American forward Ryan Stoa, who is in his fourth KHL season after stints with the Colorado Avalanche and Washington Capitals, is seen after the Continental Hockey League, or KHL, ice hockey match between Spartak Moscow and Neftekhimik Nizhnevartovsk, in Moscow, Russia. For North American players in the Continental Hockey League, almost every day brings unusual surprises. From Russian customs to just plain abnormal behavior, Americans and Canadians in the KHL figure out quickly it’s much different than the NHL on and off the ice. (Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

North Americans in KHL: ‘I can’t believe that just happened’

Ben Scrivens keeps trying to figure out what he is doing wrong.

And it has nothing to do with playing hockey.

Every once in a while in the Kontinental Hockey League, the former NHL goaltender offends someone and has to figure out what Russian superstition or custom he broke. There are plenty.

“You’re supposed to bring cake to the rink on your birthdays,” said Scrivens, a Canadian. “If you step on someone’s shoe, you’re supposed to put your foot out and they step back. It’s like a tit for tat type of thing. They’re super superstitious and so they have a lot: you can’t whistle in doors, you can’t shake hands through a doorway. And obviously you would never just guess these things, so you have to make the mistake.”

Dozens of North American players returned to the KHL last week after playing in the Olympics, where they learned different cultural lessons in South Korea. For foreigners unaccustomed to Russia and other places in the KHL, life on and off the ice can be a bit of a shock that never quite goes away.

“Pretty much every day there’s something that I shake my head and I can’t believe what’s going on,” said American forward Ryan Stoa, who is in his fourth KHL season after stints with the Colorado Avalanche and Washington Capitals. “There’s pretty much something every day that I can’t believe that just happened.”

That’s the KHL, where former NHL defenceman James Wisniewski said, “The normal’s abnormal and the abnormal’s normal.”

That explains a lot, like when a sheep was sacrificed on the ice earlier this season before a Barys Astana practice in Kazakhstan, which made a few North American players vomit at the sight of it.

“That’s probably one of the weirdest things I’ve ever heard of, honestly, in hockey,” Canadian forward Gilbert Brule said. “I couldn’t believe when I heard that.”

Sheep sacrifice is up there in the pantheon of the unbelievable in the KHL, though there are countless stories about everyday life in what’s considered the second-best hockey league in the world. Wisniewski said saw players giving themselves their own IVs and Wojtek Wolski keeps notes in his phone of the strange stuff he has seen so he doesn’t forget to share stories with friends back home.

“You’ve got to be ready for anything,” Wolski said. “I always say anything is possible and everything seems impossible at the same time and in the same day, in the same hour.”

Life in the KHL also means some more serious issues. Some players have not gotten paid because teams can’t make payroll. Old planes being used for travel came to light again when 44 people were killed in 2011 in the tragic Lokomotiv Yaroslavl crash.

Scrivens said he can live with 99 per cent of the cultural, personal and professional things that bother North American players and tries to ignore the rest.

Former New York Rangers defenceman Matt Gilroy’s first day in the KHL was also his birthday, and his new teammates all wondered where the cake was. He and Stoa have gotten used to the Russian custom of shaking hands with everyone each day if you didn’t sleep under the same roof the night before — from players to the bus and Zamboni drivers to rink attendants.

So much for keeping germs in check.

“I think guys get sick quite a bit because of it,” Scrivens said. At the Olympics, which saw an outbreak of norovirus, officials recommended players fist-bump instead of shaking hands.

Asked if he’d been stiffed on pay, Scrivens hedged by saying: “I don’t have any stories that haven’t already been publicized. I don’t have any worse stories than what’s already out there.” Some players were not willing to share stories because they either still have KHL contracts or could return to the league in the next few years, but Chris Bourque said, “Every story you hear is true.”

That includes the strenuous two-month training camps.

“Training camp is one of the hardest things there that I’ve probably ever been through in my life,” Brule said. “You’re basically going for almost two months straight, two-a-days, three-a-days. You’re on the ice twice, you’re working out all day, you get a break for lunch and you’re back at it all afternoon.”

For all the horror stories and head-scratching, Stoa pointed out that some guys have positive experiences in the KHL. Playing for Helsinki-based Jokerit or high-powered and wealthy SKA St. Petersburg or CSKA Moscow is a much different experience than living in Togliatti, Magnitogorsk or Chelyabinsk.

Gilroy said the language barrier is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome, though teams have interpreters to help. Some practices are run in Russian, but for all the craziness that goes on around them, North American players have one place they feel just fine.

“When you’re on the ice, it’s kind of all the same game all over the world,” Gilroy said. “You feel the most comfortable when you’re on the ice. Off the ice, you’re kind of a fish out of water, but when you’re playing the games it was the most comfortable you could be.”

Just Posted

WATCH: Spring on the farm comes to Red Deer

Sunnybrook Farm Museum kicks off a summer of education and fun

Woman hurt, driver arrested in two vehicle crash in Red Deer

Police say one vehicle involved was stolen

North and South Korean leaders hold surprise 2nd summit

SEOUL, Korea, Republic Of — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and… Continue reading

WATCH: Red Deer shows respect at annual celebration

Central Alberta Sexual Assault Suport Centre holds Respect Day at city hall park

Red Deer man sentenced to 4 1/2 years for fatal shooting

Mother-of-two was killed when a rifle in a sports bag accidentally went off in February 2017

WATCH: Throwing punches and kicks at the Western Canadian Karate Championships

More than 300 athletes competes at the event in Red Deer Saturday

Red Deer condo owner frustrated by property crime told to take down cameras

For the fourth time this month, Christopher Neitz woke up to his… Continue reading

Woman hurt, driver arrested in two vehicle crash in Red Deer

Police say one vehicle involved was stolen

WestJet, pilot’s union agree to settlement process with mediator

CALGARY — The threat of a strike by WestJet pilots appears to… Continue reading

Teacher out of hospital after stopping school shooting

NOBLESVILLE, Ind. — An Indiana science teacher was released from a hospital… Continue reading

Imperfect answers: A son killed in action and his parents ask why

BERTHOUD, Colo. - Ten days since Gabe was killed. Bob and Donna… Continue reading

From uncertain import to borderline superstar

They were just teenagers, and playing hockey on an international stage was… Continue reading

Snoop Dogg lauds Canada’s growing cannabis industry at Montreal tech conference

MONTREAL — Canada is more advanced than the United States regarding its… Continue reading

More LGBT issues loom as justices near wedding cake decision

WASHINGTON — A flood of lawsuits over LGBT rights is making its… Continue reading

Most Read


Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $185 for 260 issues (must live in delivery area to qualify) Unlimited Digital Access 99 cents for the first four weeks and then only $15 per month Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $15 a month