SKA St. Petersburg's Ilya Kovalchuk skates with team mates during their Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) game against Dynamo in Moscow September 23, 2012. (REUTERS)
The Russian-speaking NHLers have opened a media war of their own, it seems.
Virtually not a day goes by without a famous player currently in the KHL saying something inflammatory toward the NHL, usually involving their plans to stay in the Russian-based league should the new collective bargaining agreement -- when the NHL and the union come up with one -- slash their contracts.
Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals and Ilya Kovalchuk of the New Jersey Devils have been vociferous on the issue. Recently, Ilya Bryzgalov of the Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens defenceman Andrei Markov have chimed in as well. Markov has since backtracked on his comments, saying he would come back to Montreal once the lockout is over, but Ovi and Kovi aren't backing away.
And just last week, a former Canadien delivered the strongest message of all, which he, naturally, reneged on almost immediately. Belarusian forward Sergei Kostitsyn, playing for Avangard Omsk in Siberia, gave an interview to Yuri Golyshak in Sport-Express in which he expressed his wish that the lockout would continue for the rest of the season and had some unpleasant things to say about North America in general.
"It's better for (the lockout) to continue," the Nashville Predators star was quoted as saying. "NHL players are being tormented with this decision -- here or there. We want certainty. To play a year in Russia, and that's it. If American hockey is losing this year, so be it."
Kostitsyn said his Porsche is the only thing he misses about America, then called Columbus the "gloomiest" town. He said Americans have a "different mentality, completely different from us" and agreed with Bryzgalov's words about America being "the country of lies," saying "there is a lot of falseness behind (their) smiles."
Nashville's newspaper, The Tennessean, immediately followed up with Kostitsyn about those comments and he said he was misquoted, a reply often heard from European players after they give candid interviews back home. Golyshak, one of Russia's most widely read and respected interviewers, commented on Kostitsyn's backtracking, saying it was strange how many Russians never consider the possibility that their words get translated in North America and said he doesn't blame Kostitsyn.
"Let America hear what it wants to hear," the journalist said.
There is, however, a wider issue of Russian-speaking players using strong anti-NHL and anti-North American rhetoric, including the fact that many reporters intentionally word their questions in such a way as to generate KHL-friendly headlines. Many KHL clubs view it as a good policy to cultivate the belief that the NHLers will remain after the lockout. And it is no secret that several major Russian media outlets have "advertisement deals" with the KHL, providing only those types of stories that benefit the league and suppressing those that may harm it.
KHL's BIGGEST HEADACHE
As a player, Traktor Chelyabinsk superstar Evgeni Kuznetsov is one of the KHL's biggest assets. His dazzling moves are a constant fodder for highlight reels and his sense of humour is a treasure-trove for the media. His decision not to leave Russia for the Washington Capitals and instead to sign a two-year extension with Traktor was widely celebrated.
But as of late Kuznetsov has also turned into somewhat of a public-relations nightmare for the league as well. During a trip to Khabarovsk, when he was initially put up in a very substandard hotel room, Kuznetsov didn't hesitate to take his feelings to Twitter. Instead of a bed, the room featured a folding cot, such as often seen in Soviet-era student dormitories and summer camps. Kuznetsov's tweeting of the picture of the cot went viral, but the KHL wasn't amused, forcing him to apologize.
Recently, however, the loose cannon went off again, as Kuznetsov, in a post-game interview said something quite opposite to the message the league wants to put out. "When the NHLers leave, the seats will be empty," he said, doubtlessly sending the league's P.R. department into a fit of fury.
A NASTY BEATING
It is often noted that those goons who were the talk of the league while playing for Vityaz Chekhov, miraculously lose their powers when changing teams. Last week, Barys Astana's Canadian enforcer Jon (Nasty) Mirasty, who was a goon of legendary acclaim last year, was challenged by Vityaz's new tough guy, Trevor Gillies.
Mirasty earned a lot of accolades beating up on baffled and inept Russian counterparts but, against Gillies, an NHL-level goon with a huge size advantage, Nasty was completely helpless. Gillies left him lying on the ice, woozy, battered and trussed up in his own sweater, perhaps proving that there is something to that Vityaz magic after all.
NO. 1 GOALIE
That's the ranking of Canadian goaltender Michael Garnett of Traktor Chelyabinsk in the KHL's saves-of-the-month lineup. Actually, in the league's top 10 for best saves in September, Garnett is listed twice, at Nos. 1 and 6.
His denial of the NHL first overall draft pick Nail Yakupov was deemed sixth-best stop, but it was his jaw-dropping double save against Salavat Yulayev Ufa that earned him top honours. First, he turned away a point-blank shot at the right post with his blocker, then, as the rebound went to the opposite post, he slid across the goalmouth with stacked pads, and saved one more close-range shot, kicking the puck off the goal line. An incredible display of acrobatics from one of the league's best goalies.