Behind the Curtain: A Peek at the KHL

I took a wild trip to Moscow to get up close with Russian hockey. I wound up meeting on!

While we wait for the boys to return from the combination All-Star break and mandatory five-day bye week to continue their #PlayoffPush / #LoseForHughes games, here’s a little excerpt from my KHL Moscow trip.

By now, most of the loyal Perspectives readers know a few things about me.

  1. I don’t like the interim Kings coach (professionally, not personally).
  2. I’m not a sportswriter (...okay let the jokes least I’m passionate about giving you 1,000 words of weekly contrarian opinion).
  3. I made my living for the last 30+ years in the marketing and advertising worlds.

So why the buildup today? I felt it was important to let you know these things before briefly jumping into my intrepid journey in Russia covering the Kontinental Hockey League for an upcoming book I’m writing about sports marketing in Europe.

When the call came in October to travel to Moscow for a few days in and around Red Square to visit the periphery of the current CSKA Moscow team, I was a little hesitant. “Why” you ask?


Back in the nineties, Romania called. Literally, the country called. The economic development minister guided me over to CSP UM Timişoara, an also-ran in the Romanian Futbol League. I was signed to a nice six-figure contract to lay out the marketing plan and roll it out to the country. Long story short, after selling out the first (and last) game due in large part to my advertising campaign, the Romanian mafia who financed the club asked me to leave “Godfather-style” and promptly bankrupted the team.

At the time, the appeal of Europe for media and marketing was growing by leaps and bounds and it definitely makes sense. If you know your stuff and you can deliver smooth ideas and polished programs, you’re all set for a cushy life. It worked out for some. For me, that was my only attempt to “make it” in Europe.

So when my book editor arranged for a flight and a visa to Moscow, who was I to say no? I mean, who could refuse such an assignment? After all, this club was the home of all of those legendary Red Army players who dominated the world scene before the collapse of the Soviet Union: Slava Fetisov, Pavel Bure, Alexei Kasatonov, the KLM Line (Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov, and Sergei Makarov), Sergei Federov, Boris Mikhailov, Vladislav Tretiak...I could go on and on. They all played there.

Over the years, the KHL has earned a reputation as a wild and crazy place replete with heat-packing team owners, paper bag cash payments for players and staff, intense eight-week training camps, and a penchant for creating scandal you might expect only from a Netflix movie. This notwithstanding, since being founded in 2008 under the tutelage of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the KHL has solidified itself as the world’s second-best hockey league.

So, after securing a commitment to gain entry into Russia and very little else, I hunkered down into research mode. My research uncovered 25 teams spread across eight countries and two continents. I discovered a league that possesses a trove of talent most North Americans have never heard of and never will see. My goal quickly began to gain some sort of access to left winger Kirill Kaprizov and goalie Ilya Sorokin. In case you missed it, Kaprizov dominated at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, notching nine points (5G, 4A) in six games played, while being the darling of KHL hockey. Sorokin was drafted by the Islanders as an 18-year-old. Through 34 games backstopping CSKA Moscow, he sports a 23-6-3 record with a 1.25 GAA and a .937 save percentage to go with eight shutouts.

I jumped on the international StubHub site to grab a pair of CSKA Moscow tickets for the December 28th game versus defending Gagarin Cup* champs Ak Bars. I quickly paid the $78 for the tickets in first seven rows, including fees, and even though Citibank put a fraud alert on my card for 48 hours because of the Russia charges, I was feeling pretty, pretty good.

* - Speaking of the Gagarin Cup, much like the Stanley Cup we all love and revere, the KHL has its own sweet story for their championship trophy. The KHL hardware is named for cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. He’s the first human to venture into space and was proclaimed as the “hero of the Soviet Union” by Nikita Khrushchev. Gagarin died in a plane crash nearly eight years after his space odyssey. He is entombed at the Kremlin.

I arrived to Moscow on Christmas Day (I know, I know; how Rocky IV of me) and after a VIP tour of the Kremlin, Red Square, and St. Basil’s Cathedral, along with a trip to Saint Petersburg, it was finally game day. Nothing could slow my enthusiasm. Not the snow or three-degree temperatures or even a snobby cab driver who lectured me about the “corrupt league where the banned doctors practice.” Misjudging the right time to get there, I was at CSKA Arena well ahead of the 7:30 match time, beating even the most of the security staff.

Just to the west of the parking booth and gate was the one open door: the media entrance. There were cameramen and suited talking heads meandering through, so I decided to put my international press card into play. It came in handy here as I flashed it liberally to get through to the hallway leading to the locker rooms. This is where my plans to interview Kirill Kaprizov and/or Ilya Sorokin hit a brick wall. No, not a real brick wall, but rather Igor.

Who was Igor? He was simply a human that was thicker and stronger than any brick wall. Each bicep had a circumference that was roughly the same as my skull. His hands looked like could they crush my head just like The Mountain did to the Viper in Game of Thrones. Nonetheless, I didn’t memorize five questions in Russian for my interview to be turned away by Igor.

At first, Igor laughed at me and scoffed at my international press card that dated my current salt and pepper style by at least ten years. Then he had me frisked by his colleague, who was easily the most terrifying man whomever guarded a hockey arena.

As soon as I tried to out-clever the duo, the conversation kicked in.

“Listen Mr. Michael,” he growled, “I don’t care how far you travel to meet our great players. No CSKA (pronounced “siska”) Moscow media card. No blonde hair. No cute smile. No enter my arena. Only Cowboy Reagan has chance to get here.”

To which I replied, “Reagan has been dead for years. Are you saying a dead man has a better chance than me to get in?”

That produced three giant belly laughs that lasted well over a minute. I earned some goodwill and bought myself some time but alas, no locker room entry and interviews were forthcoming. Seems that Igor was (purportedly) former KGB and didn’t catch on with the FSB (which succeeded the KGB). He knocked around the nightclub circuit and even called in some favors to work security detail for some high-ranking dancers at the Bolshoi before landing on the hockey scene. Now he calls the KHL home and takes his work more seriously than anything he ever did at the KGB.

What I did win was a new friend in Igor and some ridiculous stories of the early KHL and Russia Superleague days.

During the 2004-05 NHL lockout, Ak Bars put together a squad that included 11 NHL players; among them were Ilya Kovalchuk, Dany Heatley, Alexei Kovalev, Vincent Lecavalier, and Brad Richards. “Here we try win championship for mighty Kazan’s 1000th anniversary,” Igor recalls. “We have giant payroll. But you know what they don’t have? There were no towels, locker room attendants, or drinks after games. Maybe that’s why lost in the first round of the playoffs.”

I learned about the practice of bazas. It’s a cultural thing where teams bunker down in desolate, rural buildings before important games and playoff series. Igor explained: “One club I was with put us in middle of nowhere. Mr. Michael, this is not a figure of speech. This baza is not on fancy Google Maps. As matter of fact, no map was ever created for this. It was an old, crumbling factory that have dormitories for workers. It was 35 kilometers from anything. Anything. Except forest. Forest was for training and there was tree for all of us. The coaching staff make everyone climb a tree before breakfast was served. Even staff.”

I dared to ask him why he’s been with so many clubs (this is his seventh in 15 years). “Many teams are very late in paying people,” Igor reports. “They would go months without paying us and then they would pay in plain box in cash. Of course there would be ‘taxes’ already taken from the cash. For players, this is fine because they don’t live payday to payday. But us ex-KGB guys need regular payments. You wonder if you ever get paid.”

As 7:30 approached, Igor reminded me that I wasn’t getting in. We had a good time trading NHL and KHL stories. We exchanged contact information and Twitter handles. He helped me bypass the giant staircase leading to the security entrances. I was safe after all having been patted down better than any TSA in the world. It was time to see what the KHL game was actually like.

I wound up sitting next to Anatoly who, as a former official at the United Nations, was a season ticket holder of the New York Rangers. He was there in 1994 when the Rangers won their first Stanley Cup in 50 years and he was in Kazan in 2017 when Ak Bars won the Gagarin Cup. I was told that the principal dissimilarity between the NHL and KHL is the pressure of the season. At only 60 games, there are few nights, if any, where you can take the night off. Teams don’t have the luxury to give away wins (worth three points when earned in regulation). Ownership fires coaches left and right. “Everyone is George Steinbrenner here,” Anatoly brags.

The style of play grabs you from the start. The surface is Olympic-sized so the players can move around and you can feel the skill. There’s very little dump and chase. You can see the roots of Russian hockey on display at all times. The spirit of the legendary Anatoli Tarasov, “the father of Russian ice hockey”, lives. He taught his players what he learned observing the Bolshoi Ballet, transferred it to hockey, and gave rise to creativity so the improvisational could flourish.

Tonight, CSKA Moscow hardly let AK Bars touch the puck for two periods, outshooting them 30-8 and tripling their attack time. If they couldn’t carry the puck into the zone, they would regroup three, four, five times before entering the zone. Each pass was crisp, hitting the tape without error. It’s all about puck possession.

And the fan experience?

“It’s wildly entertaining,” says Anatoly. The fans are fun to watch. Cheerleaders are fun to watch. The kids bring signs and hold them up through the game, all game. There’s booster clubs left and right with special cheers. People aren’t sitting on their hands, they’re really into it. Also CSKA has not one, but two mascots—a horse and a star.”

As the horn sounded to end the final period, CSKA Moscow cruised to a 4-2 win. Maybe I witnessed the future 2019 Gagarin Cup champion here tonight. And my would-be interview? I guess I was scooped: