva, a former marketing executive with the St. Petersburg club who now oversees public relations for a Russian hotel chain.
At one point, Chereshneva said she wanted to overhaul the pre-game national anthem. She wanted to drop the aging men whose renditions reminded many of the Soviet Union’s military May Day parades. Let’s have a young woman sing, Chereshneva suggested.
Problem was, Russian superstition holds that women have no place either on the ice or in a locker room, Chereshneva said. For four years she battled for a change.
Finally, team executives relented.
“We had this young woman walk out to centre ice to sing, and she completely wiped out when she got on the ice,” Chereshneva said. “It was a playoff game. We lost and I figured that’s it, it’ll never happen again.”
Fortunately for Chereshneva, the team’s executive ranks were purged and their replacements had no problem with modern, acapella singers.
“You can’t imagine how hard it was to modernize and westernize,” Chereshneva said over the din of the crowd.
Trouble is, for every arena like the one in St. Petersburg, there’s another that’s like the 38-year-old Sokolniki Arena, home to Moscow Spartak.
As Spartak took to the ice on a recent weeknight against Lev, a new KHL entry this season from Slovakia, about half of the aging stadium’s 5,000 seats were filled. Between periods, most fans rushed outside for a cigarette. And why not? There was little room in Sokolniki’s second-floor cafeteria, a wood-panelled den that might comfortably have held 10 people.
Outside the cafeteria, a vendor sold red and white Spartak scarves off a wood table. He hung a team jersey from a coat hanger that was fixed to the wall with thick masking tape.
In the locker room, things were little better.
Benoit, the Canadian defenceman, said toilet paper and shampoo both were hard to find in the change room.
“I guess they want you to buy your own,” he said.
Again, it could be worse.
Several players said there are a few rinks in the KHL circuit where teams still have to bring their own toilet seats.
Medvedev and others with the KHL promise this, too, will improve.
For all of his promises, however, it’s unclear where the money to fuel the KHL’s expansion plans and improvements will come from.
Many KHL teams generate enough money to cover just one-tenth of their annual budgets. The balance is typically paid for by state-owned corporations such as Gazprom.
This exposes the KHL and its teams to a fall in the price of gas, oil and other commodities.
“If oil goes to $200 a barrel and the KHL expands into western Europe, this league will be able to buy any player in the world,” says Anders Hedberg, a former NHL player who now scouts the KHL for the New York Rangers. “But if oil goes down to $30, forget it. Close the doors.”
Sergei Voropov, an executive with the consulting company Deloitte, was involved with planning the launch of the KHL. From the start, the league was structured impractically, he said.
The first season, Voropov said the KHL generated $13.6-million worth of sponsorship revenue, including $6.8 million from the Russian insurance company Sogas, $4.2 million from cell phone firm Megafon and $1.9 million from Toyota.
But the league’s operating costs, including marketing and hockey operations, totalled more than $33 million.
The KHL’s pledge to move the league to a North American business model have yet to materialize.
Canada’s Research in Motion, maker of the BlackBerry, recently offered to refurbish the luxury suites in Red Army’s home arena in Moscow. The stadium owners inexplicably said no.
When the KHL approached the Espo Blues, a pro team in Finland, its owner Jussi Salonoja travelled to St. Petersburg to discuss the league’s $2 million offer for moving to the KHL.
Landing a Finnish team would have been a breakthrough for the KHL. Salonoja arrived in St. Petersburg with an open mind.
But after 30 hours waiting for a KHL official who failed to show for their scheduled meeting, Salonoja went home.
“They make decisions like they would in the old Soviet Union,” Voropov says.
The KHL has a staff of about 70, including 11 full-time lawyers on staff, the same number you would expect in a typical Russian company with 14,000 employees.
“You know how many times Fetisov would come in to the KHL office and hand over a bill to be paid for $7,000 or more for drinks with his friends at a hotel bar?” Voropov says.
During his time with the league, Voropov said he suggested that rickety old rinks like Sokolniki be torn down and tenders be issued for rinks built inside mega-malls with shops, movie theatres, and food courts.
“Ownership is such a mess,” Voropov said. “There’s no political will.”
But for some players, the drawback to Russia isn’t poorly stocked arenas or even two-a-day practices. A bigger worry is the amount of air travel that’s required in a country which last year recorded nine commercial airline crashes, giving it a worse safety record than less-developed nations like Congo and Indonesia.
Russia is an expansive nation with 13 time zones. A flight from Moscow to the KHL team in Khabarovsk, near the Chinese border, can take nine hours.
In September, the KHL team in Yaroslavl was wiped out in a plane crash that was said to be caused by pilot error.
While the league pledged after the tragedy that its teams would only use state-of-the-art planes, those plans have since been quietly dropped. Many KHL clubs still charter Soviet-era planes
“It’s maybe the wildest part of it all,” Simpson said. “Our trainers were the ones who packed the equipment in our plane and it would be sliding around in the back during the flight. Almost as soon as we were airborne, the coaches would light up cigarettes.”
Two weeks after the Yaroslavl plane crash, Benoit remembered stepping aboard a Russian jet for his first road trip with Spartak.
He’d been worried about flying and had asked Spartak officials about their own transport plans. They showed him a photo of the interior of a clean, modern jet.
But the plane Benoit boarded, a Tupalev Tu-154, looked nothing like the picture. Its aging cabin was wood panelled and reeked of cigarette smoke.
“There was nothing new about it,” he said.
Benoit would only learn later that the Russian-built jet was about 30 years old and had been banned from flying in the European Union because of safety worries. Since 1968, there have been at least 39 fatal incidents involving the Tu-154.
As teammate Marcel Hossa gave him a worried look, Benoit tried to reassure himself.
Flying a few weeks after the crash was probably the safest time to fly, he reasoned. “It’s like flying after 9/11,” Benoit said he told himself.
“What are you to do?” he said later. “Get off the plane? If you do that, you’re done and they send you home. For now I’m here and I’m just trying to make the best of it.”