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Hockey lockout? Nyet! - ajc.com
AJC staff writer John Manasso is in Russia to track the Thrashers' Ilya Kovalchuk and other NHL players who have gone overseas to play during the NHL lockout.
Great players, great game, great trip
I leave Moscow in a few hours and, I have to say, it's been a great trip. Last night in an excellent game I saw Voskresensk defeat Kazan 3-2.
Voskresensk is an industrial city about 70 miles from Moscow, which is about a two-hour drive considering all of the traffic that endlessly chokes transportation in Moscow. The team is named for a local chemical plant, Kimik, and the town is kind of like one of those tiny western Pennsylvania mill towns that used to produce so many famous NFL football players.
The people there love their hockey. The inside of the newly renovated Podmoskovye (suburban Moscow) Ice Palace is a shrine to local hockey. Trophy cases show pictures of the city's all-time greats, some of the greatest players in the history of Russian hockey: Igor Larionov, Alexander Ragulin (who played against Canada in the '72 Summit Series), Slava Kozlov, Valeri Zelepukin, Valeri Kamensky, Andre Lomakin. There's a picture there of Kozlov shaking hands with Bill Clinton at the White House after the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup.
The team has a very modest payroll and only two foreigners on its team, including Latvian goalie Peter Skudra (formerly of Pittsburgh and Boston). Kimik trailed 2-0 entering the third period after goals by Ruslan Salei and Brad Richards, who assisted on Salei's goal. A first-period goal by Vincent Lecavalier was disallowed after a lengthy review after Lecavalier and Ilya Kovalchuk raced down the ice on a 2-on-1.
But Voskresensk rallied when Andre Dylevsky beat Nikolai Khabibulin with a slapshot from behind the red line, almost 100 feet away. That got the crowd into it, chanting "VOS-KRE-SENSK!"
Andre Potaychuk tied the game after converting a rebound on a shot by Sergei Brylin (New Jersey) two and a half minutes later. Then the crowd went into a frenzy when the aging Kamensky, who won the Stanley Cup with Colorado, tipped in a rebound over Khabibulin's pad with 1:15 left in regulation. Slava Kozlov took two stabs at the rebound first before Kamensky knocked it in.
Kozlov was excited after the game, as Voskresensk moved into seventh place with the win and that puts the team into playoff position. He said he misses his family back in Atlanta (although his parents and sister live in Voskresensk) and will play on Dec. 13 in an All-Star game honoring Larionov's retirement at age 42 after playing his final season with the New Jersey Devils last season.
It's been a great trip. I'll enjoy writing these stories -- and being
home, where minus-3 Celsius is a cold day and not a reason to celebrate,
as was yesterday in Moscow.
I did my best imitation last night of Bill Murray in "Lost in Translation" for the second night in a row. (Not the Scarlett Johansson part; the insomnia part.) Turkish channels, Italian channels, German channels, Russian channels and, oh, yes, BBC World -- none of them could help.
At least I'm back safely from my flight on Siberian Airlines and arrived in Moscow where it's supposed to be 10 degrees warmer, but snowing. I learned that Butch Davis and Tyrone Willingham are out of jobs and that the Hawks lost again after a relative sports blackout. Relative, that is, because if I saw one more Bundesliga score on TV in Kazan, I was going to give up on sports forever. Well, not really.
Unfortunately, there are no Super League games tonight in Moscow, so I'll have to wait until traveling the 80 kilometers tomorrow to the industrial city of Voskresensk, the hometown of Thrashers left wing Slava Kozlov, who is now playing for the team.
After Tuesday's game in Kazan, there was some optimism among the players about a possible end to the lockout. Defenseman Darius Kasparaitis spoke of a "scoop" without being any more specific. Another possible source of optimism was a read-between-the-lines comment by NHL chief legal officer Bill Daly, which, to paraphrase, said that any new union proposal would be a welcome step. Could the owners be moving off their demand for a salary cap? Who knows, but the players are expected to make a proposal soon, as has been hinted at in several published reports, and that might be the source of some negotiations. It has been almost three months since the sides last talked.
Here's another little surprising note from the Super League: Guess who the leading scorers in the league are? Perhaps not the big names you might expect: Pavel Rosa, a Los Angeles Kings prospect, Alexander Frolov, a young Kings player, and Alexei Morozov, a restricted free agent who belongs to the Pittsburgh Penguins but is committed to an entire season in Russia.
I'll see if I can provide an update tomorrow about the Voskresensk-Kazan
If last night is any indication of what the Russian Super League is usually like, then fans here get to watch quite a good product. One local writer called Tuesday's game between Dynamo Moscow and Kazan "the biggest game of the year so far." About midway through their 60-game schedule, Dynamo is in first place and Kazan entered in third. Living up to its billing, the game ended with a controversial ending involving the home team and Ilya Kovalchuk.
To me, it's one sign of the quality of the non-NHL players. In a game with NHL stars like Pavel Datsuyk, Martin Havlat, Ilya Kovalchuk, Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards, Alexei Kovalev was the only NHL player who scored.
Dynamo scored at 2:13 of the first period on a slapshot by Konstantin Romanov that Kazan goalie Nikolai Khabibulin (Tampa Bay Lightning) had trouble with. Alexei Kovalev evened it for Kazan six minutes later when a pass deflected in.
Dynamo took a 2-1 lead 25 seconds before the first intermission when Alexei Chupin scored on a pass from Andrei Markov (Montreal). Sergei Klimentiev brought the crowd to its feet with about five minutes left in the second period to tie the game entering the third period.
Neither team scored in the third period and overtime began with coincidental minors to Darius Kasparaitis and a Dynamo player, so they played three-on-three. About 90 seconds into overtime, Kovalchuk appeared as if he had a chance to win it and break a long dry spell. He raced for a loose puck with former Thrashers defensemean Sergei Vyshedkevich and made contact, sending Vyshedkevich into the boards. Kovalchuk was called for a penalty and became enraged. Unlike the NHL, in which players must be captains or assistants to talk to the referee, Kovalchuk twice got in the referee's face to vociferously argue the call. It didn't matter.
Twenty-six seconds later, playing 4-on-3, Pavel Rosa, the AHL's leading scorer last season for Manchester and the Los Angeles Kings' property, put home Markov's rebound for the game winner. After the game, Alexei Kovalev accused the officials of being bought -- apparently not an uncommon practice here. Fans threw some wadded-up paper and plastic bottles on the ice and Dynamo was booed as it walked off without benefit of a tunnel.
I spoke with Ilya today about the game and life in Russia, but I'll save that for my stories next week.
Tomorrow I return to Moscow and will attend a game on Thursday when
Kazan plays at Voskresensk, where Slava Kozlov plays along with former
NHLer Valeri Kamensky and Anaheim's Vitaly Vishnevsky.
Well, I'm not quite in Asia, but I think I can see it from here. That is, if the daylight hours lasted long enough to catch a glimpse. It's not quite 4 p.m. and it's almost completely dark and the temperature is minus-16 Celsius (about 0 Fahrenheit).
I watched a Division II (junior) game between Kazan and a team from Novocheboksarsk. The Kazan team had two players who were drafted by NHL teams, Mikhail Zhukov and Konstantin Hlinka. Before departing for the rink this morning in the lobby of the hotel I met Alexander Ovechkin, the No. 1 overall pick in last summer's NHL draft who plays for Dynamo Moscow. (Earlier this season Ovechkin delivered a hit that put the Boston Bruins' Sergei Gonchar, the NHL's top offensive defenseman who plays for Magnitogorsk, in the hospital. The play has raised quite a stir here.)
Prior to departing for the rink, I thought I had fallen victim to culture shock when I went to the hotel's breakfast buffet. Spaghetti, foul-smelling sausage, rice, mixed vegetables, porridge of buckwheat and some frightful looking thing called "bouljazee sauce" sat in containers stewing.
However, I learned that the manager for Dynamo, which is staying here, inquired if there were any eggs in the Republic of Tatarstan. So I was not alone. I stuck with yogurt and tea and was OK.
Unfortunately, the business center here at the Safar Hotel closes at 6 p.m., so I won't be able to report on the game until tomorrow. But Kazan's 3,700-seat arena will be packed. A film crew is here, as is a reporter from Sports Illustrated who is traveling with Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards (I must correct an earlier e-mail: both of whom debuted on Saturday). Not to mention a large contingent of Russian reporters and media.
Finally, I'll end on a "small world" note. This morning I met a basketball
player from Kansas who had just signed with Kazan's basketball team, which
plays in a 10,000-seat arena. He was wearing a Hawks shirt.
I arrived today in Moscow at about 10:30 a.m. local time (that's 3:30 a.m. in Atlanta) and fortunately the weather isn't too cold; although, it's cold for Atlanta. I think it was in the teens but I haven't been outside much -- recently the lows were below zero Fahrenheit.
It's about 4:30 p.m. now and it's pretty much dark outside. A quick scan of the television revealed plenty of English channels, including Turner Classic Movies, which was showing Errol Flynn as George Custer in "They Died With Their Boots On." My flight for Kazan departs at 10 p.m. and I am scheduled to arrive at about 11:30 p.m. Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, is about 650 miles East of Moscow.
Tomorrow I will see Ilya Kovalchuk play in person for the first time in nearly eight months. He went through a dry spell earlier this season, but played well at a tournament in Sweden as part of a Russian national team during a break in the Russian Super League season and it looks like he might be back on top of his game.
Apparently, tickets in Kazan are a hot item. It's not surprising. Brad Richards, the forward from the Tampa Bay Lightning who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2004, played his first game on Saturday. The Lightning's Vincent Lecavalier is expected to play his first game on Monday. Not bad: Lecavalier centered Dany Heatley at the World Cup and maybe he'll play with Kovalchuk now for Ak Bars Kazan.
Nikolai Khabibulin, also of Tampa -- sense a trend here? -- has played the last three games in goal for Kazan, displacing ex-NHLer Fred Brathwaite. The game is being anticipated here, as Kazan is playing Dynamo Moscow, which is in first place in the Super League. Dynamo's players include Ottawa's Martin Havlat, Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk and Montreal defenseman Andrei Markov. It will be interesting to see what these players' attitude about the lockout is.
I'll see if I can file something after the game -- depending on what Internet access like in Kazan.
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