PRAGUE – "It might surprise some people for me to say this," Erik Christensen said, standing outside the Lev Prague dressing room the other night, leaning against a concrete wall. "The hoopla of the NHL, it kind of wears off as you get a little older and you have some experience."
Christensen wasn't ripping the NHL. It is the best league in the world – with the best talent, the best arenas, the best perks – at least when it isn't mired in a lockout. Even though he left for the Kontinental Hockey League, Christensen is still the same Canadian kid from Edmonton who grew up idolizing Wayne Gretzky. He doesn't seem bitter.
It's just that the NHL isn't for everybody, and there's a larger world out there. Once you've played on the same team with Mario Lemieux, once you've skated at Madison Square Garden, it isn't about making the NHL anymore. It's about making a living. It's about doing what you really set out to do – play.
And so here is Christensen, living in Prague, making more money than he did in the NHL, playing a top-six role after being benched and scratched and demoted and traded last season in the NHL. He is among the expatriates taking a different path in a different league on a different continent.
This isn't what he envisioned, not exactly. But in professional sports, things often don't work out as planned. He has no regrets.
"When you're a kid, you dream of playing in the NHL, especially if you're from North America," Christensen said. "But I think when this becomes a job … that's sort of what matters most to a lot of guys, especially for a guy like me who struggled a lot in my career, had some ups but mostly downs."
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Europe, he said, is "definitely a viable option."
Christensen actually always thought he would love to play in Europe. He figured he would play the last two or three years overseas, just for the experience of it. He just hoped he would be in his mid-30s when it happened.
He's 28 now. He started out with the Pittsburgh Penguins, right before Lemieux retired for the last time. But then he bounced to the Atlanta Thrashers, and to the Anaheim Ducks, and to the New York Rangers, and to the Minnesota Wild, never living up to his potential. Though an excellent passer, he didn't produce enough offensively, and he wasn't physical or strong defensively. Frustrated, he decided to head for Europe early.
"I spent years kind of struggling in the NHL, trying to find a niche for myself," said Christensen, a third-round pick in 2002. "I was just trying to be kind of a regular. I think a lot of people thought with my skill level, I would be a top-six or top-nine forward. But it just kind of never panned out. …
"I've played for some tough coaches. They want you to perform consistently, and when I wasn't doing that, I was an easy guy to bench or scratch. That's just sort of the way it went."
Christensen went on a European tour with the Rangers at the start of last season. Sweden. Switzerland. Slovakia. The Czech Republic. Christensen played in Lev's home arena against Sparta, a member of the Czech Extraliga.
He looked at the larger ice surface. He looked at the skating and the speed and the flow. He looked at the loose structure and long breakaway passes.
And he starting thinking: This wasn't the stop-and-start, dump-and-chase, crash-and-bang, dirty-goal style the NHL had adopted. This was more like the Gretzky game he grew up loving.
"Don't get me wrong, the best players in the world are playing in the NHL," Christensen said. "I just kind of like the style they play here. It sort of fits the way I think and my skill set."
Last season went poorly. Christensen found himself in coach John Tortorella's doghouse. He would play a few games, then sit for several. He was even sent to the minors for a conditioning stint because he was playing so little. He was traded to the Wild.
Even before that, he'd had enough.
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"I mean, I decided I was coming over to Europe probably the middle of last year," Christensen said. "I said, 'Once my contract's up, I'm not going to try to get an NHL deal. I want to play.' "
But where? He wasn't interested in certain places, which speaks to the reputation the KHL has among North American players.
"To be quite frank, we don't hear a lot of great things about Russia," Christensen said. "You hear some horror stories about how some players are treated, even their own players, getting fired in odd ways. So that kind of scared me a bit."
So did the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash. He wanted to go somewhere comfortable, somewhere he felt safe.
Prague was perfect. The city is beyond beautiful – gothic and baroque architecture everywhere you look. Many people speak English. The team uses a well-regarded Czech airline.
Christensen signed a deal with no out-clause. He won't say how much he's making. But his salary maxed out at $925,000 in the NHL, and he will say this: "I'll make more money playing over here than I would ever in the NHL."
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He had seven goals and 12 points in 49 games last season with the Rangers and Wild, averaging 10:24 of ice time. He has eight goals and 10 points in 23 games for Lev, averaging 15:36.
It is still a big step down in many ways.
Tipsport Arena is not MSG. It has character, but it's smaller, seating only 13,150, and needs its own billion-dollar renovation to come close to an NHL building.
One night, the place might be rocking, like it was Saturday when Lev hosted Slovan Bratislava – a Czech vs. Slovak battle – and the sellout crowd traded songs and chants the whole game. Another night, it might be relatively dead, like it was Thursday when Lev hosted Sibir Novosibirsk and there were hundreds of empty seats.
Lev is in only its fifth season and still trying to establish a following, while Sparta has all the history in Prague, and it doesn't help that the team has lost 10 of its last 11, even with stars like Zdeno Chara and Jakub Voracek.
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The Czech airline might be solid, but the plane has to land, and the team doesn't always stay at five-star hotels. At one fleabag in Cherepovets, Christensen said, "you're afraid to lie down in your bed."
"We're so spoiled coming from the NHL," Christensen said. "I was pretty spoiled playing in New York, where you get the best of everything."
This is not the best. This is not the NHL.
It is the best for Christensen, though.
"It's kind of the best of both worlds," Christensen said. "I can make the good living and enjoy playing the game, because last year, for me personally, it was just a tough year. I wasn't playing.
"I want to play the game."
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- Erik Christensen