I had an afro. Like a full-on, authentic 1977 afro.
Curly. Huge. Out of control. I had gone six months without a haircut. I looked like a grizzled war veteran.
So I’m sitting in the barber’s chair, looking at my reflection in the mirror, and I’ve got the biggest, dumbest grin plastered on my face.
My barber puts the apron on me, and he starts talking to me about sports or whatever, and I’m almost giggling with delight. I’m so, so, so happy.
My barber’s like, “Bro, what the fahhk is wrong with you?”
All I can say is, “… Russia.”
In 2013, I knew my ankles were shot. My career in the NHL was done. I had been fortunate enough to make a lot of money in the league (thanks for those backdoor tap-ins, Sid), and I could have retired. But I was only 30. Even though I couldn’t skate well enough to play at the NHL level anymore, I still loved the game and knew I could play in Europe. Imagine your career, as an accountant or an IT person or whatever, being over at 30. Most of my non-hockey friends’ lives were just starting to take off.
For guys in my situation — and there are a ton of them — you have two options:
- Face the music and go back to school and/or get a real job. You can only golf so much.
- Pack your suitcase and go play abroad for a few years.
If you don’t have kids, the second option sounds really nice. So I hit up Google and started daydreaming about all the sweet places I could go.
Sweden. Czech Republic. Switzerland.
The Alps, man. That would be nice. I need to make that happen.
Then one day I got a call from my agent.
“Hey, we got a nice offer here from Sochi.”
“Sochi … Like the Olympics?”
“Yeah. Russia. KHL.”
“Are they any good?”
“No. They’re not any good. They’re like 3-13.”
So let me preface the rest of this story by saying that I’m a kid from Boston about to get on a plane and be thrown into a very strange experience on the other side of the world. You may experience some strong language. Viewer discretion is advised.
The plane touched down at 4 a.m. I had to fly from Boston to Turkey to Sochi. My head is spinning. Eyes are red. I’m delirious. This guy picks me up at baggage claim with the big sign, just like the movies. He barely speaks English.
Look, I’m not naive. I’ve traveled abroad before. But my first thought at the airport was, Holy shit. Why is the letter H upside down? Everything’s in Russian. Like, everything.
The guy drives me to my apartment. There’s no more exciting and nerve-wracking feeling than landing in a new city and being driven to your new home. So after a while, I start seeing all the Olympic rings everywhere. We drive into this big complex, and there are hundreds of these brand-new apartments. Perfectly paved streets. Rows of street lamps.
And there’s not a single living soul that I can see. No cars. No nothing.
I’m like, “Wait a second, this is the actual Olympic village.”
Which is awesome, except for the fact that the Olympics are over.
The guy stops the car outside one of the buildings. He points. “OK. Apartment.”
I get out of the car and look around, and it was like the zombie apocalypse had hit a college town. I get into the apartment, and there’s a single light and a bed.
My driver turns to leave and says, “10 a.m. Hospital. Drug test. I’ll be back. 10 a.m.”
I just laid on the bed, staring at the ceiling, repeating, What the hell did you do? What the hell did you do?
Sure enough, 10 a.m. the next morning, my driver shows up and takes me 45 minutes away to the nearest hospital. The drive helped calm my nerves. I got some sleep. I’m telling myself, You’re good. This will be fun. It’s a new experience. Just roll with it. You’ll find some friends on the team.
I walk into the hospital and this is the sound I’m greeted with:
There’s literally a dude laying in the waiting room in agony. There’s no separate emergency room. It’s all one room. I mean, this guy is bleeding. Just sitting in a chair, bleeding out of his arm. He’s got a towel over it that looked like a towel Slava Fetisov might have used to wipe his face clean at the ’80 Olympics in Lake Placid.
I go up to the nurse like, Is this? What is this? Am I in the right room?
Nothin’. Blank stare. No English. I go sit down. What can I do? I wait.
Now I’m panicking.
After an hour, the nurse calls me: “Wheet-ney.”
Mind you, the bleeding guy is still sitting there, so that’s probably not good, but what am I gonna do? I go in.
Despite the language barrier, we figure it out. I do the standard stuff. Pee in a cup. Breathe deep. Cough. Whatever.
Then the nurse straps the band on my arm to do my blood pressure, and she’s pumping the pump, and I look up …
She’s smoking a cigarette.
No words. Straight face. Pumping the pump. Looking at me right in the eyes. Smoking a dart.
This was my first experience with a very strong smoking culture. As a young guy coming up in the NHL, you always hear the stories about the guys from the ’70s and ’80s taking smoke breaks and eating cheeseburgers between periods. Nowadays though, there are rookies who show up the first day of camp with their own friggin’ juice press. In Russia, the smoking era is still in full effect. On the team plane, every single one of our coaches were chain smoking through the duration of the flight.
Now, time out. At this point, you’re probably thinking I’m culturally insensitive or I didn’t like Russia. Just stick with me for a minute.
See, what you have to understand is, playing in the NHL is a fantasy world. It’s a dream come true, but unfortunately you get comfortable there, and take it for granted. I’m sure not everyone does that, but I did. I’ll always regret that.
You love it and you hate it. The grind becomes mind-numbing. Everybody bitches. Even the superstars. Even the guys who you think eat and breathe hockey, they bitch. Some of the best times you have are sitting around a locker room, complaining with the boys.
Why? It’s like Stockholm syndrome. The stuff that sucks is the stuff that you bond over with the guys in the trenches with you. Then one day, you wake up, and you’re old, and it’s over. You don’t have anything to bitch about anymore. You just have some coffee, go on Twitter, go about your day.
That’s why I wouldn’t trade my experience in Russia for anything in the world. Because when I walked into that locker room for the first time, here’s what I see:
The six other imports are sitting shoulder-to-shoulder: Two Finns. A Swedish kid. A goalie from Czech. A center from Canada. And another defenseman from America.
You remember the scene in Band of Brothers when they send the baby-faced kids out to the front for the first time, and all the grizzled old vets are walking back from two months in the shit? That’s exactly what these guys looked like.
Just in complete shock. White in the face. Dazed. Thousand-yard stares. And here I am walking in half way through the season like, “Hey, what’s up, boys?”
On the other side of the room, all the Russian guys are going bananas listening to some Barbra Streisand techno remix.
I’m like, Oh my God. Yes. I remember this. I know this misery. I’m back, baby!
We get out onto the ice, and it’s a shitshow. For any NHL guys reading this right now, let me tell you something: You don’t know how good you have it. A normal practice in Sochi was harder than any day I ever had in an NHL training camp.
In Russia, they skate. Then they skate some more. You’re dying. You’re about to fall over. Your coach is screaming. You look at your Russian teammate and ask, “What did coach say?”
And he says, “This warmup.”
Are you feeling a little off? Is your hammy tight? Forget it. You better have your foot hanging off your body if you want to get out of practice. The days your import buddies managed to get out of practice with an injury, you’d be looking at them like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
We had an assistant coach who was straight out of an ’80s movie. This crazy, hardass Red Army-era guy. His last name was Kravitz. I couldn’t pronounce his first name, so I would just call him “Lenny.”
“Hey, what up Lenny?”
I figured he didn’t get the reference.
So I walk into practice one day, and he starts calling me Obama.
“Skate! Skate, Obama! skate!”
I’d mess up a drill and he’d start screaming, “What dee fuck are you doing, Obama?”
Half the time, I had no idea what we were supposed to be doing in the drills. I just rolled with it.
I quickly learned that you don’t ask, “Why?” in Russia. Even the Russian guys who speak English, you’d ask them, “Why are we doing this? It makes no sense.”
The response was always the same. A little shoulder shrug, then, “It’s Russia.”
The language barrier made everything unintentionally hilarious. In a normal locker room, everybody’s yelling back and forth, messing around with one another. In Russia, the language barrier makes it really hard, but you still do your best. Before a game, all you can do is say, “Da-VAI! Da-VAI!” which is like, “Let’s go boys” in Russian.
Kravitz was the translator for the imports when the coach would talk to the team. So many times, the head coach would be going nuts, screaming in Russian for a solid 10 minutes.
Every 30 seconds, Kravitz would turn to us and just say, “Wake dee fuck up, you guys terrible.”
I bit my tongue trying to not laugh all year in every meeting. There were so many times when I said to myself, “Man, I wish my friends back home could see this, because they’re not going to believe the stories when I tell them.”
You think I’m exaggerating?
One day, I was sitting on the balcony of my apartment when this happened:
I have no idea if those guys in the water are alive.
That’s just another day in Russia.
It was such a raw, real experience. You don’t necessarily realize that the NHL is a such a bubble until you travel to a very, very different culture. It’s almost a cliché, but really, you’re like OH MY GOD. It puts not just your career, but your life into perspective.
It’s a funny cycle because you make it to The Show and you get all these perks and private planes, but it’s not real life. Then at the end of your career, you almost go back to the start — the way it was when you were coming up in college or the AHL on the long bus rides and the stinky hotel rooms with your buddies.
I’d mess up a drill and he’d start screaming, “What dee fuck are you doing, Obama?”
The other imports in Sochi, and even a few Russian guys, became like my Band of Brothers. You’re all thrown together in the foxhole and are forced to become good friends. My teammate Cory Emmerton and his wife were invaluable to me. They took me to the grocery store and ran me down the checklist: This is pretty good. Don’t eat this. This is weird. This is kind of weird, but it grows on you.
It’s almost like a throwback to the college dorm. In the NHL, guys will hang out on the road, especially the young guys, but it’s not really the same. Guys have girlfriends. They have family in town. They have stuff to do.
In Russia, we’d all be sitting on the floor of some guy’s sparse apartment eating 10 bags of gummy bears and watching movies on Netflix, talking shit about how miserable practice was going to be the next day.
It sounds insane, but it actually reminds you of why you fell in love with the game of hockey in the first place.
So let me say this to any hockey players reading this who are considering playing abroad: If nothing else, it’s worth it purely for the pure happiness you feel for the first 10 days when you get back home.
The KHL season ended at the beginning of March. I landed back in Boston at the absolute apex of the dark winter hell. All these college kids are walking around all mopey and depressed. And I’m skipping around like I’m stoned out of my mind.
I looked like … you know the really pleasant smiley emoji with the rosy cheeks?
That was my face for 10 straight days. I walked around with a permagrin. I was talking to everyone I passed on the street like a maniac. “Hello! Hi! What a day, eh? What a day!”
People were looking at me like, “What the hell is wrong with this kid?”
I mean, the things you take for granted are unbelievable. Chicken parm. Oh my god. Chicken fingers. Milk. Warm, delicious breakfast sandwiches.
But the first thing I did was get a haircut.
I sit in the chair. Giggling like a lunatic.
My barber looks at me.
“What the fahhk is wrong with you, man?”
“How was it?”
“It was hell. I loved it.”