The Story of My Russian KHL Odyssey

Originally published Nov. 11, 2019

There I was, busy typing away on my laptop, trying to get a piece done, when my cellphone rang. Under normal circumstances, deep in thought, the sound would be jarring enough. However, this time around I was in Russia.

A Hockey Writer in Russia

If this piece were a movie, the camera would be zooming in on my shocked face right about now. The soundtrack in the background would be going “duh, duh, duhhhhh” for added effect. I mean, who would be calling me… in Russia???

At this point in time, everyone in my life knew I was in Russia, sent by The Hockey Writers to cover the Kontinental Hockey League for a few days. Why call me when they know I’m busy? My mind raced in the split second it took me to get up from my makeshift workspace in my Moscow hotel room and make my way to the bedside table where my phone was recharging.

Did I lose something with my number on it somewhere? Was it ex-Montreal Canadiens defenseman Andrei Markov, with whom I failed to gain any traction in an interview gone wrong the previous day? How did he get this number? Did I accidentally piss someone off and cause an international incident? Was it the Russian government? Was it Putin??? I mean, it wouldn’t too much of a stretch. He is already everywhere in Russia, including on all the souvenir merchandise. No exaggeration.

KHL Championship 2018-2019. Ak Bars (Kazan) - Spartak (Moscow)
Ex-Ak Bars Kazan defenseman Andrei Markov – (Image courtesy

The anxiety ran its course. I picked up the phone. My mom’s name displayed across the screen. Yep, that sounds about right.

From Montreal to Moscow to Visit the KHL

Apparently I hadn’t kept her or my dad updated enough online over the course of my Russian KHL odyssey. She had begun to worry. Of course. Keep in mind, I was due back home in Montreal the next day. I’m also 34 and have lived on my own for nearly a decade. Nevertheless, she couldn’t wait.

In any case, I quickly ran down a summary of the trip up to that point. I was all right. Everyone at the KHL had treated me well. I had no complaints in that regard. She eventually passed her phone to my dad. Same spiel, although I did vent some frustration over not being able to get much from out of the individual players. My dad then stopped me: “Sorry. I can’t hear you very well. There’s a lot of clicking.”

“Uh, clicking?”

Another zoom-in moment, focusing on my eyes shifting from the window to the door and then back again. I immediately cut the conversation short, ending it with a “Gotta go! God bless Mother Russia!” You know? Just in case. Although I’m inclined to believe Russia has bigger things to worry about than me. The sentiment didn’t necessarily hold true the other way around, though.

Over the course of the previous month, from the point at which the KHL extended our fine site an invitation and I was asked if I could go, as much of an honor as it was I was a nervous wreck. I spent much of it psyching myself up to travel all the way across the world. As ashamed I am to admit it, I had only been on a plane four times in my life… and two of those were return trips. Needless to say, there was a lot that could go wrong in mind, least of all actually making my flight connections and getting there.

Case in point: On my way there at Pierre Elliott Trudeau airport, going through security, after setting off the metal detector, the guard patted me down. He asked me for my wallet that I had neglected to put with the rest of my things on the conveyor belt and discovered coins in there. He gave me look usually reserved for parents directed at a child who had just put their hand on a hot stove for the first time. Apparently coins are made of metal. Who knew? I cannot stress this enough: I wasn’t even on the plane yet. The next five days were going to be fun!

Truth be told, they were. Russia was a great time.

Hockey Is a Universal Language

Upon landing in Moscow, I met one of the KHL representatives with whom I had been dealing, Daria. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention her colleague, Carmen, who had done much of the heavy lifting organizing the trip and my visa back in London. In any case, two other reporters made the trip with Daria from the United Kingdom: Paul Newman, a writer for the Daily Mail, and broadcaster Johnny Barran. Both covered and knew cricket like the backs of their hands, but they had huge passions for hockey. Paul, who fully embraces the Reggie Dunlop references, even has a great deal of experience writing about the game, both in the UK and in North America, where he had covered a playoff game between the Edmonton Oilers and Chicago Blackhawks in 1992.

Our foursome would later be completed by Gillian Kemmerer, a KHL specialist from New York whose brainchild Caviar Diplomat blog has extensively and impressively chronicled the league and its players. From a knowledge perspective, Johnny, Paul and I would generally turn to her. However both Daria and Evgeniya, who serves as director of KHL communications and joined us for the trip, would be the lifelines for all four of us.

Daria and Evgeniya were always there when we had a question, needed them to interpret for us or generally show us around, all of which they did without hesitation. If it wasn’t said enough in person and they find themselves reading this piece: Thank you. From the heart of an inexperienced traveler, who was in a foreign country that speaks a foreign language written in a foreign alphabet, I mean it: I would have been lost without you (both figuratively and literally).

And believe me there were ample opportunities to get lost. We visited Moscow and Saint Petersburg. We caught games in both: Dynamo Moscow vs. Salavat Yulaev Ufa and SKA Saint Petersburg vs. Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. And for the uninitiated it bears mentioning: The in-game experience, at least in those two arenas? Very much similar to what you would find in the NHL.

It’s just one of many KHL misconceptions I got debunked while I was in Russia. There were overzealous mascots interacting with fans, kiss camming aplenty during game stoppages, and of course cheerleaders that served only to distract and put the entire experience over the top. Ah, excess. I know you well.

The Ice Palace Saint Petersburg
The Ice Palace in Saint Petersburg – (Ryan Szporer – The Hockey Writers)

One thing that stood out to me was a battery displayed on the big screen during the game at the Ice Palace in Saint Petersburg. It prompted everyone in attendance to scream louder and power it up, something straight out of any self-respecting event’s playbook… and trust me these teams knew how put on an event. Close your eyes and just listen to the noise. This is what it’s like to be in a packed arena, no matter where you are in the world. If you ignore the Russian spoken over the loud speaker, it would be fair to say hockey is a universal language.

Shots of Vodka and Common Sense

We were of course given full access. Unfortunately, our time at the game in Saint Petersburg was cut short as we had a boat tour of the beautiful city to attend. I had half-planned to talk to SKA forward Nail Yakupov after the game, but it was probably for the best. Yakupov obviously hadn’t worked out as a No. 1 overall draft pick for the Oilers. He made the move back to Russia to build himself up again, and, at 26, he still can. However, up until then the KHL players I had talked to were more than willing to answer my questions, but North America remained a sore subject.

I obviously write for a North American audience and had to ask the unpleasant questions. I didn’t get much in terms of substance back, which I understood. For these guys, their focus is on the present and their current teams… their current league. It would be like asking an NHL player about their old team after just having been traded. Or, worse yet, if they envision playing somewhere else down the road. It’s hard to navigate that road once you start going down it.

I had failed in that regard, but that was the only disappointment during a trip packed with last-a-lifetime experiences. The sights were exquisite. The cuisine was excellent. The vodka was… I guess what you would expect. I don’t drink straight vodka, so I had little to compare the vodka to, but you know what they say? When in Russia, right? We even visited the Russian Vodka Museum in Saint Petersburg, which was intriguing to say the least. One of many tidbits I did not know: “Vodka” is derived from the Russian word for water, “voda.” There was plenty more.

On a personal level, I was grateful to have been able to sneak in a White Russian cocktail in Saint Petersburg, which was an especially meta moment captured on film for my friends and family to see when I got back. And they all said I would be laughed at if I ordered one in Russia! I mean, if the server did laugh, she did it well out of earshot. I was also grateful for that.

It was a nice way to put an exclamation point on an eventful trip that for all intents and purposes would be coming to an end the next morning. Gillian, Paul, and Johnny would be leaving. My flight back home was scheduled for the day after. So, Evgeniya took the opportunity to take me on a brief, but informative walking tour of downtown Saint Petersburg before we left by train to get back to Moscow, where I would be spending my last night… which brings us to where I began, holed up in my hotel room, as undeniably glamorous as it was, finishing up a piece on the candid discussion the four of us had had with KHL president Dmitry Chernyshenko.

KHL President Dmitry Chernyshenko
Our meeting with KHL President Dmitry Chernyshenko (Daria Tabachinskiy – The Agency Partnership)

My mandate on this trip was a professional one. I intended to meet it even as a KHL guest. That meant being courteous to my hosts, but as objective as possible. I didn’t want to just write up the KHL perspective on things and I was overjoyed by the realization that the KHL is unique and doesn’t see itself as an NHL competitor. Yes, hockey is universal, but that’s also reflected in how dedicated to the product its fans seem to be, just like North American fans are to the NHL.

I hope I properly conveyed that sentiment in my coverage, including this piece. In other words, I hope I met that professional mandate, even if by the end it became more of a personal one. I started off worrying about flight connections. As corny as it sounds, the connections I made in Russia after I actually got there were just as important. Maybe not as important as the flight connections coming back. I mean, I’m happy to be home in one piece, let’s not kid ourselves.

Nevertheless, to be clear: I’m more than glad to have went. I’d also go back under the right circumstances, that is if Russia, if you’re listening, you’ll have me.

Make sure to check out the other articles from my Russian experience:
KHL Stands Apart from NHL Under President Chernyshenko
Top 5 KHL Misconceptions and Myths