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.”

Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

“Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

“He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

“I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

“I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

“I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

“It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.