(Ed. Note: Our own Dmitry Chesnokov is in Russia for the KHL All-Star Game this weekend, and will be filing several interviews and stories over the next few days. Here's an introductory video with D.C. and our buddy Dave Pagnotta of The Fourth Period wearing dopey hats, followed by an enlightening chat with former Philadelphia Flyers goalie Robert Esche(notes).)
With the emergence of the KHL quite a few players have found a new alternative to making a living playing hockey. But most still know very little about the league that markets itself around former NHL players like Jaromir Jagr(notes), Alexander Radulov(notes), Sergei Zubov(notes) and Alexei Yashin(notes).
While it is easier to understand Russian born NHL-ers going to the KHL, it is still news when Canadian or American players decide to leave a lot behind to start their new hockey life in a foreign land. I wanted to get a North American player's opinion on the KHL and the challenges as well as positives of going to play in Russia.
"I really enjoy the KHL," Barry Smith, a five-time Stanley Cup winner as an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings, and now head coach of SKA St. Petersburg, told us on Thursday.
"The league has great skills, there are a lot of good plays. I have enjoyed it tremendously. It's just a step down from the NHL." Smith noted, however, that one of KHL's main advantages is its shorter season. "What I do like here vs. the NHL is it's 56 games; 82 is too much because all you do is travel and play, and you really have a hard time to fix anything in the NHL because of practice time."
I caught up with Robert Esche after a recent KHL game between SKA and Dinamo Minsk to get his take on playing in the KHL. Esche was riding a bike in an NHL-like equipped training room inside the Ice Palace in St. Petersburg after his team dropped the decision to Dinamo Minsk.
Q. Do you think it is still an option for you being three years out of the NHL to come back to North America?
ESCHE: I don't know. Right now I am a free agent over here. Obviously, I love St. Petersburg, and I love playing over here. If it works in the NHL, it works. If it doesn't, it doesn't. I have kind of taken on a different role in my life, as opposed to when I was in Philly. I just went into a different direction. You just learn a lot about yourself when you're over here. I think this was something I was lacking in the NHL. I guess time will tell what happens.
What was the toughest for you to adjust to in the KHL? Is this something that made you learn that something new about yourself?
When you're playing in the NHL you don't realize how many distractions there are. You tell yourself there are not. You look at the game and say that nothing bothers you. You tell yourself you're a warrior. You're a Canadian. You're an American. You're a tough guy. But the truth of the matter is you really do not learn how to be a professional, at least in the goaltending position, until you get older.
Coming over here, you don't know the language. You can't read newspapers. You don't care what people are saying about you. And you actually learn a lot about yourself. I think that that's something that's helped my game out immensely. I remember back in the States, playing for Philly -- and Philly is a great place to play in, but you read the paper every day. You know about the goaltending controversy every day. And slowly but surely it just chips away and you don't realize it until it's too late. That's the problem with experience. You don't get experience until it's too late. And I think that over here that's something that I managed to learn about myself.
So, what is the best thing that you learned after your move to the KHL?
Well, women are beautiful!
I don't know if my wife would like that [laughing].
There are a lot of terrific things over here. There are a lot of different things too. I don't think we're exactly alike. You learn a lot about people over here - how they are. And it's actually kind of neat. And they learn how you are and they get to deal with you too. But I am in the hockey atmosphere over here. And I believe that the hockey atmosphere is the same no matter where you go: you win and they like you; you lose and they don't like you.
What do you think about having only older players mostly going to the KHL? Is this going to change in the near future?
I don't think it's just older players. I think what it is, is just flat out the money. They are offering tons of money. You look at that Hudler kid and Dynamo [Moscow]. Detroit offers him a pretty good contract. But how can you say 'no' to something that is quadrupled over here? I mean, you're a young kid. You can play a year in Detroit, or make whatever it is he is making over here.
Is it only about money?
No! No! It's not only about money. But, I mean, somebody in my position, for example, I really looked at it as an opportunity to play. I knew that after that season in Philly, one - nobody wanted to give me a contract; two - I just wasn't willing at whatever I was, I think I was 29, I was not willing to be a backup and sit on the bench as a 29 year old. It's not something that is in my characteristic. So, I took a shot. I was scared to death when I was coming over here, don't get me wrong. But things have worked out for the best for my so far.
You know, I had a few good opportunities with Phoenix and Philly this summer. It just wasn't for me. I still have a year on my deal here. Phoenix was more serious toward the end. Philly was still trying to get Pronger and it was dragging along, and our KHL season was getting ready to start. I guess it's all relative.