Hometown Hockey Some
Star hockey players have returned to where it all began. By David Pagnotta | Photos courtesy of the KHL
produces a unique breed of athletes. Being up at 5
o'clock in the morning may have a different meaning
now (thanks for letting the cat out of the bag,
T-Pain), but when you're growing up with puck on your
mind, you're lugging your heavy gear and hitting the
rink pretty early.
It's cold, you're tired, and you exert a crapload of
energy every morning and throughout the day that
follows. This is your routine at seven and at 17. If
you're lucky enough to make the jump to major junior
hockey, you're still taking the bus and carrying your
equipment from city to city, even in your draft year.
It's the same deal in Canada, the United States,
Sweden, Russia, wherever. If you want to lace up the
skates for a living, nobody's going to be by your side
holding your hand along the way.
is a tough sport to be a part of, and for most,
the reward isn't solely making it to the show.
It's about doing it with the people who helped
you on your tremendously difficult journey: your
family and friends.
In Canada and the U.S., we have the luxury of
watching some of hockey's greatest athletes on a
daily basis. For those playing the game, they
get to do so in front of their loved ones,
albeit on occasion, but it's an added bonus of
playing in the NHL. Those arriving from
overseas, however, aren't as fortunate.
Yes, everybody dreams of playing in the NHL,
regardless of where you call home. But for some,
that dream is quickly changing thanks to the
progression of Russia's Kontinental Hockey
The KHL, which continues its expansion attempts
into European markets, is giving hockey players
on the other side of the pond something to think
about. If you're a quality hockey player, but
you're likely to remain a third- or fourth-line
winger in the NHL, the ability to earn a little
extra cash and play in front of your hometown,
your parents and your friends is becoming an
incentive toward which a lot of athletes are
giving serious consideration.
Everyone knows the best players in the world
still want to play for the Detroit Red Wings,
Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers or Los
Angeles Kings and their ilk, but SKA Saint
Petersburg, Dinamo Riga and Avangard Omsk are
slowly becoming attractive alternatives.
Each year, we find that certain Russian and
European players make the long trek back home.
Sergei Shirokov, Patrick Thoresen and Petr
Prucha are all familiar names in North America,
but instead of grinding it out here, they've
returned overseas and are lighting it up in the
KHL. And every year, a handful of Canadian and
American players have decided that a change of
scenery just might do their career justice. It's
worked so far for goaltender Chris Holt, who has
elevated his game to all-star status in Russia,
while Brandon Bochenski just led the league in
"It's a little bit different," Bochenski said.
"It's a difficult culture, but you gotta do what
you gotta do. I had no problem adjusting, and I
enjoy it now. I'm not going to retire here, but
I'll work here for a while."
Bochenski played in the
Tampa Bay Lightning system prior to heading east, where he now skates for
Barys Astana in Kazakhstan. After receiving an offer once his season ended
in 2009-10, the Blaine, Minn. native quickly made the jump. It's worked
out nicely for him so far.
think Astana is probably one of the biggest hidden gems (of the KHL)," he
said. "We have really nice modern apartments, great restaurants, good
shopping; everything you can ask for. It's kind of just hiding in
For veterans and
Stanley Cup champions like Sergei Fedorov and Sandis Ozolinsh, captains of
this year's KHL All-Star teams, returning home three years ago and playing
in front of their hometown crowds wasn't something they ever expected to
happen. But for these two stars, as much as they're still enjoying what
seemed at first like a surreal feeling, their focus remains on the game at
"The season's been very interesting," Fedorov said. "It's been a lot of
work, a lot of mind work, but we had some very decent pick-ups.
"I personally don't compare (the KHL and the NHL), but some experiences
are very similar. The NHL is a very established league. The KHL is just
starting to be more professional and more exciting. It takes time to
promote the league and to find a good way of putting schedules together."
The added benefit of playing at home gives players like Ozolinsh the
ability of give back to their hometowns on a regular basis. The
39-year-old founded Latvia's first 18-hole golf course, Ozo Golf Club, one
of the most technologically advanced courses in Northern Europe, and is
currently the national training centre for Latvian golf teams.
"Being here, playing here, is something special," he said. "It allows me
to do more, and I thought this kind of opportunity would never be
As certain Russians get older, the thought of playing their final years in
their home country is becoming more of a realistic option. As the league
expands, their desire to make inroads into more European countries will
give other hockey players something else to think about as their careers