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Magazine > Athlete
As seen in the March/April 2012 issue.

Hometown Hockey
Some Star hockey players have returned to where it all began.
By David Pagnotta | Photos courtesy of the KHL

Hockey 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.

This 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 League.

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 goals.

"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.

"I 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 Kazakhstan."

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 hand.

"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 available."

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 wind down.

For more stories from the Mar/Apr 2012 issue of The Fourth Period Magazine, pick up a copy or subscribe today.


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