KHL

North Americans in KHL: ‘I can’t believe that just happened’

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Ben Scrivens keeps trying to figure out what he is doing wrong.

And it has nothing to do with playing hockey.

Every once in a while in the Kontinental Hockey League, the former NHL goaltender offends someone and has to figure out what Russian superstition or custom he broke. There are plenty.

”You’re supposed to bring cake to the rink on your birthdays,” said Scrivens, a Canadian. ”If you step on someone’s shoe, you’re supposed to put your foot out and they step back. It’s like a tit for tat type of thing. They’re super superstitious and so they have a lot: you can’t whistle in doors, you can’t shake hands through a doorway. And obviously you would never just guess these things, so you have to make the mistake.”

Dozens of North American players returned to the KHL last week after playing in the Olympics, where they learned different cultural lessons in South Korea. For foreigners unaccustomed to Russia and other places in the KHL, life on and off the ice can be a bit of a shock that never quite goes away.

”Pretty much every day there’s something that I shake my head and I can’t believe what’s going on,” said American forward Ryan Stoa, who is in his fourth KHL season after stints with the Colorado Avalanche and Washington Capitals. ”There’s pretty much something every day that I can’t believe that just happened.”

That’s the KHL, where former NHL defenseman James Wisniewski said, ”The normal’s abnormal and the abnormal’s normal.”

That explains a lot, like when a sheep was sacrificed on the ice earlier this season before a Barys Astana practice in Kazakhstan, which made a few North American players vomit at the sight of it.

”That’s probably one of the weirdest things I’ve ever heard of, honestly, in hockey,” Canadian forward Gilbert Brule said. ”I couldn’t believe when I heard that.”

Sheep sacrifice is up there in the pantheon of the unbelievable in the KHL, though there are countless stories about everyday life in what’s considered the second-best hockey league in the world. Wisniewski said saw players giving themselves their own IVs and Wojtek Wolski keeps notes in his phone of the strange stuff he has seen so he doesn’t forget to share stories with friends back home.

”You’ve got to be ready for anything,” Wolski said. ”I always say anything is possible and everything seems impossible at the same time and in the same day, in the same hour.”

Life in the KHL also means some more serious issues. Some players have not gotten paid because teams can’t make payroll. Old planes being used for travel came to light again when 44 people were killed in 2011 in the tragic Lokomotiv Yaroslavl crash.

Scrivens said he can live with 99 percent of the cultural, personal and professional things that bother North American players and tries to ignore the rest.

Former New York Rangers defenseman Matt Gilroy’s first day in the KHL was also his birthday, and his new teammates all wondered where the cake was. He and Stoa have gotten used to the Russian custom of shaking hands with everyone each day if you didn’t sleep under the same roof the night before – from players to the bus and Zamboni drivers to rink attendants.

So much for keeping germs in check.

”I think guys get sick quite a bit because of it,” Scrivens said. At the Olympics, which saw an outbreak of norovirus, officials recommended players fist-bump instead of shaking hands.

Asked if he’d been stiffed on pay, Scrivens hedged by saying: ”I don’t have any stories that haven’t already been publicized. I don’t have any worse stories than what’s already out there.” Some players were not willing to share stories because they either still have KHL contracts or could return to the league in the next few years, but Chris Bourque said, ”Every story you hear is true.”

That includes the strenuous two-month training camps.

”Training camp is one of the hardest things there that I’ve probably ever been through in my life,” Brule said. ”You’re basically going for almost two months straight, two-a-days, three-a-days. You’re on the ice twice, you’re working out all day, you get a break for lunch and you’re back at it all afternoon.”

For all the horror stories and head-scratching, Stoa pointed out that some guys have positive experiences in the KHL. Playing for Helsinki-based Jokerit or high-powered and wealthy SKA St. Petersburg or CSKA Moscow is a much different experience than living in Togliatti, Magnitogorsk or Chelyabinsk.

Gilroy said the language barrier is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome, though teams have interpreters to help. Some practices are run in Russian, but for all the craziness that goes on around them, North American players have one place they feel just fine.

”When you’re on the ice, it’s kind of all the same game all over the world,” Gilroy said. ”You feel the most comfortable when you’re on the ice. Off the ice, you’re kind of a fish out of water, but when you’re playing the games it was the most comfortable you could be.”

Ilya Kovalchuk reiterates desire to return to NHL next season

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Ilya Kovalchuk made a bit of news after he won the Olympic gold medal with the Olympic Athletes from Russia. The 34-year-old winger confirmed that he wants to return to the NHL next season.

He last played for the New Jersey Devils during the 2012-13 season, but he’s been with SKA St. Petersburg for the last five seasons.

Kovalchuk, who put up five goals and two assists in six games during the Olympics, has put up some relatively impressive numbers over in Russia, so there should be no shortage of interest from teams in North America. But according to Sports Express’ Slava Malamud, he’ll prioritize winning a Stanley Cup ahead of money.

Malamud added that teams from the New York area, the state of Florida and the city of Los Angeles will be the favorites to land him. Would the Devils take him back? How close are the Rangers and Islanders to winning the Stanley Cup? Maybe playing with Aleksander Barkov and Evgenii Dadonov is interesting for him, but teaming up with Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy and the rest of the Lightning might be too much to pass up. The Kings would also be in the mix.

Kovalchuk’s rights belong to SKA St. Petersburg until the end of this season. Once his contract runs out in the KHL, he’d remain property of the New Jersey Devils until July 1st, but he’d hit the market with all the other free agents on that day, per The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun.

MORE: Pro Hockey Talk 2018 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

KHL player Damir Ryspayev has lifetime ban lifted

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A 2016 KHL preseason game that ended after three minutes due to a brawl resulted in one player receiving a lifetime ban. On Wednesday, that ban was lifted.

Barys’ Damir Ryspayev sucker-punched Tomas Marcinko of Kunlun, concussing the forward, during a wild August 2016 brawl against Kunlun Red Star. That wasn’t enough for Ryspayev, who then proceeded to go after other Kunlun players before challenging their bench to fight.

Kunlun would end up abandoning the game and Ryspayev was eventually suspended after he “systematically and grotesquely violated” the league’s rules, according to Gennady Timchenko, representative of the KHL’s Council of Directors. “We are constantly working to attract a new audience and broaden the game’s geographical reach and Ryspaev’s behavior is not merely harmful in a sporting context, it also blackens the image of the league,” said KHL president Dmitry Chernyshenko at the time.

As he was away from the KHL, Ryspayev played in Kazakhstan and the Russian VHL, awaiting a decision on his latest appeal. He also received an invite from an MMA promoter tried to to participate on a fight card last spring but ultimately wasn’t interested.

Sixteen months later, Ryspayev is free to play again after a players’ union submission convinced the KHL Disciplinary Committee to lift the suspension. He will do so back with Barys, who signed the 22-year-old to a one-year, two-way contract.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Mike Keenan out as coach/GM of KHL’s Kunlun Red Star

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Days after losing his role as general manager, Mike Keenan has now been relieved of his coaching responsibilities by Kunlun Red Star of the KHL. Following nine straight defeats, which places them near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 68-year-old will remain as an executive member on the team’s International Advisory Board.

Former NHLer Bobby Carpenter will take reins behind the bench on an interim basis with fellow ex-players Cliff Ronning and Igor Kravchuk staying on as assistants.

“Mike Keenan has done a great job for several months,” said Kunlun president Raitis Pilsetnieks via SovSport (translated). “He formed a completely new KHL team, and also took an active part in building the entire club structure, which is part of a large-scale project for the development of Chinese hockey in the run-up to the Winter Olympics in 2022.

“Since March, he worked almost without days off, and we were often amazed at his amazing endurance and efficiency. But, unfortunately, everything has a limit, and the work, coupled with a huge number of flights, is beyond his strength. Therefore, it was decided to return to the original form of cooperation. I have no doubt that as a member of the International Coordination Council Mike Keenan will bring a lot of benefits to the club and the Chinese hockey in general.”

Kunlun responded well to the news by snapping their nine-game losing streak with a 4-3 overtime win against Amur on Sunday.

Keenan, who was the first coach to win championships in the KHL and NHL, joined Kunlun in March 17 months after he was canned by Metallurg Magnitogorsk, with whom he led to a Gagarin Cup title in 2014.

So will we hear Keenan’s pop up whenever the first NHL head coach gets fired this season? He’s been out of the NHL game since 2009, but that never stopped general managers from bringing in a retread. Hey, how about a Philadelphia reunion? OK, that’s probably a pipe dream. But given Keenan’s recent coaching history, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him resurface behind a bench elsewhere in Europe.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

KHL plans to celebrate 10th anniversary with space adventure

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The Kontinental Hockey League’s 10th anniversary celebration is going to be literally out of this world.

The league’s trophy, the Gagarin Cup, is named after Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space. So it makes sense that in the KHL’s 10th year they’ll celebrate by having a mini replica of the trophy and a puck blasted into space on Dec. 17 on the Soyuz MS-07 to the International Space Station.

After orbiting Earth for 72 days under the guidance of cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin, they will return and the puck will be dropped before the first game of the 2018 Gagarin Cup Final.

“I am overjoyed to be handed this unusual and honorable mission – to deliver a puck and a replica of the Gagarin Cup to the International Space Station,” said Anton Shpaklerov, Commander of the crew of Expedition 54 and 55 to the ISS. “This is my third flight, but it will the first time I have embarked on a mission with such an unusual cargo. After today’s events, my interest in the game and in the KHL Championship will certainly grow. For me, and for all our crew who are already in orbit, it is a pleasure and an honor to be granted this role of Ambassadors in Space for the game of hockey and for the KHL.”

The NHL will be wrapping up its centennial celebrations next month so there’s still time for them to one-up their rivals. Here are some ideas:

• Leave the nightmare fuel-inducing flood-damaged head of Harvey the Hound on the ISS for prank opportunities.

• Grab some extra space rock to create the next line of hockey sticks.

• Next player who commits a Raffi Torres-level suspension gets left there like Matt Damon in “The Martian.”

• Attach one of Don Cherry’s suits to the end of a Zdeno Chara stick and plant it on the moon.

• Blast every New York Islanders fishsticks, Dallas Stars mooterus and Anaheim Ducks wild wing jerseys into outer space.

• Or just hold an outdoor game on the moon, which would involve the Chicago Blackhawks, naturally.

So, there are options.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.