LOCKED-OUT STANLEY CUP HEROES BRAD RICHARDS AND VINNY LECAVALIER WENT TO PLAY IN RUSSIA FOR THE MONEY. TURNS OUT THEY GOT A LITTLE MORE-AND LESS-THAN THEY BARGAINED FOR.
THE RUSSIAN WINTER has conquered plenty of men. Napoleon, for instance. And the German armies. So as Brad Richards and Vinny Lecavalier trudge through the four inches of dirty slush that seems to permanently frost the ground ere, they know they're up against significant odds.
"One minute it's great, and then the next minute, I say, 'I'm not going to make it a week,' " Richards says. "But I said that for the first week, and I'm still here." He's laughing, as if he can't quite believe it himself. It's early December, and Richards and Lecavalier are in Kazan, a dank industrial city (pop. 1.2 million) in the middle of Russia that seems to have passed a law against the display of any color aside from gray. The two men cross wide streets, ducking traffic as they pass an elaborate and ancient white mosque, a hint that the city's best days are likely behind it.
Of all the places Richards and Lecavalier expected to be this winter, Kazan was not one of them. By all rights, the two childhood friends, who played as juniors together in Quebec, should be taking a warm and fuzzy victory lap, celebrating the Stanley Cup they won for the Lightning this past June. They should be checking out the bikinis on Tampa's lovelies or wiggling their ring fingers as they skate past jealous NHL rivals.
But thanks to the NHL lockout, things haven't worked out that way. Contract negotiations are moving at a pace that would make a glacier jealous, forcing nearly 300 NHLers to flee to Europe, looking to keep in shape and earn a paycheck. And that brought these guys to Russia, where the money is.
Some Russian clubs are owned by oil magnates, who've grown tired of collecting cars and mansions and have moved on to elite hockey players. Other teams, like Kazan's Ak Bars, are owned by the oil companies themselves, with backing from local governments and, if you believe the rumors, Russian mobsters. Whatever the sources of their financing, the Ak Bars have snapped up 12 NHL players, many of them All-Stars and all of them well paid. One club official says that Atlanta wing Ilya Kovalchuck will make $3 million this season. And like everyone else, he won't pay a ruble in Russian taxes.
Such money is why Richards, MVP of last season's playoffs, and Lecavalier, Tampa's marquee player, find themselves trudging through snow. Lecavalier is contractually forbidden from revealing his salary, but it's reportedly more than $300,000 a month. (Kazan's payroll is estimated at $50 million.) Still, Lecavalier insists that money is not the only reason he and Richards made the trip. "This league is the best in Europe," he says. "It's hockey. It's another challenge."
THE FLIGHT from Moscow to Kazan on Nov. 25 is only an hour, but it's on a plane that looks to be designed by the same people who manufacture clown cars. The cabin is so cramped, Richards says, that if Lecavalier leans back, "I could pretty well kiss the top of his head." Once they land, the two Canadians feel as if they're on another planet. They spend the car ride from the airport staring out the window at small houses so weathered and wobbly, they seem to be shivering in the subzero cold. Sheets cover many windows, and every so often their car passes a spigot where, on warmer days, locals who don't have running water fill their buckets. Both players are stunned. "Some spots look like a war just finished maybe five days ago," says Richards, a native of Prince Edward Island off the coast of Nova Scotia. "Then you have places like our hotel. You wonder what it's doing here."
It's called the Mirage, and yes, the hotel where Richards and Lecavalier will call home seems an apparition. Kazan's 1,000th anniversary is in August, and while ghosts of Ivan the Terrible's armies haunt many of the buildings, the Mirage is more Klein (Calvin) than Khan (Genghis), with sleek furniture, cavernous hallways and a big, dark lobby with a slick sushi joint. The teammates are relieved when they get to their suites, decorated in dusty browns and dark wood with two TVs, high-speed Internet access and decent showers. Everything is so clean and spare that in a pinch, the rooms could double as surgical units. Not bad. But not cozy either. It doesn't take long for feelings of isolation to set in.
In fact, the eight-hour time difference between Kazan and the eastern U.S. has generally kept both men out of sync with family and friends. Worse, the jet lag is a monster. Richards often finds himself surfing the web at 3 a.m., looking at hypothetical plane tickets home. ("You can get back through Frankfurt," he deadpans later.) The two try to use web-cams to feel closer to their friends, but the connection doesn't always work, and usually they're left staring at each other. ("Great," Lecavalier jokes. "Him, I can see at the rink.")
Playing should be a comfort, something familiar in this most foreign of places. But the one part of this whole adventure that they had expected to translate most easily seems completely foreign. Ice surfaces are bigger. Arenas are smaller. The free-flowing European game that Americans and Canadians like to glamorize is nowhere to be found. Instead, there are four players stacked at the blue line, with more clutching and grabbing than at Wal-Mart on Black Friday.
There's also the haze that comes with not being able to understand a word anyone is saying. About half their teammates speak some English, as does coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, the former Soviet Olympic champion and Coyotes assistant. But in group situations, it's all Russian. So when Richards and Lecavalier attend team meetings, they're lost.
At a meeting a week into their stay, they're told that the coach is discussing defense. But for all they know, he could be handing out a recipe for chicken Kiev. Richards stares at the ceiling, at Lecavalier, at the clock. The meeting stretches a half-hour, then 45 minutes. Lecavalier is trying to figure out exactly what his family is doing at home in Montreal at that moment. And he's blinking a lot, trying not to fall asleep. "You don't understand anything," he says later. "If it's a video session, it's a lot easier."
So far Richards has learned the word for puck (shaiba), but that's about it. Lecavalier knows the word for turnovers (poterya shaibu) because, as Lecavalier notes, Bilyaletdinov "says that one a lot."
ON THE first day of December, the Ak Bars are readying for a road trip. This means saying goodbye to the Mirage, which they have a sense will feel like Buckingham Palace compared to where they're going. Players haul their own still-wet equipment to the plane-"I'm going to hug my trainer when the league starts again," Richards says-and Richards and Lecavalier are uneasy when they hear that their first stop will be a base camp near their first game in Voskresensk.
The concept of base camp is peculiar to Russian sports, a glorified dorm where teams bond, rest and get focused. In Kazan, players stay at base camp only a few hours before the game. And their newly built facilities are actually pretty nice, with amenities like a pool table, sauna and reading room. But not every team in the Russian Superleague is flush with oil money, and Voskresensk's base camp reflects that. "Little tiny beds" is how Richards describes it. Accurate, Lecavalier says: "The bed was my shoulder width plus three inches, and my feet were hanging off. But I slept pretty good. Got lucky."
Lecavalier says things like this a lot. He is an optimist by nature and tries to put a positive spin on most everything. Richards has been having a harder go of it. By the time the Ak Bars land in Omsk, the second stop on the trip, he is increasingly clinging to the chance that the lockout will end. If the two sides come to terms, he promises, "I'll be doing cartwheels all the way to the airport."
It's not hard to understand how he feels. This is Siberia, and the rumors are true: it's dark, cold and gloomy. On the day the Kazan players arrive, it's a balmy minus-10*. Just after 10 a.m. the next day, Lecavalier and Richards see the sun rise over the squat concrete buildings that litter the town. Just before 4 p.m., they see it set. Someone mentions that if they had a car, they could drive by an old Soviet gulag 25 miles outside of town. Not the sort of diversion they were looking for, so they opt to chill in their dreary hotel. It's called Tourist, but it's not the sort that sells postcards in the gift shop. In fact, it doesn't even have a gift shop-or anything remotely like the sushi bar in the Mirage.
That night they face Jaromir Jagr, who's been lured to Omsk by Roman Abramovich, an oil and chemical magnate who's one of the richest men in the world. "You know it looks like they've got a lot of money, these cities, and they're not afraid to give it to players," Jagr says. "I think a lot more are gonna come. The one bad thing is that it's minus-30*. But it's not that bad once you get used to it."
SUPERLEAGUE GAMES are exciting but surreal, as if someone had combined Texas high school football with a Twin Peaks episode. Russia's arenas generally hold 4,000 to 5,000 people, and with so many NHLers playing, they are often packed with fans yelling at players who can't understand them. Before the Omsk game starts, Richards and Lecavalier stand at attention as a woman in a massive, gold-sequined dress leads the crowd in a Russian folk song. During the first play stoppage, a Dixieland-style band plays "When the Saints Go Marching In," while cheerleaders with pom-poms dance on platforms hoisted over the ice. Tampa was never like this.
Lecavalier scores in the first period on a wrister. Slowly, both he and Richards are starting to find their games. A center his whole life, Lecavalier had been shuffled between left and right wing with no explanation, at least not in English. But tonight he's back in the middle. It's a relief to score, and for a moment both players remember why they are here instead of home on the beach. "It just feels like hockey," Richards says later, smiling.
Spirits are dampened when Kazan loses to Omsk 5-4 to extend the team's losing streak to three games. There are rumors that management isn't pleased, which is more than a minor concern when your bosses might be the mob. "Must-win game" takes on a whole new meaning. "We have to win, that's what they're telling us," Lecavalier says. "Fine. They brought us over for that reason."
Practices get longer when the team returns to Kazan on Dec. 5, but there's still plenty of free time. Maybe too much. Most nights the guys go out to dinner. There's a good Japanese restaurant in Kazan, and an Italian spot they like. It beats some of the food they've been served with the team: chicken parts they can't identify, and cow tongue, a local delicacy. "Cow tongue with cheese, actually," says Lecavalier, who tried it-once.
Back in their rooms, their TVs flicker with the one English channel, a 24-hour news station, so Lecavalier and Richards exchange DVDs they've brought: Friends, CSI, Law & Order, the first two seasons of The Sopranos. "We're hoping not to be here long enough for Season 3," Lecavalier says. He's joking, but Richards will in fact leave long before Tony's next whack. A hernia sends him back to Canada in mid-December; his return is uncertain.
With the NHL shuttered, the two friends have already missed many of the rites accorded to Stanley Cup champs. One in particular-the ring ceremony, scheduled for Tampa's home opener-was held in the St. Pete Times Forum basement with some players absent, including Lecavalier. Things will be different when they return. Then again, they'll be different, too. Both men speak as if their Russian jaunt has been as much continuing education as employment opportunity. They've seen buildings that have stood for centuries and buildings that might not be standing tomorrow.
"It's made me feel fortunate for what we have at home," Lecavalier says. "I'm definitely going to appreciate life more."
He quickly lightens his tone, mindful not to offend the good citizens of Kazan. "But this is good. It's fine. People here are really nice. I can't understand them, but they really seem nice."