(Photo credit: Bernd Brückler)
Bernd Brückler’s recently published book This is Russia offers a look at what it is like to play in the Kontinental’naya Hokkeynaya Liga (KHL), primarily from his viewpoint as an import player. Import players are those who are not native born to the Russian Federation. And for many import players the differences from the other hockey leagues around the world are, in some words, drastic and dramatic.
Brückler’s years in the KHL encompassed the 2009-10 to the 2011-12 seasons where he played for two different teams: Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod and Sibir Novosibirsk. While with the teams, he kept a diary, which he then used, in cooperation with Risto Parkarinen, a Finnish hockey writer, as the basis for his book.
Brückler is what many North American hockey fans would refer to as a journeyman. And what a journey he has had. He has played goalie for the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL), United States Hockey League (USHL), NCAA, ECHL, American Hockey League (AHL), Liiga (Finland), KHL, and has represented Austria in a number of international competitions, as he was born in Graz, Austria. He currently plays for Austria’s EC Red Bull Salzburg.
Though the book is mostly about his time in the KHL, Brückler begins his story with his earliest life. His experiences in the juniors in Alberta, Canada show not only his determination but also some of the potential problems when a young teenage boy is living with a host or “billet” family as he strives to perfect his skills in an effort to make it to the professional ranks in hockey. Brucker’s willingness to travel half way around the world to play hockey speaks volumes of his commitment to the sport. Perhaps what is most interesting about Brückler’s book is his ability to describe so vividly his experiences throughout those three seasons in the KHL, during which the KHL experienced the loss of the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team in a plane crash disaster.
After reading the book, I had an opportunity to interview Brückler, who graciously took time from his still very busy schedule that encompasses a family and professional hockey, to offer insightful answers.
The Pink Puck: Is it unfair for North American hockey fans to dismiss, as has-beens, those NHL players who choose to go to the KHL to play?
Bernd Brückler: Yes, I think so. The KHL has established itself as a very good league and they are getting better every year.
TPP: In your book you write, “The coach is the king, or the tsar, and his word is your law. Maybe he puts you through a hard run, or maybe he makes you sit through a long meeting after a bad game, and you stick it out. I loved that.” Were you being sarcastic here? If not, what was it about this approach that appealed to you?
BB: Maybe there is some sarcasm in me saying I loved this when talking about a very hard run. However, what I liked about the approach is that the players didn’t complain but instead just worked through the tasks at hand.
TPP: You said, “In the KHL, I sometimes felt that the coaches weren’t even on my side.” However, you indicate that you would go back. What is it about the KHL that you would consider returning?
BB: The level of play is excellent and I actually enjoyed the experiences I had of living in Russia. Every day was an adventure and even after having lived in Russia for a few years, there were still plenty of interesting things to see.
TPP: What was the hardest thing to adjust to in the KHL? In living in Russia?
BB: Playing in the KHL was different than any other league. The Russian players are very skilled and they don’t waste their chances offensively. In fact, often times they pass up great scoring opportunities to make one more pass and they love being creative in their plays. As far as life, there are so many things to get accustomed to. The food, the language barrier, the travel, the living arrangements, the way the team handles paychecks, etc…
TPP: After the plane crash that killed the Lokomotiv team, did you ever worry when you were on a YAK-42?
BB: Not really. Maybe immediately after the crash I was a little uneasy about flying but in general I didn’t really worry so much about the Yak-42.
TPP: How does getting let go the way the KHL does it affect your confidence in your playing abilities?
BB: It was a shock to get fired but I didn’t let it affect my confidence. The bigger problem was the NHL lockout and the lack of jobs available. That was my worry after getting fired.
TPP: Though he played in the Kazakhstan Hockey Championship, it sounds like some of the experiences of Mike Danton with Biebarys Atyrau were similar to some of the KHL methods (referring to your mentioning of the “adjustment” to the +/- points and also the firing of John Grahame for drinking). It seems this is pretty much how things are done regardless of a contract. How can you protect yourself?
BB: It’s tough to protect yourself. Of course it helps to have a player’s association in the KHL. It also helps to have a well-respected agent but ultimately it’s very hard to protect yourself.
TPP: Though there are no KGB agents, it seems like while you were in the KHL the teams still had “spies” and relied heavily on intimidation much like when the Soviets were in charge. Was this somewhat of a carryover from those who had gone through the old systems? Did you see that diminishing as the older coaches and other management was replaced?
BB: Of course the old system is still in place but new coaches from the West or younger Russian coaches are increasingly adapting new training methods and are more open to Western ideas. It just shows that the KHL as a whole is getting better as well as the individual teams.
KHL on the Rise
During the recent games in Sochi, Russia, the XXII Olympic Winter Games, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, was clearly looking forward to pitting his KHL players against the NHL players on a world stage. In 2012 he said “To a certain extent our Kontinental Hockey Leaugue is a weak competitor to the NHL, but it’s gradually gaining momentum, and I’m confident that in time it can become real, good, healthy competition for the NHL.”
Unfortunately for Putin, and for the host country, the Russian team would not make it to the medal round. However, that does not mean that its players are not clearly becoming on par with the National Hockey League’s players. And it is evident that some of the Russians who have come to North America to play never felt that they acclimated to the culture of either Canada or the United States depending on the team for which they played. One of the most recent examples of this would be the retirement of Ilya Kovalchuk from the NHL only to see him return to Russia and join the KHL’s SKA St. Petersburg, one of the elite teams in the KHL, and one that Brückler played against.
For anyone who is interested in the sport of hockey, the improvement of these various other leagues, especially the KHL, can only bring good things to the sport. And for those interested in life in the KHL, Brückler’s book is a great start.