tampabay.com

Missing home in the homeland

By TOM JONES
Published March 27, 2005


KAZAN, Russia - Lightning goalie Nikolai Khabibulin stands in the corner of the Kazan Sports Palace in Russia and talks about home.

He talks about the restaurants with so much good food, the nice people everywhere you go. He talks fondly about the weather, and he smiles when his family comes up in conversation.

He was born and raised about 500 miles east of where he is standing, a town called Sverdlovsk, where, rumor has it, the KGB filmed a UFO in 1969.

But he's not talking about that home. Or even Russia.

Khabibulin misses home: the United States.

"It has been different coming back to Russia," said Khabibulin, who joined Lightning teammate Vinny Lecavalier on Ak Bars Kazan of the Russian Super League. "I think all of us got used to the United States, not only the hockey, but, the off-ice stuff."

Like the balmy temperatures of Tampa and Phoenix, where Khabibulin has homes. Like the restaurants with American food. Like the friends he has made since moving to North America in 1994.

"It's strange being back," Khabibulin, 32, said. "I, and I think I speak for a lot of guys who have come back from the NHL, got used to the quality of life (in North America). But when I say it's different here, I don't mean better or worse. Just different."

Different, yet familiar. The hockey was a snap. Khabibulin, with a 1.65 goals-against average in 24 games, might have been the best goalie in the Russian league until recently, when an eye infection hampered his performance. He lost the first two games of a best-of-five series in the opening round of the playoffs. He was pulled and watched helplessly as favored Kazan was eliminated in four games.

Off the ice was never a problem. While Kazan teammates like Lecavalier struggled to converse and find something edible, Khabibulin was living it up in The Mirage, a swanky hotel across the street from the hockey rink. He loves eating authentic Russian pelmeny (dumplings stuffed with meat) and borsch (a soup made from beets with a dab of sour cream on top). He could find both easily in Kazan.

"The language and the food, obviously, is not a problem for me," Khabibulin said. "Some of the guys who are not used to it have it tough. It's hard. But in a way, it's no different than when I came to the States. I didn't know the language, and that was so hard."

"I think," said Kazan's Alex Kovalev, a Russian-born player who has played in the NHL since 1992, "that it was even harder on Russian players going over to North America because here you can find people who speak English. Not many people in the United States speak Russian. Either way, though, it's tough."

Khabibulin is eager to get back to the United States. His 12-year-old daughter, Sasha, is practically American, having lived all but the first year of her life in the U.S.. A rising junior tennis star, she remained in Phoenix this winter with Khabibulin's wife, Viktoria, who managed a month-long visit to Kazan in December.

"Being away from my daughter and now my wife has been the hardest part," Khabibulin said. "I look forward to going back home. Being in Russia for a while is nice. But I do miss life in the States."