This is Russia: Life in the KHL -- Baza

An excerpt from the book “This is Russia: Life in the KHL - Doctors, Bazas and Millions of Air Niles,” written by Bernd Bruckler with Risto Pakarinen:

To say that the Torpedo baza was “in the middle of nowhere” is not a figure of speech. I dare you to try to find it on Google Maps. There may be street maps of Nizhny for sale these days, but the Torpedo baza won’t be on it.

It was an old, two-storey red-brick building some 40 kilometers, or 45 minutes by car, from the city in the middle of the forest, a good five kilometers off the highway on a back road. In regular Nizhny traffic, it was an hour and fifteen minutes’ drive from the arena.

That place was built to be a baza. Outside, there was old equipment for off-ice training, and it looked like equipment the military would use. There were car tires to jump in and out of, ropes for circuit training. Our assistant coach, Mikhail Varnakov Sr., told us that when he played for Torpedo Gorky, the team trained at the baza with that same equipment.

Sometimes we’d work out there, too. If we had a 4 p.m. game, there was no time to get into the arena for a morning skate and then back to the baza and back to the arena again, so we’d go for a morning run in the forest outside the baza.

Joakim and I didn’t sleep well in our room. We also understood that nobody really enforced the rules. I just couldn’t shake the idea that I could be sleeping in my own bed at home, next to my wife, just five minutes from the rink. Joakim and I talked about it, and neither of us liked the baza setup; we wanted to be at our best when we played hockey. Just a few weeks into my stay in Russia we decided that we’d just leave. We’d sneak out and go home.

Torpedo had two team doctors, Ivanovich, an older gentleman, and Valerinovich, a younger man who had studied under Ivanovich. They were important people around the team, not only for being doctors, but also for being the coaches’ and the management’s eyes and ears. The veteran players told us early on that if we felt like we wanted to confide in a doctor, we should steer clear of Valerinovich and instead turn to Ivanovich, who was a player’s guy. He knew that the guys were smuggling in alcohol and drinking in their rooms, but he never told the coach.

The other doctor was a rat.

At the baza, the doctors were supposed to be the ones checking up on players, knocking on doors to make sure that the players were in their rooms. But they hadn’t done that early in the season, which made us feel at ease, thinking that we could sneak out and no one would notice.

After the team meeting, and the video session at 8, nothing happened at the baza. In the morning there was breakfast, but it wasn’t a team function, so players ate when they wanted, at different times.

After breakfast, the players either rode the team bus to the rink or drove in their own cars. This created an opportunity for me and Joakim: We could just show up at the rink the next morning and pretend that we had stayed at the baza like everyone else. As long as the coaches and other players -- or the doctors -- didn’t see us leave the baza, we would be fine.

Getting out of the actual building wasn’t hard, although we did have a guard at the door. Just like in the movies, the guard was a big man who was mostly interested in watching TV or sleeping. I never did learn whether his job was to make sure we didn’t leave, or to keep outsiders from coming in. (Maybe people wanted to get some of “mama’s” cooking?)

Joakim and I decided that I’d go first. As a professional hockey player, I was used to having butterflies in my stomach before a game, and players always say it’s a good thing, that it feels good to be a little nervous for a game because it keeps you alert.

I was nervous, and it didn’t feel good.

I walked out of the room, went downstairs, and walked past the guard and out to the front yard. Our assistant coach was out smoking in the yard, and a few other players were there making phone calls. Because the baza was, as I said, in the middle of nowhere, the area didn’t have decent cell phone coverage -- except for this one spot, about a hundred meters from the building. After dinner you’d always see the glow of a dozen cell phones in the middle of the woods, where players were scattered about in an area half the size of a soccer pitch.

After walking out the front door, I pulled out my cell phone and headed toward the call area, pretending to make a phone call. I did the absent-minded mobile walk, randomly walking from one spot to another, but in fact I was very deliberately making my way toward the end of the baza’s 500-meter-long driveway.

I kept on walking, and walking, until I got to the road, where Yuri was waiting in his grey BYD (Build Your Dreams car). I jumped into the backseat.

Then all I had to do was wait for Joakim to show up. Twenty minutes later, he did. It was ten at night, so it was pitch black outside. Yuri started the car and drove away, the first 200 meters with the headlights off. Then we were on the main road and off to our apartments.

It felt so out of line, and I couldn’t believe what I was going to -- had already done. But to feel comfortable and play better, I had to do it. I was nervous when I left the baza, I was nervous doing the mobile walk, and I was nervous waiting for Joakim. I was nervous at home, and I was nervous returning back to the rink.

I had stories prepared, in case we were caught. I was going to say that my wife, Veera, had been sick, or that I had forgotten about important errands in the city -- that I had to get to the bank or something.

The next morning, we showed up at the rink for morning skate and acted as if we had stayed at the baza like everyone else. We were fine. Nobody seemed to have any idea that we slept at home, and we ended up winning three games in a row, against Dinamo Riga, Dinamo Moscow, and Severstal Cherepovets.