North Americans in KHL: ‘I can’t believe that just happened’
Ben Scrivens keeps trying to figure out what he is doing wrong.
And it has nothing to do with playing hockey.
Every once in a while in the Kontinental Hockey League, the former NHL goaltender offends someone and has to figure out what Russian superstition or custom he broke. There are plenty.
“You’re supposed to bring cake to the rink on your birthdays,” said Scrivens, a Canadian. “If you step on someone’s shoe, you’re supposed to put your foot out and they step back. It’s like a tit-for-tat type of thing. They’re super superstitious and so they have a lot: you can’t whistle indoors, you can’t shake hands through a doorway. And obviously you would never just guess these things, so you have to make the mistake.”
Dozens of North American players returned to the KHL last week after playing in the Olympics, where they learned different cultural lessons in South Korea. For foreigners unaccustomed to Russia and other places in the KHL, life on and off the ice can be a bit of a shock that never quite goes away.
“Pretty much every day there’s something that I shake my head and I can’t believe what’s going on,” said American forward Ryan Stoa, who is in his fourth KHL season after stints with the Colorado Avalanche and Washington Capitals. “There’s pretty much something every day that I can’t believe that just happened.”
That’s the KHL, where former NHL defenseman James Wisniewski of Canton said, “The normal’s abnormal and the abnormal’s normal.”
That explains a lot, like when a sheep was sacrificed on the ice earlier this season before a Barys Astana practice in Kazakhstan, which made a few North American players vomit at the sight of it.
“That’s probably one of the weirdest things I’ve ever heard of, honestly, in hockey,” Canadian forward Gilbert Brule said. “I couldn’t believe when I heard that.”
Sheep sacrifice is up there in the pantheon of the unbelievable in the KHL, though there are countless stories about everyday life in what’s considered the second-best hockey league in the world. Wisniewski said he saw players giving themselves their own IVs and Wojtek Wolski keeps notes in his phone of the strange stuff he has seen, so he doesn’t forget to share stories with friends back home.
“You’ve got to be ready for anything,” Wolski said. “I always say anything is possible and everything seems impossible at the same time and in the same day, in the same hour.”
Life in the KHL also means some more serious issues. Some players have not gotten paid because teams can’t make payroll. Old planes being used for travel came to light again when 44 people were killed in 2011 in the tragic Lokomotiv Yaroslavl crash.
Scrivens said he can live with 99 percent of the cultural, personal and professional things that bother North American players and tries to ignore the rest.
Former New York Rangers defenseman Matt Gilroy’s first day in the KHL was also his birthday, and his new teammates all wondered where the cake was. He and Stoa have gotten used to the Russian custom of shaking hands with everyone each day if you didn’t sleep under the same roof the night before — from players to the bus and Zamboni drivers to rink attendants.
So much for keeping germs in check.
“I think guys get sick quite a bit because of it,” Scrivens said. At the Olympics, which saw an outbreak of norovirus, officials recommended players fist-bump instead of shaking hands.
Asked if he’d been stiffed on pay, Scrivens hedged by saying: “I don’t have any stories that haven’t already been publicized. I don’t have any worse stories than what’s already out there.” Some players were not willing to share stories because they either still have KHL contracts or could return to the league in the next few years, but Chris Bourque said, “Every story you hear is true.”
That includes the strenuous two-month training camps.
“Training camp is one of the hardest things there that I’ve probably ever been through in my life,” Brule said. “You’re basically going for almost two months straight, two-a-days, three-a-days. You’re on the ice twice, you’re working out all day, you get a break for lunch and you’re back at it all afternoon.”
For all the horror stories and head-scratching, Stoa pointed out that some guys have positive experiences in the KHL. Playing for Helsinki-based Jokerit or high-powered and wealthy SKA St. Petersburg or CSKA Moscow is a much different experience than living in Togliatti, Magnitogorsk or Chelyabinsk.
Gilroy said the language barrier is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome, though teams have interpreters to help. Some practices are run in Russian, but for all the craziness that goes on around them, North American players have one place they feel just fine.
“When you’re on the ice, it’s kind of all the same game all over the world,” Gilroy said. “You feel the most comfortable when you’re on the ice. Off the ice, you’re kind of a fish out of water, but when you’re playing the games it was the most comfortable you could be.”