From Russia with glove

DON BRENNAN -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 10:03 AM ET

It was a rather impulsive decision that brought Fred Brathwaite to Russia, where he learned the patience to become a better goalie and to love Law and Order.

Now he's back home -- among family and friends and in a beautiful house on Stonebridge Golf & Country Club that certainly puts a wide range of TV shows at his fingertips -- playing the waiting game again.

"My agent has talked to probably 15 or 16 teams ... he says people are interested," the 33-year-old Nepean product explained yesterday. "But everyone wants to wait until after July 1. I'm not getting too excited ... they could be interested in 15 other goalies, too.

"I want to stay. I don't want to go back to Russia."

Nothing personal Boris, but it's every player's desire to work in the NHL -- even those who first lived the dream a dozen years ago and have already been a member of four western (Conference) teams. And it's not like Brathwaite failed to prove he belongs at an elite level last season.

The former Edmonton Oiler, Calgary Flame, St. Louis Blue and Columbus Blue Jacket was a backup on one of the worst clubs in the best league when all signs pointed to a work stoppage in 2004-05.

At the end of the previous season it was suggested to Brathwaite that he might want to look at an opportunity in the Russian Superleague, with the Kazan Ak-Bars.

With a lot of goalies soon to be without a crease to play in, he quickly decided to take the job.

"It was a chance to play a lot," he said. "And I ended up on a team more talented than I'll ever play on again. I'd like to have that team in North America."

No kidding.

Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexei Kovalev, Vincent Lecavalier, Michael Nylander, Brad Richards, Dany Heatley, Alexei Morozov, Darius Kasparaitis, Alexei Zhitnik became Ak-Bars when the NHL shut down.

Then along came Nikolai Khabibulin. Like Lecavalier and Richards, Khabibulin had just won a Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

His arrival in Kazan meant Brathwaite would play only every second game, until the last 10, when Khabibulin would gear up for the championship run that never came.

In an opening-round best-of-five, Brathwaite watched from the bench as his team lost two. He played Game 3, winning 1-0 in a shootout, then lost the season-ender 2-1.

"Somebody's got to go get the puck in the corner," Brathwaite laughed when asked about the shortcomings of the Ak-Bars.

Brathwaite says just practising with that group -- and learning from Khabibulin -- made him a better goalie. The results showed last season.

With all the big boys back in the NHL, the only truly recognizable name on the Ak-Bars was Morozov, the former Penguins first-rounder who led the team in scoring with 23 goals and 26 assists in 51 games. Yet Kazan flourished, winning the championship.

Brathwaite played in 32 games and went undefeated (in regulation time) the final 16 of them. He posted a 2.12 goals-against average and .900 save percentage, and was named the Superleague's goalie of the year.

"The biggest thing is that I became more patient," he said when asked how he has improved the past two seasons. "They don't play the dump and chase much there. You learn to adjust, play a little further back in the net.

"You see European goalies and they read the play so well, it seems they always know where the puck is going. Those guys don't shoot as much (as North Americans). They love to pass the puck."

Lifestyle adjustments were naturally required as well. In Kazan, situated 700 km east of Moscow, Brathwaite lived alone in an apartment that "looked like your grandmother's house" with its old furniture and antiques. The second year he hung around mostly with teammates Morozov and defenceman Gennady Razin, who was born in the Ukraine and spoke Russian fluently.

It helped to have some fellow, Eastern Ontario goalie friends nearby, too. Also playing in Russia were Ottawa's Tyler Moss and Travis Scott, former Kingston Frontenac Marc Lamothe, Belleville's Norm Maracle and Etobicoke's Steve Valiquette.

"I spoke with Marc and Tyler quite a bit ... anything to get some English," said Brathwaite, who figures he was paying about $1,000 (US) every two weeks in long distance charges.

"I can understand when people are saying some things over there. I can order a meal, I can order a beer. But mostly, we went to five restaurants. They had English menus. It's hard when you don't speak the language. It's tough to be able to do anything."

His girlfriend, Lori Charron, visited for a week. But other than that, Brathwaite didn't encourage friends or family to go over.

"If we were on a road trip, you wouldn't want to leave someone alone there for four days," he said.

The television viewing would get stale, for sure.

Brathwaite had three English options on the tube in his apartment: CNN, BBC and the Hallmark channel.

"Law and Order would be on at 9:30 p.m.," he said. "You'd rush home for that."

Now that he's home, home, Brathwaite's not rushing into anything. He works out, hones his golf game and plays in local charity tournaments. He can go back to Kazan next season -- he has a contract that would pay him more than anything he'd be offered by an NHL club, but money won't be the overriding factor when he decides where he'll play next season. He'll wait at least until mid-July before even considering Russia again.

"It was actually a pretty good experience," Brathwaite says of his time abroad. "It was a chance for me to play quite a bit, and at a good level. But I'd rather play in the NHL. I'd rather be happy, playing close to my family and friends, instead of the other side of the world."


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