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Kovalchuk's return to Russia not a happy one // The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
By JOHN MANASSO
KAZAN, Russia — The Mirage Hotel, a mirage in this land of ice and snow, is a nine-month-old, five-star hotel in this city of anachronisms.
It is a modern wonder of glass and steel, in stark contrast to the grimy, low-slung apartment buildings that dominate the snow-covered streets.
The Mirage houses most of the 12 NHL players who have sought refuge from the NHL lockout — who would have ever imagined such a reverse migration? — in this oil-boom city of 1 million people.
The local team, Ak Bars, has made headlines throughout the hockey world by signing a team of what amounts to NHL all-stars, placing the payroll in the reported range of $50 million. Ak Bars competes in what is now the world's highest-paying league: the Russian Super League.
Inside the Mirage, on the fifth floor, one finds another of Kazan's anachronisms. Situated on opposite sides of the hallway are the rooms for 21-year-old Thrashers star Ilya Kovalchuk, who plays for Ak Bars, and the team's coach, 49-year-old Zinetula Bilyaletdinov.
One was 6 years old when the Berlin Wall fell and has played in the NHL since he was 18, a millionaire free-spirit on and off the ice. The other is a dour former defenseman who played for the Red Army team during its glorious era of world dominance in the 1970s.
For Kovalchuk, this season may validate those notions about the difficulty of going home again. Midway through the season, the player who is among the five youngest to reach 100 goals in the NHL, has just eight goals in 26 games for Kazan.
Neither he nor his agent will say how much he is being paid, but according to Russian media reports, Kovalchuk is receiving $3 million for his time back in the former U.S.S.R Not bad in a country where the average person earns about $2,700 a year.
"At first I wanted the lockout to last a little while so I could play here," he said, speaking through a translator. "Now, I want to come back and play in the NHL."
The left wing chafes at everything from playing time to the team's curfews (10 p.m. on game nights) to Bilyaletdinov's seemingly capricious fines to the Mirage's paucity of Russian language channels (only four).
"We're like prisoners here," Kovalchuk said. "Everyone knows everything around [here]. You go to some bar or restaurant and the bill directly goes to [Kazan's general] manager."
The best team money can buy
One measure of Russia's vastness is how her people describe distances. While car-loving Americans might describe a ride from Atlanta to Charlotte as about four hours, Russians will observe that the 800 kilometers (about 670 miles) from Moscow to Kazan is a little more than an hour flight.
Within the walls of the ancient city stand the only mosque and Eastern Orthodox church sitting side by side in the world. The city is the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan — land-wise, it is about the same size as Ireland, but with only 4 million people. Forty-eight percent of them are Tatars, who speak a language in the same family as Turkish. Forty-three percent are Russians.
Although Tatarstan officially became part of Russia in 1552 when it was conquered by Tsar Ivan IV - also known as Ivan "The Terrible" - Kazan is celebrating its 1,000th anniversary in 2005.
As the government renovates many of the city's historic buildings, the local hockey team, in the best capitalist impersonation of the New York Yankees , is spending freely to win the Super League championship.
Ak Bars' roster includes three members of Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay (Vincent Lecavalier, Nikolai Khabibulin and Brad Richards), two former New York Rangers teammates (Alexei Kovalev and Darius Kasparaitis), Anaheim's Ruslan Salei, Pittsburgh's restricted free agent Alexei Morozov (one of the Super League's leading scorers), Buffalo's Alexei Zhitnik, Toronto's Nik Antropov, Nashville's Denis Arkhipov and Vitali Yachmenev, an eight-year NHL veteran who returned to Russia two years ago, and goalie Fred Braithwaite, most recently of the St. Louis Blues.
At the end of November, Ak Bars (a sort of large white cat that is the national mascot for Tatarstan) was in third place in the 16-team league. The top half of teams make the postseason.
In reference to winning the league championship in the year of Kazan's anniversary, Ak Bars general manager Viktor Levitsky said, "It would be really nice to make such a gift" to the people of Kazan. Despite the prodigious spending, it is difficult to put a face - or a name, for that matter - with the individual who has given Levitsky free rein to spend all of those rubles.
"It's a pretty rich Republic," said Levitsky, through a translator, sitting in his bare, windowless smoke-filled office. "It has so many resources. And it's the third-biggest [land-wise] in Russia. And it's not like it's outrageous."
One clue as to where the money comes from is the team's major sponsor: TatNeft, the state-run oil company which is short for Tatarstan Gas. The company, which incidentally has a gas station across the street from the team's arena, has more than 63,000 employees; 2002 revenues exceeded $5 billion.
One theory is that the President of the Republic, Mintimer Shaimiev, has directed the team to spend, but no one will say for sure. Shaimiev maintains a box at the Kazan Sports Saray (which, in a delicious cultural irony, means "palace" in the local Tatar language, but a sort of hovel in Russian).
Perhaps not coincidentally, the Mirage Hotel is owned by Shaimiev's son, Radik, along with a pyramidal building next door that houses a disco club and a bowling alley. The two buildings, designed by an Italian architect, cost $34 million to construct.
After five goals in his first five games, Kovalchuk has just three during a period of about 25 games. He's about as cold as the frozen Kazanka River that flows about a mile from the arena.
When it is observed that Kovalchuk received a nice ovation from the fans during pregame introductions, he made light of his scoring drought with typical Russian dark humor.
"They're waiting for goals," he said. "Not everything works. I always want to score. I get lots of chances; I just can't score."
That was the case in a Nov. 29 game against first-place Dynamo Moscow - a team formerly coached by Bilyaletdinov - when Kovalchuk could not put away two point-blank chances in the third period. In overtime, he raced for a loose puck that could have given him a breakaway, but made contact from behind with Dynamo defenseman Sergei Vyshedkevich, a former Thrasher.
Kovalchuk was whistled for a penalty and went wild. He got in the referee's face to argue the call - something he could not do in the NHL since he is neither the team's captain nor an assistant - and earned himself a misconduct penalty.
A day later, he accused Vyshedkevich of diving and added a few more details. Asked how long it took him to calm down, he responded that he went to the officials' dressing room after the game to give the referee another earful. (After Dynamo scored the winning overtime goal, the fans chanted a slur about the referee that made a supposition about his sexuality.)
Asked if Kovalchuk liked the rule that a player did not need to be one of the captains to talk to the referee, he quipped, "It's not the NHL here."
The penalty cost Kovalchuk $2,000, as fines are not uncommon in Russia for plays that are deemed to hurt the team. Earlier this year, in a game against the same team, Kovalchuk made a risky pass along the blue line that was stolen and converted for an empty-net goal. That earned him an $800 fine.
"It was an important game for the coach because he was playing his former team," Kovalchuk said of the Nov. 29 fine. Then he added jokingly, "I don't want to play against Dynamo anymore."
Kovalchuk noted that earlier this season an unnamed Ak Bars player violated a team rule by having two beers on a charter flight. That player was fined half a month's salary. If he incurred such a fine, Kovalchuk said, "I'd be gone."
The day after the game, Bilyaletdinov canceled on-ice practice, but the team still went through several hours of meetings and an intrasquad basketball game, which, like soccer, is a common alternative training method used here. However, it seemed time did not help the coach's grudge against Kovalchuk to wear off.
"After the game yesterday, I was enemy number one," Kovalchuk said. "I'm on the black list right now. The coach was dressed all black like something happened. His face is like we lost eight in a row and we're out of the playoffs."
Kovalchuk had plenty of other indirect criticism of his coach. The Dynamo game was the second for Vincent Lecavalier with the team after making his debut against Metallurg Magnitogorsk. Kovalchuk and Lecavalier skated on the same line, but Lecavalier played right wing, not his usual center.
Kovalchuk was asked what it was like to play with Lecavalier.
"It's hard because he's playing right wing and he's never played right wing before, and they're two hard teams to play against," he said.
In Russia, coaches do not assemble special power play units - an area in which Kovalchuk excels (he scored 16 power-play goals with the Thrashers last season, third-best in the NHL). In addition, ice time is split evenly among four five-man units. Although the statistic isn't kept in Russia, it's safe to venture that his ice time is down roughly eight minutes per game from what it was during the last NHL season.
Nonetheless, Kovalchuk has enjoyed being around so many other elite players on Kazan. Just this week, Kazan added its 12th NHL player, Buffalo's Zhitnik.
During the summer, Kovalchuk raised a bit of a stir when he signed with Kazan and not Spartak, the Moscow club with which he came up and to which he feels much loyalty. Spartak, one of the Super League's poorer clubs, can no longer afford Kovalchuk's services.
"It's good because, first of all, the goals are serious for our team," he said of Kazan. "It will be something to remember."
Together this group of all-stars endures what are described as long, tedious practices and few days off. An observer mentioned that it doesn't seem like the Super League lifestyle offers much fun.
"It's been like that always," Kovalchuk said. "It's a tradition. Lecavalier and Richards are shocked. They're both ready to pack their bags and go back. For Russians, it's a little better because they've gotten used to it [in the past]."
With negotiations between the NHL and the NHLPA having resumed last week for the first time in three months, hockey fans have a glimmer of hope that the North American league will resume play. Thrashers fans, however, must hope that Kovalchuk exercises a buyout in his contract with Kazan by Jan. 1, otherwise he commits to the remainder of the season in Russia.
He has put the onus on Thrashers' management to pay the buyout (in the neighborhood of several hundred thousand dollars), but for now the parties cannot negotiate during the lockout.
"It depends on Atlanta," he said. "If they want me, they'll sign me. I'll be ready to play. If not, I'm ready to play here. . . . It's not my job; it's my agent [Jay Grossman]'s job. There has been no negotiating yet. Everyone's waiting for the lockout to end."
His pay is almost equivalent to what it was during his first three NHL seasons after bonuses, as the taxes on most European athletes' salaries are paid by the team.
He has seen his parents, who live in Tver, a few hours northwest of Moscow, once, when Kazan played Spartak in Moscow. In Atlanta, they usually stay with him for an extended period.
After the Nov. 29 game ended at about 9 p.m., with the sun having set almost six hours earlier, he walked across Kirova Street from the arena back to his hotel with its four Russian channels and his coach, across the hall, waiting for any misstep. The temperature was minus-20 Celsius (minus-4 Fahrenheit).
So what has the difference been for Kovalchuk between playing in the NHL and playing in Kazan during the lockout?
"There haven't been many days off so far, so there's no chance" to visit his parents, he said. "So there's not much difference between here and Atlanta - except the weather is better in Atlanta."
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