Hockey Night in Russia

DENIS POISSANT, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 3:34 PM ET

CHELYABINSK, Russia -- There's a giant gap between the quality of hockey being played in Russia and the NHL. Too often good individual plays go nowhere and only serve to break the rhythm of a game.

Here for example, many times I saw players with a dazzling display of stickhanding before reaching the blue line and causing an offside, giving the cheerleaders another chance to do their thing to the sound of a rock anthem from the West.

Pierre Dagenais and Martin Grenier (18 games in the NHL), the only two Canadians on the roster, weren't the fastest or best players. They're lucky to have landed $500,000 contracts and pay 13% of that in tax, and they know it. They'll do everything they can to keep their jobs.

They follow through on their checks and are solid positionally -- fundamentals of North American-style hockey. Dagenais, small in stature for a hockey player, and Grenier, play with more intensity than anyone else on the ice.

And Dagenais is constantly taking shots (his specialty), charging the net and staying glued to the crease, the kind of tactics that have put him among Traktor's best scorers. But all around on an ice surface 15 feet wider than an NHL rink, a graceful, airy and often inefficient European-style hockey is being played.

Many say the difference in the playing style between the world's two biggest leagues comes down to the difference in ice size. I disagree.

A little zigzagging to outmanoevre opponents is fine, as Russian players are taught from a young age, but too much definitely isn't good. Forechecking doesn't even exist here. While still giving freedom to individual talent, KHL teams would be better served if they adopted a tighter game -- the Soviets were known for it in the 1970s and 1980s.

It would make for a better show.

And is it really necessary to shake hands after every regular season game? It's sportsmanlike, but a bit of ill will wouldn't hurt the professional atmosphere.

There's no question there's talent in the KHL. But in the words of SKA St. Petersburg manager Igor Larionov, equality between the KHL and NHL is a decade away.

In a best-of-seven game series between any club in the NHL and the KHL champion, my money's on the former. No matter what ice they're playing on. It's a question of character. In Russia, you can't always find the little extra effort that's needed.

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That doesn't mean their speed on the ice isn't impressive. The KHL may still be far from the NHL, but the hockey is better than in the American Hockey League. There's a lot more talent and players are in remarkable physical shape.

Grenier had to lose 20 lbs. to play with the Russian Rockets in the KHL. The big defenceman plays 20 minutes a game.

There are only 56 games in the season here, but the training is so intense it recalls the Viktor Tikhonov era. We're talking training in 20-kg steel jackets and always skating, skating, skating.

The night before games, the entire team sleeps in a military-style "baza" or base, after a dinner of ground meat and boiled potatoes (the menu never changes). Most teams have kept this tradition from Soviet times. They especially don't want the younger players developing bad habits. When coupled with a better application of hockey basics, this penchant for physical training will move the KHL closer to the NHL level.

This is an important first year for the Kontinental league. A lot has been done, but there is more to accomplish.

If you're among those griping about NHL refs, let me put your mind at ease. Faced with the fury of quick-tempered fans and players, KHL referees sometimes call offences that they completely ignored half a second before.

So the KHL still has a way to go. But they have an advantage: They run a lot faster than the NHL these days.

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KHL BY THE NUMBERS

3

The number of non-Russian teams in the KHL: Dinamo Minsk (Belarus), Barys Astana (Kazakhstan) and Dinamo Riga (Latvia). These teams can take on as many foreign players as they want, compared to Russian clubs which are allowed a maximum of five per team.

18

The number of working hours in a day that league president Alexander Medvedev dedicates to his two responsibilities: positioning Russia at the centre of world hockey and exporting energy to the four corners of Europe as a Gazprom director.

24

The estimated cost of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi in billions of US dollars.

15

The extra width in feet of the ice surface in the league. It requires a very different game with a huge amount of stamina.

56

Number of games in the KHL regular season.

28

The number of Russians playing in the NHL this season. That's one-third of the number from the 2000-2001 season, when there were 87. With the arrival of the KHL, NHL teams are taking fewer risks, careful not to draft players who might not come to North America.

$200,000

The amount paid by the NHL to the European federations as compensation for the loss of a player. Russia estimates it takes $1 million to develop a pro player. There's no agreement on this issue and a cold war is settling in, made worse by Alexander Radulov. Was it contract breaking? It all depends on your point of view. For the Russians, his "defection" to the KHL could be compared to Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin. Didn't those two have contracts in Russia?

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NOTABLE FORMER NHL PLAYERS NOW PLAYING IN THE KONTINENTAL HOCKEY LEAGUE

Ray Emery

Canada

Jan Bulis

Czech Republic

Robert Esche

U.S.A.

Jussi Markkanen

Finland

Jaromir Jagr

Czech Republic

Marcel Hossa

Slovakia

Darius Kasparaitis

Russia

Pierre Dagenais

Canada

OTHERS

Player Country

Martin Grenier Canada

Alexander Perezhogin Kazakhstan

Alexei Yashin Russia

Chris Simon Canada

Bryan Berard U.S.A.

Nathan Perrott Canada

Jozef Stumpel Slovakia

Oleg Petrov Russia

Alexander Radulov Russia

Oleg Tverdovsky Ukraine

Ben Clymer U.S.A.

Trevor Letowski Canada

Eric Landry Canada

Fedor Fedorov Russia

Sergei Brylin Russia

Andrei Zyuzin Russia

Mark Popovic Canada

Ray Giroux Canada


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