Heading Home

As we prepare for the upcoming hockey season to begin, there will be a few familiar faces that will no longer be in the NHL anymore.  Long time veterans like Sergei Fedorov and Sergei Zubov will head back home to play in their motherland of Russia to join the likes of Jaromir Jagr, Peter Cajanek and Alexander Radulov. Nikolai Zherdev also finds himself going to Russia this season after the Rangers refused to pay him the money he was awarded in a recent arbitration hearing.  Perhaps the biggest news from Russia may have been the signing of Red Wings forward Jiri Hudler, who at 25 years old will leave the NHL following a contract dispute with Detroit. While there are definitely some players from North America going to Russia, many of those involved are either past their prime or players who simply cannot deal with the prospects of making a lesser salary in the AHL.

Sadly, NHL fans may have seen one of the best Russian players of all time in Sergei Fedorov play his last game in the best hockey league in the world. At 39 years of age, this may be the end of the road for Fedorov in the NHL as he will now join his brother Fedor in playing alongside the team that gave us Evgeni Malkin in Metalllurg Magniotogorsk. Over the last few years, it became a true joy to watch the veteran of Russian hockey in Fedorov play alongside the future of Russian hockey with players like Ovechkin and Semin in Washington.

Fedorov will no doubt be enshrined in the Hall of Fame when his playing days are over and he might be joined by another Russian in Sergei Zubov who has also chosen to leave the NHL this season as well. Like Fedorov, Zubov is also 39 years old and has also likely played his last game in the NHL. As the years go by, this trend of seeing the old guard of Russian hockey head back home is not that uncommon anymore. Will we ever face a situation in the future where a veteran like Alexander Ovechkin will go back to Russia? Time will only tell.

While the careers of players like Ovechkin and Malkin have a very long way to go, there is a clear indication that for some of the Russians who are on the downturn of their careers, the appeal of heading home is a better option than the NHL. Other familiar faces to NHL fans who also find themselves in the KHL today include Darius Kasparitis, Oleg Petrov, Aleksey Morozov and a long list of other ex NHLers.

While the departures of players like Fedorov and Zubov are nonetheless significant losses for the NHL, it is with the young players where the impact will really be felt. The NHL got a small taste of this last year when former Nashville Predator Alexander Radulov left the Preds for more money in the KHL. On the surface, Radulov looked like a player that was very committed to a career in the NHL as unlike many Russians, he played his junior hockey in Canada. After playing under the helm of Patrick Roy with the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL, the feeling was that maybe this was a kid who wanted to stay in North America. As we saw last year, that was not the case.

After seeing the Radulov situation occur, fans can no longer assume that a Russian who chooses to play his junior hockey in Canada automatically wishes to play in the NHL. Perhaps the biggest concern for NHL teams with many of these young players has to be the decision on whether to allow a young 19 or 20 year old player to develop in the AHL instead of playing only a few minutes as a rookie in the NHL. While many NHL stars have at one point or another paid their dues prior to making is to the big show, there are some who do not want the smaller paycheques or more gruesome schedule of riding busses all the time that comes with the AHL. 

Every offseason in hockey, there is always the story of a player saying who will go to Russia if he gets sent to the AHL or back to junior. Currently, there are rumours surrounding forward Sergei Kostitsyn who was unable to make the Habs and will be playing with the Hamilton Bulldogs of the American Hockey League. A few weeks back, there was even speculation that Columbus first round pick Nikita Filatov would head to Russia if he did not make the Blue Jackets out of training camp. While the rumours circulating around Filatov and Kostitsyn are simply just rumours, there is nonetheless a continued attempt by the KHL to lure top level talent away from the NHL. Of late, even the political powers have been involved such as Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin indicating last month that he hopes to see the KHL continue to expand throughout Europe.

While the KHL may be something of an unknown to many fans in North America, the league will once again have some top level players this year.  As the stories of players leaving the NHL for the KHL often make the headlines, there are also stories of the KHL that represent the league in a negative light. Whether you are a coach or a player, some of those who have been involved in the KHL have often indicated that the accommodations are not always the greatest. Medical concerns were also raised last year by the horrific images of former Rangers draft pick Alexei Cherepanov collapsing on the bench during a KHL game. Unfortunately for Cherepanov, his death would come shortly after the incident. If ever given the opportunity, listen to interviews with former KHL players and pay attention to both the positive and the negatives of life in the KHL. The book King of Russia is a good read if you want to find out about current Coyotes assistant coach Dave King and the experiences he had in the Russian Superleague.  

The NHL is the best hockey league in the world and one can only hope that trend continues on for eternity. If the players that leave for Russia are guys like former Ranger Nikolai Zherdev, maybe this is something that both the league and the fans can tolerate. Zherdev was a player who was constantly critiqued from the time he was drafted for his lack of motivation to play. He was also in the middle of a few contract disputes with both Columbus and the Rangers. While Zherdev did put up some good regular season points in New York last year, he disappeared when it counted and that was when the playoffs started. The selfish player who does not fully achieve his potential is not the type of player that fans should lose sleep over not seeing in the NHL.

A lot of players who cross the water to Russia are players who often find themselves in contract disputes or players who are unable to accept the rigours of developing in the AHL. The other group of players that go to Russia are those who no longer have any value in the NHL as teams do not wish to sign them.  Arbitration can be a scary thing and there is no doubt that the Red Wings will miss Jiri Hudler but the NHL has dealt with these type of situations from rival leagues in the past and has always come out on top. While players like Fedorov and Zubov will be missed this year, NHL fans can simply be fortunate that we were able to see these players when they were at their best. And with Pavel Datsyuk, Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin all signed to long term deals in the NHL, we will be able to see these Russian superstars at their best for many years to come. 


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