MOSCOW – Shaone Morrisonn is not Russian. He does not speak Russian. He is Canadian, and he is playing for Spartak Moscow only because he is an NHL refugee hoping the long road leads back home.
So when he walked out of the rink about three weeks ago after a 4-1 victory over Dinamo Minsk, he had no idea what the opposing fans were shouting or what they were shouting about. All he knew is they seemed angry – and guards were coming out with machine guns.
"Just to, like, basically keep the peace," Morrisonn said. "It was pretty wild."
It wasn't until the next morning, when Morrisonn returned to the rink, that he found out what happened. The Minsk fans were making a scene simply because they were so livid about the loss. They were calling for the general manager's head.
Maybe a few months ago, an incident like that would have confirmed Morrisonn's worst fears about playing here. More than anything, he was worried about his safety. But now that he has spent some time as a stranger in a strange land, he isn’t scared at all.
He takes the Metro to the rink because Moscow traffic is a nightmare, cramming in with the old ladies and their babushkas and the yuppies and their iPhones. He takes the Metro home from the rink, too, even after games, and walks home alone in the dark.
"It's fine. It's safe," Morrisonn said. "You hear the horror stories, but so far, it's been a great experience for me."
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There are North Americans like Morrisonn on teams all over the Kontinental Hockey League, which allows six imports per roster and five per lineup. They are not locked-out NHL stars working second jobs until this all blows over. To be locked out, you have to have an NHL contract, and they don't. They are trying to earn one, or they are playing the best place they can, or they are trying something new, or some combination.
What they find is often not what they expected, both athletically and culturally. They don't know what they are getting into until they get into it. It's not necessarily good, not necessarily bad. It's different – ketchup on pasta, because Russians don't like tomato sauce; salmon caviar for a pregame meal, because that's what they do like; drumming and chanting and singing in the stands, all game, no matter the score; military men lining an empty section dividing the fans when Spartak plays rival CSKA Moscow, taking no chances.
"What else is different?" mused Morrisonn, who used the word "different" 16 times in a 12-minute interview. "Definitely just everything."
Morrisonn, a first-round pick in 2001, is an eight-year NHL veteran. He has played 480 NHL games on defense for the Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals and Buffalo Sabres. But he was waived last season, in the last year of his contract, and the Sabres buried his $2 million salary in the minors to keep it off the salary cap.
A 30-year-old free agent – not young, not yet old – he needed a fresh start. He said he saw the lockout coming and wanted to snag a spot, and he also wanted to "just get away from North America, try the game over here." He signed a one-year deal with Spartak with no out clause. He receives his salary in rubles.
Yes, they are deposited in a Russian bank account.
"It's all legit," he said with a laugh. "You hear those stories about back in the day and the cash and all that stuff. It's not like that anymore. No brown paper bags."
Training camp opened July 8 in Slovenia. That is not a typo. July 8. This was his first day: After flying 15 hours from Vancouver, he went on a 10-kilometer run, napped at the hotel, played an hour of soccer, did sprints on the field and lifted weights.
Spartak did two-a-days in Slovenia for a month – morning practice, morning workout, nap break, second practice, second workout. Then Spartak did two-a-days in Moscow for another month, mixing in exhibition games.
This is not quite the old Soviet days, but this certainly isn't the life of an NHLer, whose work time is limited by the collective bargaining agreement.
"Yeah, there was no three-hour rule," Morrisonn said, laughing.
The coach doesn't speak English. Many of the players don't speak English. The ice is larger, and the style is less physical, and the structure is less rigid. Morrisonn has had to figure things out on the fly, leaning on the English-speaking goalie coach to translate instructions, trying new ways to communicate on the ice, learning another way to play.
He has gained a new understanding for what European players – Russians, in particular – go through when they come to North America and are expected to speak the language, excel on the smaller ice, finish their checks, dump and chase, all right away and all under scrutiny. He also has gained an appreciation for their hockey ability and how they have honed it.
"You feel what they feel, and you understand the difference and the mentality," Morrisonn said. "It's a different culture, different people, and it's a different game. It's a total different game.
"It took some time to get adjusted to, but you can appreciate all these guys are highly skilled, and you can see why they come over and they're just great players with great vision."
"It probably helps that they're on the ice all day, too."
Well, not all day.
Eventually, Morrisonn goes back to his expensive apartment in central Moscow, only one Metro stop from Red Square, and processes everything. He hopes this will help him return to the NHL eventually. But for now, he is in the KHL, and he has settled in, no longer a stranger, the land not so strange anymore.
"I feel at home here," he said.