Out-of-country experience: Adjusting to Europe challenging for NHL players

It was smooth sailing for Chris Phillips when he went to Gävle, Sweden, to play for Brynas during the 2004-05 NHL lockout. The team helped him find an apartment, he and his wife Erin went to Ikea (where else?) to furnish it, and former Ottawa teammate Andreas Dackell, who was born and raised in Gävle and was back with Brynas after an eight-year NHL career, introduced the Phillips to his wide circle of friends.

Out-of-country experience: Adjusting to Europe challenging for NHL players

It was smooth sailing for Chris Phillips when he went to Gävle, Sweden, to play for Brynas during the 2004-05 NHL lockout.

The team helped him find an apartment, he and his wife Erin went to Ikea (where else?) to furnish it, and former Ottawa teammate Andreas Dackell, who was born and raised in Gävle and was back with Brynas after an eight-year NHL career, introduced the Phillips to his wide circle of friends.

But then Phillips and his wife had to go shopping and it was a challenge trying to tell the peanut butter from the pickled herring.

“You learn the hard way,” said Phillips, “but we picked it up pretty fast.”

This is an experience many NHL players will be having over the next weeks and months, as they seek employment in Europe while they wait out this lockout.

A number of players like Ottawa’s Jason Spezza, now of the Rapperswil-Jona Lakers in Zurich, and Helsinki-based Jokerit’s new star defenceman Erik Karlsson, have already left, and each day a few more follow.

For some players, the adjustment won’t as dramatic as it will be for others.

For example, English is widely spoken in Switzerland and Sweden, so Spezza is not anticipating that he and his wife Jennifer will have to surmount huge linguistic or cultural barriers.

“It’s definitely going to be an adventure,” said Spezza. “The day-to-day living, going out to buy groceries, might be a little harder, but luckily it’s hockey and I think I understand the game pretty well.”

However, playing in other countries, in particular Russia, where English is not widely spoken, can result in a more significant culture shock.

Ottawa native Fred Brathwaite had a good taste of what that’s like when he played in two remote Russian Superleague (now KHL) stops: Kazan, about 800 kilometres east of Moscow, and Omsk, about 2,236 kilometres east of Moscow in southwestern Siberia — or as Brathwaite put it, “pretty far from the rest of the world.”

In 2004-05, the first of two seasons Brathwaite played for Ak Bars Kazan, the team signed 11 NHL players, including Alexei Kovalev, Ilya Kovalchuk, Slava Kozlov, Alexei Morozov, Ruslan Salei, Nikolai Khabibulin, Vincent Lecavalier, and Dany Heatley.

It was the city of Kazan’s 1,000th anniversary and the team wanted to bring home a championship.

Unfortunately, as many teams have discovered, you can’t buy a championship.

Kazan struggled with consistency and chemistry, finished fourth in the regular season, and was upset in the first round of the playoffs by Lokomotiv Yaroslavl (As luck would have it, in 2005-06, with the NHL players gone but with Brathwaite back for a second season, Kazan would win the KHL championship).

Brathwaite said having Russian NHL players such as Kovolchuk and Kovalev around was a great help to the North American players.

They took care of them and made the adjustment easier.

But it was still a challenge.

“Everything from the food to the language to the lifestyle was just totally different, and it opened up my eyes quite a bit,” said Brathwaite. “I’d been over there before with Team Canada, but to be living over there and to experience everyday life, day-in-and-day-out, yeah, it was different, it was totally different.”

“It makes it very difficult when you can’t speak the language, and you only understand a couple of words.”

Many of the other Russian players on the team wouldn’t speak to him in English until he started to win some games. Then everyone wanted to be friends.

The linguistic barrier also made it tough to pass the time after hockey.

There wasn’t any English-language programming on TV and Internet connections were iffy, making it impossible to download TV shows and movies.

So his options were limited.

“Many days I’d just sit there and just watch the pack of dogs walking around,” he said. “There were a lot of packs of dogs over there. Some days I’d go to the store and buy them food and feed the dogs and just kind of watch them from my window.

“Many days there was not much to do back then.”

Brathwaite describes both organizations as first class.

Because they want to attract the best players, they’ll do everything they can to help, from finding apartments to arranging work documents and transportation.

Brathwaite said he never had any problems.

That’s not to say everyone was as lucky.

Once during the 2004-05 season, Kazan travelled about 700 kilometres east to Perm, which doesn’t have a team in the KHL, only to find that the players, who hadn’t been paid in months, had chosen to boycott the game.

So the star-studded Kazan team found itself having to play what was effectively Perm’s junior team.

“They all came out and they were wearing full cages,” said Brathwaite.

“They didn’t even warm up. They just stared at our guys. I guess we beat them 11-1, or 10-1 or whatever, but they were just in awe of us.

“You’d never see anything crazy like that happen in North America. That’d be like showing up and having to play the 67’s instead of the Senators.”

Still, it’s an experience Brathwaite wouldn’t trade.

“In Russia and Germany, I’ve been able to see different parts of the world that I would have never seen if I had just been travelling,” he said.

“I’ve really enjoyed it, and I’ve probably made myself a better goaltender because of it.

“In Russia, it’s more of a controlled open-ice type of game, where in Germany it’s a little bit more of a North-American style, with more North American players.

“But if you go over to Europe and think you’re going to be playing in Kanata, or downtown Ottawa, that’s just not going to happen. It’s a totally different thing.”

Brathwaite has just finished his fourth season with the Mannheim Eagles in Germany, but, despite several offers, has put off returning to Europe in the hope of getting another shot at the NHL. He’s also trying to get a company called Sweet Seat off the ground. It makes an iPhone app that allows spectators to order food and merchandise from their seats at arenas.

But with the lockout showing no signs of ending, he’ll soon have to make a decision if he wants to play this season.

Skating informally with the lads while hoping for a resolution doesn’t pay the bills — or, more importantly, sharpen the skills.

But, however rewarding the European experience, the pull of the NHL is strong.

So Jason York can sympathize with Brathwaite’s desire for one more shot at the NHL. York felt the same tug in when he played in Switzerland for Lugano in 2005-06.

Coincidentally, York and Brathwaite share a longer hockey history than simply their youth in Nepean. While playing for his first NHL team, the Detroit Red Wings, York scored his first NHL goal against Brathwaite, then of the Edmonton Oilers, on April 10, 1994.

York didn’t play in 2004-05, losing the season to the lockout, and in March, 2005, his father Jim died.

So by the time the lockout ended, he was ready to try something different to re-ignite his life and his hockey career.

Without an NHL offer, he decided to try Lugano, while keeping his options open if an NHL offer did come along (one did, but it was too late for him to escape).

Except that he had to carry his own equipment, which he didn’t have to do in the NHL, York couldn’t have landed in a better place.

The organization got him a car and an apartment and his salary (between $250,000 and $500,000) was tax free.

He came home three times to visit his family, and they came to Switzerland twice.

The schedule was only 40 games, played on Saturdays and Sundays. Monday was a day off.

“It was one of the best things I’ve ever done,” he said.

“It was such a good life experience. At first it was an adjustment, playing on the big ice surface, and the refereeing was not so good.

“But I had a great time and really enjoyed the hockey.”

If he needed a diversion, the world-class shopping of Milan was only a 45-minute drive away.

On various occasions, the coach would take the team to outdoor rinks for practice, and once they went into the Alps for a team-bonding session and played practice games against a small rural team.

“We practised there for a week, and it was like getting back to your roots, when you played in your backyard,” said York.

To cap it all off, the team won the Swiss championship that year, so it was duly feted by Lugano.

That playoff year was not without its lows, however.

In the first round, with the team down 0-3, the players were pelted by rotten fruit and needed a police escort to get out of their own building, so angry were the fans. The coach himself was fired after Game 2.

“We were treated so well after we won the championship,” said York. “I stayed for a week after we won and we were just treated incredibly. But when you lose it’s a different story. There’s not as much pressure as in the NHL, but you have to play well.”

York could have stayed longer. The team offered him a three-year deal.

But when he played for Canada in the 2005 Spengler Cup in Davos, he impressed assistant coach Dave Lewis, who was only months away from being hired as head coach by the Boston Bruins.

Lewis told York he was too good to be playing in Switzerland, that he should be in the NHL, and when Lewis got the job in Boston, he did something about it, convincing newly signed general manager and Ottawa native Peter Chiarelli to sign York.

York had to weigh the pros and cons.

After taxes, his $500,000 U.S. salary would be less than he was making in Switzerland, and he’d have to play 42 more regular-season games, so there would be lots of wear-and-tear on an aging body.

He also wouldn’t be getting an apartment and car on the company’s tab.

But the pull of the NHL was too great.

“Everyone wants to play in the best league in the world,” said York.

“So when the NHL called, with a chance to play for an original six team, I jumped. That’s just the way I am.”

And so it will be when this lockout ends.

The itinerants will be gone the next morning, and their former teams will be scrambling to fill roster spots with the second- and third-third players who got bumped when the NHL players came calling for temporary work.

The NHL is the best league in the world, and, as York says, players don’t appreciate how good they had it in the NHL until they don’t have it.

But that is not to deny the richness of the European experience.

York said he doesn’t know why more players don’t take advantage of the opportunity.

Phillips enjoyed it so much he’d even consider returning for a year or two when his NHL career is over.

“We didn’t know how long the (labour dispute) was going to last and had the mindset that we would totally immerse ourselves in that culture and make the most of it,” he said.

“It was a great experience.

“It certainly opened my eyes to maybe going over there to play somewhere for a year or two when I’m done over here, experience a new place, and put the kids in a different school.

“Who knows?”

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