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Tampa Bay Lightning star Vinny Lecavalier returns home this week after four months of playing hockey in Russia, exiled because of the NHL lockout. This month, Times staff writer Tom Jones and photographer Dirk Shadd traveled 26 hours over three days to Kazan, 412 miles east/southeast of Moscow, to chronicle what Lecavalier described as the experience of a lifetime.

By TOM JONES
Published March 27, 2005


KAZAN, Russia - All Vinny Lecavalier wants is oatmeal. Plain, ordinary oatmeal.

As he walks across the empty restaurant on the second floor of the Russian hotel that is his temporary home, Lecavalier is intercepted by Elissia, a petite waitress whose voice is as tiny as her frame.

"Coffee, Meester La-cav-ee-a?" she says through a thick Russian accent.

"Da," Lecavalier says, "and ... "

Oatmeal. What's the Russian word for oatmeal?

Escaping him, Lecavalier tries the English version, hoping Elissia's English is better than his Russian, but Elissia goes blank. Frustration twists Lecavalier's face.

The Tampa Bay Lightning star is one of the best hockey players in the world. He is making $300,000 tax-free a month to play in Russia during the NHL lockout.

But he can't figure out how to order breakfast.

Hand signals come next, but in this game of charades, how does one gesture for oatmeal? Lecavalier holds an invisible bowl in his hands while sifting through the Russian dictionary in his mind, hoping he can stumble upon one of the few Russian words he thought he had learned. Finally, Elissia's face brightens.

She says something like "ob-kra-cow-wa."

Lecavalier sighs deep, nods and says, "Yes." He closes and opens his eyes slowly, a sign that his good mood has been soured.

Another day in Russia has only just begun.

* * *

With hockey practice in less than a half-hour, he eats quickly and bundles up, pulling the winter cap with the New York Yankees logo well over his ears.

Leaving the warmth of the hotel, he steps out into a gray, dank world that looks like the inside of a freezer that hasn't been defrosted in years. Lecavalier, his cheeks turning rosy in seconds from the blast of wind and single-digit temperatures, finds an opening in the waist-high piles of jagged plowed snow that line the narrow streets.

"Watch for cars," he says. "They don't stop for people here. And they might drive on the sidewalk."

After a treacherous quarter-mile walk, Lecavalier reaches the Kazan Sports Sarai (or Sports Palace), home of his adopted hockey team - Ak Bars Kazan of the Russian Super League.

Inside, he is greeted by a handful of security guards. "They're with me," Lecavalier says, pointing to the two journalists accompanying him.

A guard who looks no older than 17 waves Lecavalier and his visitors through before saying something in Russian. Lecavalier freezes, not sure if the guard is making a statement, asking a question or even talking to him.

Lecavalier looks at the guard for an awkward moment then decides to simply turn away and head down the hallway.

Shaking his head, Lecavalier says, "That is my day, every day. I don't understand a thing here."

Not until he gets to the locker room - with the welcome screeching of tape wrapping hockey sticks, a thumping Linkin Park song blasting from a boom box and, best of all, familiar voices speaking English - does Lecavalier's disposition shift from clumsy to confident.

In moments, he will be on the one place on Earth where he feels most comfortable: a sheet of ice.

For four months, those sheets of ice were in Russia. The 24-year-old moved from his swanky place on sunny Harbour Island to a hotel room in eternally overcast Kazan, a depressed industrial city of 1.2-million people in the middle of Russia.

Each day was a struggle with a strange, harsh language, the brutally cold winter and his friends, family and girlfriend eight time zones away. But Lecavalier refused to give in to the surroundings and isolation, choosing instead to look for the bright side of this experience.

That isn't easy in a rugged place where the sun appears to be on a winter-long strike.

* * *

Everything is different here. The hockey. The people. The language. The weather. The food. Lecavalier makes do. When he orders spaghetti and it comes without sauce, he uses ketchup. When the chicken is dry, he covers it in ranch dressing. He never drinks from the faucet.

There's good sushi at a nearby Japanese steakhouse. And there's Venicia, an Italian joint around the corner that isn't half-bad.

As for the language, well, Lecavalier hangs out with fellow NHL players, many of whom are English-speaking Russians and can get him through the day. The rest of the time is spent alone in a hotel room - reading, cruising the Internet, sending e-mails and watching DVDs. He's an authority on the first season of 24.

"The first couple weeks were bad, really hard. I wondered if I had made a mistake," Lecavalier said. "Couldn't sleep because of the time change. Couldn't talk to people back home because of the time change. But four or five months later, it's fine. I like it. I'd come back again."

He didn't have to come here in the first place. He had a chance to play in Switzerland and the Czech Republic. He could have hung around Clearwater Beach all winter. But he loved the idea of living in Russia.

"Once in a lifetime experience," he said. "And Kazan seemed like a good fit."

The city of Kazan is surrounded by poverty. Most folks make, maybe, the equivalent of $100 a month. Bedsheets cover the windows of the homes, themselves little more than a pile of two-by-fours held together by a few rusty nails. They are so tiny and dilapidated that it appears a stiff wind or small child could level them in seconds.

But inside the city, the environment changes. Lecavalier's hotel is across the street from Kazan's breath-taking Kremlin, where Ivan the Terrible and Genghis Kahn once lived.

Ak Bars Kazan ("The White Bear") is owned by the government and sponsored by Tatneft, a big oil company, and, if the rumors are true, the Russian mob. "I don't know about that," Lecavalier said with a smile.

With Kazan celebrating its 1,000th anniversary, the owners went all-out for a championship only to be upset in the first round of the playoffs. Ak Bars Kazan became the New York Yankees of the Russian league, spending $50-million on payroll, more than any other team and about $17-million more than the Lightning spent last season to win a Stanley Cup.

Kazan signed 15 NHL players, including Lightning teammates Nikolai Khabibulin and Brad Richards, Atlanta's Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk, Montreal's Alex Kovalev and the Rangers' Darius Kasparaitis. "That's another reason I came over," Lecavalier said. "There are a lot of guys who speak English. And right now, this is the best league in the world."

Still, Lecavalier heard the warnings before he came, how the people were colder than the temperatures, how the police were corrupt, how crime was rampant.

"None of that is true," Lecavalier said. "I was told I would need a bodyguard and all that. I was scared at first, but things are not what they seem. The people are nice. Well, I say that. I can't always understand them, but they seem nice. And no one has bothered me. I'd feel safe walking down the street at 3 in the morning. It has been fine."

But not always easy.

* * *

When Lecavalier is in Kazan, Russia is tolerable and, dare we say, occasionally pleasant. Lecavalier's hotel suite inside The Mirage - a five-star hotel as posh as any $1,000-a-night room in the Big Apple - feels like a small apartment. There's a spacious living room full of furniture, a television and high-speed Internet hookup.

A sizeable walk-in closet easily holds all of Lecavalier's clothes, shoes and bulky parkas. The bathroom is roomy and pristine, something right off the pages of Architectural Digest.

There's a nightclub and sports bar on the first floor, a health spa with a pool, sauna and masseuses on the second floor, and the in-house restaurant has a breakfast menu as deep and tasty as Denny's. Most of The Mirage's staff speaks just enough English, and there's a laundry service.

"If it wasn't for the hotel," Lecavalier said, "I don't know if I could've made it."

Plus, it's all about location.

Across the street is a typical Russian mall, which is set up like a covered flea market with one store bleeding into the next. But it has all the stuff of an American mall. Several restaurants are within a snowball's throw.

The hockey rink is across the street. Lecavalier can go from his bed to the locker room in 10 minutes. The arena is small (about 4,000 can cram in on game night). But the towels are clean, and the showers are hot.

Most of the arenas in the Russian league aren't too bad. They seat 1,000 to 4,000. The nicest is in St. Petersburg, which holds 14,000 and almost feels like an NHL arena. Kazan is constructing a 12,000-seat arena that should be ready for next season.

The worst are the ones in the farthest outposts, such as Siberia. One rink was so cold that Lecavalier never broke a sweat and his feet were frozen for the entire game.

"The fans never take off their coats and toques," Lecavalier said.

"They had one shower," said Kazan goalie Fred Brathwaite, a native of Ottawa and former goalie for four NHL teams. "And when I say "shower,' I mean like a spigot you would find in a kitchen sink just sticking out of the ceiling. Take one guess if the water was hot or not."

The hotels in Moscow and St. Petersburg are endurable. Everywhere else in the 16-team league is hit-or-miss. Sometimes the food is inedible. Often the bathrooms are small and dirty. Almost always, Lecavalier's 6-foot-4 frame spills over the mattress.

"Definitely not the Marriott we're talking about," Lecavalier said.

Players often bring their own towels on road trips. Before one trip, the players were told they might want to bring a toilet seat. On another trip, Lecavalier needed his own toilet.

After a road game in Siberia in January, Lecavalier was hit hard by the flu at a decrepit airport and needed a bathroom. Immediately.

Pointed to a room, Lecavalier raced through the door only to find a hole in the floor. When he was done, Lecavalier, with no Charmin in sight, had no choice but to sift through his wallet and find the smallest denomination of bills. It cost him about 100 rubles, or about three bucks and change.

Lecavalier's flu became so severe he had to be hospitalized for a day and treated with IVs in Kazan.

"That hospital ... I felt like I was in the 1930s in some old Hollywood movie," Lecavalier said. "It was really old. Some general came and got me and brought me into the room. I was the only guy with a room. All the rest, the military people, were in one big room with the beds lined up next to each other. They were carrying people on old stretchers. I felt like it was World War II."

Lecavalier tells the story of those two awful days, shrugs his shoulders, smiles and moves on. If his physical characteristics are defined by his broad shoulders and model looks, then his personality is exemplified by his optimism and confidence.

To him, the weather is okay, the food is fine, the people are nice, the hockey is fun, his teammates are great. He hated to see Richards return home in December because of an injury, but, hey, those things happen.

Plus, his parents came over for a week. His girlfriend visited another week. His agent made two trips. That helped cross off days on the calendar. But even being removed from his family most of the time - and ESPN and HBO all of the time - life in Russia isn't so bad.

"Sure, I miss home," Lecavalier said. "I miss Tampa. I miss Montreal (his hometown). But I left home when I was 14 to play hockey, so I'm used to being away in the winter. This isn't all that different. Even if I were back home, I'd spend the winter playing hockey."

* * *

Not this much hockey. Unlike the NHL, where teams practice once a day for 45 minutes to an hour and usually are off once or twice a week, Russian hockey is like CNN: all day, every day. Ak Bars, like most Russian teams, practices at least once a day and often twice a day.

From his arrival on Nov. 25 to the last game on March 22, Lecavalier had three days off. Two were in December when the league was supposed to be on a 10-day hiatus.

"I was going to go home, but they suggested the players stick around," Lecavalier said. "We ended up practicing all but two days."

Again, Lecavalier gives the shrug and smile: "I didn't mind."

Lightning players might think coach John Tortorella is controlling, but Russian hockey makes Tortorella look like a substitute teacher. There are even stories about the team spying on players after-hours.

"We had two or three team meetings," Lecavalier said, "when they said, "Hey, we heard some players stayed out late in some club or bar and were out drinking and so on.' And that was four nights before a game! If you go out, they know. They just know."

Even the night before home games, teams are locked away in a military-like base (the players say bah-say). They eat dinner at about 7, go to bed by 11 then head back to the rink the next day for a morning skate. Then it's back on the bus and back to the "bah-say" for lunch and a nap.

"That's the way Russian hockey is and, really, the way Russian society is," Kasparaitis said. "Everything is structured. When I was in kindergarten, for nap time, all the kids had to lay the same way - on your side with your hands next to your head. That's just the way it is."

Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, a former Olympic star of the former USSR and an assistant coach for the Phoenix Coyotes, coaches Ak Bars with what would seem like an iron fist if this wasn't Russia. He speaks fluent English but not around the team. During practice and before, during and after games, Bilyaletdinov addresses the team only in Russian, occasionally leaving Lecavalier alienated in the one place he is supposed to feel most at home.

When Bilyaletdinov speaks, Lecavalier isn't sure if the coach is praising or criticizing, motivating or pleading, joking or threatening. Even when Bilyaletdinov is diagraming plays on a grease board, Lecavalier is lost, not sure if the coach is talking about defense or offense, his team or the other team. Video sessions? Forget it.

So Lecavalier stares straight ahead, acts as if he follows and keeps a serious look on his face.

"I never go first during drills in practice," Lecavalier said. "I couldn't. I just wait and do what the guy in front of me does."

If Bilyaletdinov's message is important enough, a teammate will give Lecavalier an abbreviated version. ("He said we need to watch the turnovers.") On rare occasions, Bilyaletdinov will pass the message in English himself.

"But I really don't need to say anything to him," Bilyaletdinov said. "He's a good hockey player. He knows what to do out there. I just put him out there, and he figures out what is going on because he's so smart. He has adjusted fine. He, I don't worry about."

He shouldn't. Lecavalier adjusted well, picking up 15 points in 30 regular-season games. Anyway, there isn't much to worry about on the ice other than the occasional dirty play that is more prevalent in Kazan than Calgary or Columbus. The Russian game forbids fighting, and it is virtually devoid of hitting. But a chop across the wrists or across the back of the legs is common.

Despite the reputation international hockey has for being free-flowing and exciting, the Russian game plods along with few scoring chances, an emphasis on sitting back and playing smothering defense and more clutching and grabbing than a football game.

Few penalties are called by referees, who might or might not be on the up-and-up.

"Much of the time, the referees are paid off," Kovalev said. "You can tell a few minutes into the game. If you see a bunch of penalties early in the game against one team, then it's, "Oh, looks like someone got to him.' If it's even early, not too many penalties, then you know the game is on the level. Still, it's dirty out there, way more dirty than the NHL. And it's slower.

"Overall, it's not as fun or exciting as the NHL, but it still can be good when it is played right."

Ak Bars is one of the half-dozen teams that can play the game right. They are one of league's elite six, all stocked with NHL players and legitimate championship contenders. Then comes four or five middle-of-the-road teams. Then the bottom.

Rule No. 1 in the Russian league: Never lose to the bottom teams. Lose and you pay. Literally. Lecavalier wouldn't say, but word is he and his teammates were docked $2,000 recently for losing to a bottom-feeder even though it was Kazan's first loss in 15 games.

The difference between the top and bottom is more than location in the standings. The top teams fly charter planes, play in decent arenas, stay in hotels.

"Fortunately, Kazan is a first-class organization," Lecavalier said.

The bottom teams are lucky to get paid. One team hasn't been paid since March 2004, so the players went on strike. They were replaced by unknowns and played against Lecavalier's team.

"Some of those guys were like (13 years old)," Lecavalier said. "Seriously. But they played us tough."

So tough that several Kazan players heard a teammate's voice on the bench say, "Boys, if we lose to these guys, one of us is going to get shot."

He was probably kidding. Ak Bars won 7-3.

* * *

Despite the sketchy officiating, floundering lower teams and chippy play, the Russian Super League probably is the premier hockey league in the world at this minute. The NHL lockout has sent more than 100 players to Russia, so Lecavalier often runs into familiar faces.

"I see NHL guys, and I don't even know it's them because of all the different letters on their backs," Lecavalier said. "I have to see their faces."

When he does, he realizes his world isn't really that strange, even if the hockey often is.

"It is a different game over here," Lecavalier said. "The ice is bigger, but the buildings are smaller. You're used to playing in front of 18,000, and some nights you might play before a couple of thousand or a few hundred. I like the NHL better. With all the hooking and slashing and clutching and grabbing over here, I'll never complain about the NHL again."

On a recent Sunday evening, Kazan hosted Avangard Omsk, a Siberian team that features NHL star Jaromir Jagr. Aside from the jolting sight of scantily attired cheerleaders dancing on a stage behind one of the goals and the length of the game (about two hours because of no TV timeouts), it sort of resembled NHL hockey between two bad teams on an off night.

Jagr looked like Jagr with an assist and a few shifty moves. The No.4 on Lecavalier's back looked familiar even if his Russian name (a mishmash of upside-down V's. lower and upper case B's and no L to be found) didn't. On Bilyaletdinov's 50th birthday (the team presented him with flowers during a pregame ceremony), Lecavalier played well. But Ak Bars lost 4-1 before a less-than-capacity crowd that split time whistling (booing) the home team and questioning the sexual orientation of the referee.

"Not a bad game," Lecavalier said.

After the game, Lecavalier is mobbed by autograph hounds, including several women and a man who treated him during his brief stay in the hospital. He smiles and chats as long as he can to the ones who speak English. Mostly, though, Lecavalier and his teammates are not celebrities in Kazan. He has never been stopped on the street. No girls have slipped him a phone number or knocked on his door at midnight.

After brushing several inches of snow that fell during the game off Brathwaite's car, Lecavalier is off for a postgame dinner with a few teammates. He shares a ride to the Japanese steakhouse with Brathwaite, who along with Heatley has become his best friend in Russia.

"I've only been here a month, and I'm about ready to head home," Heatley said. "I can't imagine Vinny, who has been here since November."

"Think Vinny has it rough?" Brathwaite said. "Man, I've been here since August."

Passing the time tonight means having a bite to eat and maybe a beer or two. Lecavalier sits down at a crowded table for 15 and picks up the menu.

All he wants is sushi. Any kind of sushi. The waitress isn't sure what Lecavalier wants to order. Frustration crosses over Lecavalier's face. He calls out to Kovalchuk, a teammate from Russia.

"Kovy, tell her what I want," Lecavalier says, pointing at the menu. Kovalchuk and the waitress exchange several lines of dialogue. Lecavalier just looks and listens.

"Like I said," Lecavalier says, "that's my life here. I don't understand a word."

But as always, it all works out. He gets the sushi he wants. The beer is cold. Vinny Lecavalier is happy. He has survived another day in Russia and, you know, it wasn't all that bad.