From Russia with love

DENIS POISSANT, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:39 AM ET

CHELYABINSK, Russia -- The final seconds are winding down on a terrible game for Traktor Chelyabinsk, a 4-1 loss against Sibir, a run-of-the mill club from backwoods Siberia. This will be the second loss in a row.

Even with a perfect start to the season, it's never fun.

The crowd chanted encouragement as they filed out of the old Unost arena, but former Hab Pierre Dagenais grits his teeth. He hates losing.

His team's top scorer, tied with captain Andrei Nikolishin, Dagenais hates the morning after a defeat for a good reason. The coach has been on his case for the past couple of games and will make him lace up for what had been an optional practice. Dagenais isn't exactly sure why.

It could be the coach's way of showing Russians that the foreigners (there's a limit of five per team) won't be getting a free ride.

In any case, Dagenais does what he's told. Sir, yes sir. He wants to end the season on a high note so he can sign another contract, hopefully in Chelyabinsk. He has become used to it here. It was the coach who brought him and fellow Quebecer, Martin Grenier, toughest guy in the league, to this remote corner of Russia.

Grenier, a defenceman, wasn't going to miss this chance after playing a grand total of 18 games in the NHL. But he almost turned around when his plane landed at the local airport and no one spoke a word of English. He admits to having a brief panic attack and shedding a few tears. His girlfriend reassured him on the phone. Hey big guy (6-foot-5, 270 lbs.), don't give up yet. He had a hard time getting used to the local specialties, so his first meals consisted of Pringles.

He has evolved into a routine since then, and has learned to like a few local dishes.

His girlfriend joined him and is taking a correspondence course in administration. It all helps him feel less like a fish out of water.

The two of them see this as a life experience, living in a comfortable apartment within walking distance of the arena. When you're in your 20s and you don't have kids, why complain about building a nest egg?

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Dagenais, 30, with two kids, ages three and six months, has to dig deep to find the strength to keep going here. The problem isn't so much the city as the distance from loved ones back home. But he'd still take Chelyabinsk over Hamilton any day.

He's not wrong -- but it's no Caribbean paradise over here. Chelyabinsk must have more nuclear reactors than Oshawa has Tim Hortons. Its heavy industries spew clouds of smoke that leave a permanent smog over the city.

And a word to the wise, avoid drinking the water. In 1957, one of Chelyabinsk's nuclear reactors had an accident. Hundreds of people died and cancer has ravaged the area for decades. Chelyabinsk is one of the most contaminated spots on the planet.

That nightmare accident was kept secret until the end of the 1970s, when it was finally revealed by a Russian scientist. Chelyabinsk was one of the cities closed to foreigners during Soviet times, part of their attempt to protect the military secrets in the local factories.

Founded in 1947, Traktor is part of that industrial heritage. The Traktor factory is still in the business of making -- you guessed it -- tractors. It produced 20,000 a year during the war, plus tanks and just about anything made of metal.

But Chelyabinsk, despite its dark history, has that pleasant charm from another era, an opera, beautiful historic buildings and impressive parks. And the people here are great, less stuck-up and cold than in Moscow.

Dagenais learned to like the place. It's 11 p.m. at his favourite restaurant on one of the nicest pedestrian streets in the city. His phone rings. It's his girlfriend in Quebec, where it's 2 p.m.

An hockey player's life isn't easy, but as long as the league offers good pay to foreign players (there are 97 in all), they'll keep coming.

Some, such as Ray Giroux (St. Petersburg), have even rejected offers from the NHL to stay in Russia for his fourth season.

If Dagenais manages to get a contract for next year, he'll be bringing his family with him this time.

He'll be buying a ton of bottled water, too.

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expansion

The KHL is only in its first year, but there's already talk of expansion. Japan and China are in its sights, as are the great hockey cities of Europe. Is the NHL about to be forced out of an important market? The fact the question is being asked says plenty.

The economic downturn hits the two 'Metallurgs'

The metal industry is at the heart of the economy in southern Russia, and the economic downturn is hitting the area hard. A company in Magnitogorsk recently laid off 3,000 workers at once. Hockey players on the team in Novokuznetsk haven't received a paycheque in several weeks. Other clubs are hurting as well, but the majority will be able to weather the storm.

State in controlof the league

More than half the teams in the KHL are under the direct control of the government at some level, and several are run by cities or regional administrations. The Kremlin tells the oil oligarchs which teams to sponsor, buy or subsidize. Not long after New York Rangers prospect Alexei Cherepavov died on his team's bench during a game in Chekhov, the local government fired the club's manager and the arena manager.

Salary cap $24.5 million

The salary cap for every one of the 24 teams, compared to $56.7 million in the NHL.

$48.72 (US dollars)

The league average cost for NHL tickets in 2007-08.

Affordable KHL tickets $10

The average cost of a ticket in most KHL cities to take in a game.


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