Now that I'm back from my European adventure, I want to make a few points before returning to reality:
1. That was not reality. At least when it came to seeing NHL stars – and I saw several, including Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Zdeno Chara and Jaromir Jagr – that was a temporary, alternate reality.
The only reason they were there was because of the NHL lockout. Ordinarily, you couldn't buy a ticket to see Malkin for little more than what a Big Mac meal costs at McDonald's. You couldn't stand 10 feet away as Chara ducked his head out of the dressing room door – not in a privileged club area, just the regular concourse, right in front of the fans – every time he came on or off the ice.
It was romantic, like stepping back in time – old arenas, low prices, few frills, less distance between the players and the people. When you're starved for hockey, any hockey seems great, and when rich men are fighting over money, it's refreshing to go back to basics. That's what made this so fun.
But that's also what made this so fleeting. At one game, I tweeted that you could see Chara, Jakub Voracek, Lubomir Visnovsky and other NHLers, paying only $16 for a VIP seat on the blue line and $1.75 for a beer.
"If only we all lived in Prague," I wrote.
Michael Gould, a Blues fan from St. Louis responded: "If we all lived there, it'd be $1,000 [for a VIP seat] and $9 for a beer. Enjoy it, man!"
He was right, and so I did.
2. The lockout still stinks. Look, the lockout got me to Russia and the Czech Republic, and so I was lucky. (Thank you, Yahoo! Expenses are forthcoming!) And it gives European fans a chance to see their homegrown stars on home ice, which is special.
But many, many others aren't so lucky. Make no mistake: The lockout is hurting people and the game, even in Europe.
The NHLers who come over get to stay in game shape, and a select few even make good money – Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, etc. The quality of play rises. Teams and leagues get a marketing boost.
Except each of those players bumps another player to a lower league, and each of those players bumps another player out of a job. We can debate the ethics of that. We cannot debate the effects.
"For visitors, it's perfect. For TV, it's perfect," said Marian Jelinek, the (now former) coach of the Liberec White Tigers, who said 42 players had been demoted to the second Czech league. "It's not good for Czech hockey. They are the young players."
Whenever the lockout ends, what then? The NHLers will go back to the NHL, and teams and leagues will be forced to adjust. That's why the Swedish Elite League did not want to sign NHLers to short-term contracts. That's why some individual clubs in different leagues have not signed NHLers to short-term contracts – or have been wary of signing too many.
Even Jagr, owner/player of the Kladno Knights, whose team has signed NHLers like Tomas Plekanec and Jiri Tlusty, is worried about the right balance.
"Eight players from the team all of a sudden leave, you've got no team, and you've got to finish out the season," Jagr said. "That's why we pick five, four players to kind of enjoy it, plus keep the team together."
I also wonder how the fans will react when the NHLers leave. Will they be less inclined to watch a lesser product? In some places already …
3. The attendance can be disappointing. I saw three games in Moscow – at the homes of Spartak, CSKA and Dynamo – and not one sellout. The arenas were only three-quarters full, and they were spartan and small to start – Soviet-era squares with low ceilings seating only 5,500 to 8,500.
To be fair, seeing three games in Moscow could be like seeing three games in the New York area. If you see the Rangers, Islanders and Devils, does that speak for the entire NHL? I'm told other cities always have packed houses, like Magnitogorsk and Omsk and Yaroslavl.
I didn't see marquee matchups, and Moscow has excuses: The traffic is brutal. Soccer is king. There is a lot of competition from other forms of entertainment.
"Moscow is different a little bit," said Pavel Datsyuk, the Detroit Red Wings star playing for CSKA. "Big traffic. Too many show you can see around hockey. A little bit tough. Too much option."
But this is Moscow, a city now teeming with high-end stores and luxury cars, and these are historic clubs, analogous to the NHL's Original Six. Each arena's rafters are stuffed with banners and numbers. Especially in CSKA's and Dynamo's Ice Palaces, there are artifacts from the past all over the place – too many to mention.
"What can I say?" said CSKA general manager Sergei Fedorov. "I work in a museum."
You can't tell me there aren't enough fans who can afford to come, and you can't tell me they can't take the Metro, like I did. If hockey is such a passion, why aren't more people taking advantage of this opportunity to see Malkin and Ovechkin and Datsyuk and so many others?
4. The atmosphere can be better than the NHL's. I'm not talking about the cheerleaders, not even the ones in the naughty schoolgirl outfits dancing to "Bad Boys" at Spartak or the ones in the furry Russian boots and short skirts at CSKA. (OK, maybe a little bit. Sorry, dear. Just doing my job.)
I saw two more games that weren't sold out – a KHL game in Prague and a Czech Extraliga game in Liberec. But even when games weren't sold out, the fans waved team scarves and sang and chanted to the beat of a drum, European soccer style.
And when games were sold out, look out. It was incredible. There was genuine, heartfelt passion on display, not just occasional roars and piped-in passion over the loudspeakers. At times, the singing and chanting drowned out the same kind of music you'd hear in an NHL arena. (Yes, they play "Call Me Maybe" and "Gangnam Style" endlessly in Europe, too.)
When Lev Prague hosted Slovan Bratislava, Tipsport Arena rocked. Lev is a five-year-old club trying to create a following in the five-year-old KHL, playing in the same arena as Sparta, the Czech Extraliga team with all the history and allegiance. But Slovan has a long history, and this was the Czech-Slovak rivalry, and every one of the 13,500 seats was filled.
The Slovan fans started singing and chanting before the game – outside the pubs, out on the streets. They kept singing and chanting throughout the game. They kept singing and chanting for a half-hour after the game, celebrating their 2-1 victory. Apparently they were not allowed to leave by police, to make sure the fan bases stayed separate and out of trouble, European soccer style.
"Na-na-na-na! Brat-i-slav-a! Hey-hey-hey! Slo-van!"
5. The hockey is pretty good – and improving. Even if you take the NHLers out of the equation, European hockey is better than most North Americans might think.
"I think a lot of people would be surprised," Plekanec said.
No, it isn't as fast on the larger ice surface, and it isn't as physical. But that's not all bad. Instead of dumping the puck and sending forecheckers to drill the defensemen, the Europeans keep the puck and try to make plays. I saw more backdoor goals than dirty goals. I saw a lot of skating and passing. I saw no player leave with a potential concussion in the seven games I watched, yet I still saw some hits and some scraps.
European hockey is generally less structured, which, you could argue, means it is less over-coached, less robotic. Some NHLers are taking advantage of that, like the Tlusty-Plekanec-Jagr line lighting it up in Kladno.
"Players here are not on the details," Plekanec said. "They're not paying attention, and when you really pay attention to it, you can really outplay the teams just with that."
People are catching on, though, for better or for worse. They're watching North American hockey, and they're bringing over North American coaches. Some teams have become more structured, and the number is sure to grow.
"It's just like the NHL was 15, 20 years ago," said Paul Maurice, the veteran Canadian NHL coach now leading Metallurg Magnitogorsk. "The changeover from run-and-gun to structure is happening here now.
"You're seeing more and more collapsed D-zone coverages, better defensive teams, not as much man-to-man. There are still teams that are totally man-to-man, chase you around, and then you'll see teams that collapse. This league is changing. This game is changing. You'd like to be on the front end of it."
One problem: officiating. At least in the KHL, it's inconsistent, and clutching and grabbing is still part of the game.
"To be honest with you, that's my only complaint about this league," Maurice said. "They've got that part backwards. If they took the NHL standard and applied it to this game, it would be spectacular."
6. The professionalism is pretty good – and improving. During the 2004-05 lockout, the KHL didn't exist. Now the new league has absorbed old Soviet/Russian teams and added others, and it has 26 teams in seven countries and is trying be like the NHL.
"NHL is 100 years old, and the KHL is a few years old," said Sergei Gonchar, the Ottawa Senators defenseman playing for Magnitogorsk. "It's a big, big difference. But at the same time, they're working hard to do everything to be there."
Gonchar sees a big, big difference from when he played for Magnitogorsk during the last lockout. Better games, better production, better equipment, better training, better travel – better everything. Asked if he thought the KHL was better than he expected, Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said: "Absolutely. I think everything is better."
The KHL is going out of its way to cater to the NHLers right now, hoping to improve its image. "It's a fact we do everything to accommodate everybody we sign here, on-ice and off-ice, and I hope those guys will say good things about that," Fedorov said. "I constantly ask them, they need absolutely anything, I don't care what it is, please phone me and let me know. That's my order from my owner."
Even the KHL regulars see a difference, though. "I think my first year here, it wasn't as good as it is now, and I think four years from now, it will continue to be better," said Jeff Glass, a goaltender from Calgary in his fourth KHL season. "It's growing as a league. It can't be built overnight. … It's not the NHL, and I don't think it ever will be. But it's very good hockey, and it's a very good league. It's treated a lot of players very well."
7. "The NHL is the NHL." I heard pretty much that exact quote from multiple locked-out players over the course of two weeks. In the end, as cool as it might be to play in Europe, especially if it's in your home country or city, there's no place like the NHL.
Players can threaten to stay in Europe, and a few of them could actually stay, like Alexander Radulov. They might be able to make more money at home. They can speak their own language, eat their own food. Sponsored by rich companies that receive tax breaks from the Russian government, the KHL in particular has become more of a legitimate option.
But for the vast majority of players, the NHL offers the best pay, the best arenas, the best perks – by far. It offers the best competition – by far. That isn’t going to change anytime soon, and it depends on European economics, not just European ambitions.
Why can locked-out NHLers afford to play for essentially nothing in Europe right now? Because of all the money they have already made in the NHL – and all the money still on those contracts they are insuring. Why could Jagr buy his hometown team and save it from relocation? Why has he turned that old barn into a funhouse in Kladno? Because, for the most part, he made his money and name in the NHL.
Malkin is still wearing his Pittsburgh Penguins helmet and gloves. Nikolai Kulemin is still using his Toronto Maple Leafs equipment bag. Ladislav Smid is still wearing his Edmonton Oilers pants in practice. Plekanec is still wearing his Montreal Canadiens undershirt – the CH on his collar peeking out while he plays. Jagr is still wearing an undershirt that says "PROPERTY OF FLYERS," even though he left Philadelphia as a free agent and signed with the Dallas Stars. It's past time he was issued a new one.
"On the one side, it's fun," said Plekanec, who grew up a 10-minute walk from the arena in Kladno. "On the other side, obviously we all want to be playing in the NHL, best league. … We're all upset. It's unfortunate that it's still going on. But we all hope [the NHL season] will start soon."
Here, here. Even over there.
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