Headline Hockey

Rookie Duties – On Location In Moscow, Russia

Sitting here at the dacha (what us Americans would call a summer house) of one of my advisees and close friend, Sem Golikov, it’s amazing looking back on the past seven days. It’s been an exhausting trip so far with flight delays, connection changes, brutal jet lag, major cultural differences (although at least I knew what to expect there) and the obvious language barrier. Overall, though, I think my two-week journey halfway across the globe has gotten off to a great start.

My trip started out hectic as usual when my initial flight from JFK to London was delayed almost four hours. My connection at Heathrow was scheduled to depart only two hours after my original arrival time of 6:00am local time in London, so before I even left the States, I had to do some scrambling. Fortunately, British Airways had another flight to Moscow scheduled to depart at 1:00pm local time. It meant I’d have to sit around Heathrow for a few more hours than I would have liked, but at least there was something leaving that same day. It also meant, though, that I’d have to get in touch with Kuchin and my other Russian friends who planned on meeting me at the Domodedovo airport in Moscow, and let them know I would be arriving at 8:00pm local Moscow time instead of 4:00pm. My iPhone is global-capable, so I sent the boys a text and was able to get Sem on the phone and let him know.

After one more flight delay in London of about an hour, I finally arrived in Moscow at about 9:00pm local time Tuesday night. Overall, I think I was able to sleep maybe three hours during the course of my 24-hour excursion – sleeping on planes is not my specialty and I’ve heard it’s generally frowned upon when you’re behind the wheel as I was all day Sunday. I was completely wiped by the time I cleared customs, but luckily I caught my second (or maybe it was my third) wind when I saw that Kuchin was there waiting for me.

When I arrived at Kuchin’s place, I wasn’t surprised to see that his family had prepared a huge welcome feast. They had chicken, pork, potatoes, salad, vegetables, bread, wraps, caviar, beer, wine, whiskey, and of course vodka. We stayed up until almost 3:00am drinking and talking. To be honest, I impressed myself with my ability to keep up with the Russian conversation. I don’t have too much trouble actually speaking Russian, but since I don’t get any real exposure to the language in the U.S., it’s usually pretty difficult for me to keep up when someone tries to speak to me. By the time I figure out what one sentence means, I’m usually a paragraph behind. And unfortunately, when I ask them to speak more slowly, most Russians only talk louder.

Wednesday morning was a nice day of recovery and relaxation. Kuchin and I went to a local beach with some of his friends, where we swam and played volleyball all day. By this time I could really feel the effects of jet lag. If I’d gained any confidence in my Russian language skills Tuesday night, it was gone within 24 hours. I just felt so tired mentally, that forming sentences seemed to be quite the task. I explained to a few people that it felt as though my brain was broken from all the travel and the nine-hour time difference.

That night Kuch, his girlfriend Lena, their friends Artem and Masha, and I decided to head down to Red Square to walk around for a bit. In case you didn’t catch some of the pictures I posted on Facebook, it was pretty amazing. I’d been to Red Square before a couple times, but I don’t recall ever seeing it lit up at night. The next day was going to be a long one, as Kuchin was beginning to skate with his Russian club, Chekhov Vityaz, and I had a meeting scheduled with Zhamnov after the team’s practice.  When we arrived home, it was a quick shower and time to go to sleep.

Thursday morning, Kuchin received a phone call from his coach letting him know that he’d be skating in Podolsk that day. Podolsk is where Vityaz’ MHL team (the second team) plays, and a few of the guys (mainly the talented younger players like Kuchin) bounce back and forth between there and the Chekhov (KHL) camp.

So we drove out to Podolsk for the day, where I’d get to see Kuchin play for the first time in Russia. It definitely was a fun experience – Kuchin was once again the best player on the ice, and he played much more physical than most of the other guys – you could certainly tell the difference after spending only a year competing in North America.

After his on-ice session, we hopped in Kuchin’s friend Artem’s car and headed over to the Chekhov facility to meet with Zhamnov. Kuch and I went up to Zhamnov’s office and chatted for a bit about the morning skate and his plans for the rest of his time in Moscow. We had to wait for the Vityaz Hockey Director to get out of a meeting, so Kuchin gave me a quick tour of the Chekhov rink, and I have to say, it was pretty impressive. The first time I came to Moscow it was also in the summer, but none of the teams were skating at the time, so this was my first chance to see the inside of any of the KHL rinks. By no means was it NHL-quality, but still it was very cool to see first-hand.

After about an hour of waiting, the Director came down to speak with us and Zhamnov. When Kuchin told him that I was his agent, the Director immediately asked “he’s not Russian?!?” I couldn’t help but laugh. As I think I may have said before, there really aren’t any American agents that work directly with Russian players, so while it might seem odd to a Russian front office official, that’s what helps me stand out from much of my competition.

The Director explained that for us to get his transfer card, we would need Sudbury to send over a letter to the Federation of Hockey in Russia (FHR). From there, the Federation would call Zhamnov to confirm the release for the season, and the Federation would certify the release to the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). I quickly sent an email to Sudbury explaining the situation, and by the end of the day I had forwarded the letter from Sudbury to the FHR.

That afternoon, Kuchin would be moving into the Vityaz dormitory near the Chekhov rink, so Artem, Kuchin, and I drove over and Kuch gave us a tour of the place. The building itself was certainly nothing to write home about, but the equipment room and cafeteria were pretty cool with Vityaz logos and pictures all over the place. Kuchin would be staying up at Chekhov for the next few days. We said goodbye and Artem and I headed back to Lubertsy – the suburb of Moscow where Kuchin and Artem live.

When we arrived at Kuchin’s place, Artem and I had a quick lunch with Kuchin’s father, and then I had a few hours to relax before Golikov would be picking me up to stay with his family for a few days.

The Golikov’s are currently re-modeling their home (all Russians live in apartments in huge soviet-era buildings). This summer they are living in their dacha that is located just a few miles outside of Moscow. For an American, it can be nice to stay at the dacha because it’s actually the size of a small American house. But since you’re out in more of a rural area, some of those things we Americans consider necessities are difficult to come by. One prime example – there’s no internet connection like Russians would have in their home. Also, while many dachas have running water (Golikov’s does), it’s not always a sure thing – just yesterday morning the water wasn’t working.

Once again I was greeted with a huge meal that was out and ready upon my arrival. I had stayed with the Golikov’s the last time I came to Moscow; I know the whole family very well. We sat for a few hours over some drinks – catching up and discussing Sem’s plans for his hockey career. Sem just recently switched clubs from the Soviet Wings to Moscow Spartak, and although he’s committed to play in Russia this season, he’s very interested in playing in North America next year. After dinner we finished off the night with a traditional Russia banya (sauna) and it was off to bed.

Saturday morning I went with Sem to make pit-stop number three on my tour of Russian ice rinks, where Spartak had an inter-squad scrimmage scheduled for 10:30am. I hadn’t seen Sem skate in maybe four years, but I was very impressed with what I saw from him. I knew he was one of the better players in the league, leading all forwards on his team with a +27 rating, being near the top of the scoring leader board, and winning Player of the Month twice (November and March), but I don’t think I expected him to dominate the way that he did. I noticed a couple other players that showed some serious potential, and one of them asked to speak with me after the skate. He told me that he’d like an opportunity to play in North America next season, and I told him what I always tell players – I always want to help and I’ll do everything I can to make sure we get him somewhere he’ll be happy and continue to develop his game properly.

That night Sem wanted to show me a little bit of the night life in Moscow. After dinner we stood up from the table to go get ready. Before we could reach the door (we eat all our meals out on the porch), some neighbors of the Golikovs came by. They were having a birthday party for their three-year-old granddaughter and had heard there was an American in town. Naturally they insisted on us coming over for a bit to visit. When Sem and I walked into their backyard, the grandfather immediately pulled out a chair at the head of the table and insisted I sit down. Within seconds I had a plate full of lamb, fish, potatoes, and vegetables. I explained that I had just eaten a large meal with Sem, but the Russian phrase for “I’m full” seems to get ignored. Fifteen minutes after sitting down, I’d shoved half my plate of food down and was already four shots of vodka deep – I’m telling you, the vodka stereotype is one that I can definitely confirm. So time to go right? Wrong – now I needed to have some of the home-made birthday cake.  I will tell you that it was fantastic, but at that point I was ready to explode. Sem’s family joked that I needed to warn Lindsey that I’d be coming back home a little heavier than I was when I left. Although to be honest, I seem to have trouble putting on weight even with all this food and alcohol and with my only exercise being 20-minute swims in the local swimming hole.

Out we went for a long, long night on the town. Sem and I met up with a few of his hockey buddies at a club called “Fresh” and I ended up having a fairly long conversation with a ’90 DOB goaltender who is interested in playing somewhere in North America next season. One of the best recruiting tools for any agent is having happy clients – especially ones you can consider close friends. Sem knows that I’m a good guy who works very hard and gets things done. While I had a few meetings set up with specific people before I even left for Moscow, I also knew that most of the connections I’d be making would probably be unexpected and random. So far I have spoken with three new players about representing them, and since they’re all more worried about next season, it gives me plenty of time to start getting things in place as far as their marketing to the North American teams.

Sunday afternoon, after a nice long nap, Sem and I headed back downtown as his father’s friend had a couple of extra tickets for the much anticipated CSKA vs. Spartak soccer game – a matchup that takes place only twice every year. The cool thing about the sports clubs in Russia is that there are so many teams located within close proximity to downtown Moscow, causing extreme animosity between the fans of each team. Also adding to the rivalries is the connection that most clubs have to a certain facet of Russian society. For example, CSKA is more commonly referred to in America as the Red Army. Dynamo and MVD, which recently merged into a single KHL team, are owned and run by the Russian police force and the special police force, respectively. Spartak, on the other hand, is considered to be the team of the people. Not only are you cheering for a specific group of players or logo, in Russia you’re also often rooting for a branch of Russian life.

I had never been to a professional soccer game, much less a European one, but I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. Riding on the Moscow metro, fans of Spartak screamed chants at CSKA fans and Red Army cheers were thrown right back. Before we even left the square in front of the Sports Complex Metro Station we witnessed a fight between fans that was quickly broken up by the MVD. To be honest, I don’t know if I’ve ever been more scared for my life. The fights didn’t bother me, but in Moscow, where Chechen rebels often strike with bomb attacks when they know large crowds are present, the Metro Station and Stadium seemed like obvious targets. I didn’t want to look concerned so I internalized any anxiety I had, but trust me – it was there.

The game itself wasn’t anything too exciting, but the people-watching was amazing – flares going off, chants back and forth, and fans displaying banners so large I couldn’t believe it. One thing I should definitely point out though is how hot it’s been in Moscow since I arrived. Every day the temperature has reached around 100 degrees Fahrenheit and although it’s still not comfortable, I’ve at least accepted the fact that I’m going to be drenched in sweat most of this trip. Fortunately, with air conditioning being a rarity in homes, it’s a look that’s become socially acceptable. And at the soccer game this was certainly on display. The stadium seats were crammed in so tight that you literally were shoulder-to-shoulder and leg-to-leg with the people on each side of you. Not exactly an environment I’d like to revisit anytime in the future, but it’s something I’m glad I got to experience.

My itinerary for the rest of my time in Moscow includes a couple of Spartak MHL games, a Vityaz/Spartak KHL pre-season match, a meeting with hockey journalist and friend, Alessandro Rosso, and who knows what else. I just got word from Kuchin that he got us tickets for something, but for what and when, I have no clue – this was one instance where we couldn’t bridge the “lost in translation” gap.

Anyway, I’m once again not too sure when I’m going to be able to get my next entry posted. I’m set to return to the states next Wednesday afternoon and I should be getting back to Chicago next Thursday evening. Since I’m sure I’m going to once again battle some awful jetlag, and because I’m sure I’ll again have a lot to write about, I’d expect something to be up on Monday the 17th. I’ll continue to update both the “Rookie Duties” and my personal Facebook page with pictures and videos whenever I can, but unfortunately the only place I’ve found internet lately is at McDonalds. Congrats to all of you who recently finished sitting for your state’s respective Bar Exam and I also want to congratulate Lindsey on starting her new job this Monday after her start date was delayed two weeks. I hope you all have a great week ahead and until next time…it’s time to hit the showers.