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Sports Section February 11, 2005
Russia Saves Hockey From NHeLL

With the NHL owners' impending season-long lockout of the players, the Stanley Cup will not be awarded in 2005. This marks the first time since 1919 that this will occur. Of course, as most of us can vividly remember, the Seattle Metropolitans and the Montreal Canadiens were one game away from deciding their first-to-three-wins series when a surprise contender emerged out of nowhere, namely Spanish influenza, and snatched the glory from both teams. But North America's (read: Canada's) loss is Russia's gain, as 72 NHL players have come to play in Russia's Superliga. Of these 72 the vast majority are Russian, but there are some notable exceptions -- Jaromir Jagr, Vincent Lecavalier, and Patrick Elias come immediately to any hockey's fan mind. The temporary influx of NHL-quality talent has boosted the level of play, in a league that already had the reputation amongst NHL scouts as being the second best in the world. When it comes to hockey, Russians can truly say, "U nas ne khuzhe."

There are 16 teams in the Superliga and three of them skate in Moscow -- Dinamo, CSKA, and Spartak. The 60-game regular season (every team plays against each opposing team 4 times) is followed by an eight-team playoff with best-of-five series. This year, one could make the case that 11 of the 16 teams are NHL-caliber, keeping in mind that NHL outfits such as the Columbus Blue Jackets and Carolina Hurricanes are technically considered NHL teams. I would say that only 6 teams stand any kind of chance of winning the Superliga championship this year, which are, coincidentally, the current top six teams -- Dinamo, Lada (Tol'yatti), Metallurg (Magnitogorsk), AK Bars (Kazan), Lokomotiv (Yaroslavl), and defending champions Avangard (Omsk). This opinion was gleaned from countless hours of research in front of the television and in the "ice palace," as hockey rinks are so-called in Russian.

Our readers will be happy to note that tickets are ridiculously cheap. Tickets for Dinamo, the only Moscow team currently playoff-bound and hence the only Moscow team worth watching, run from 50R to 300R. And even with those 50R ducats, a box of Kleenex will prove to be a superfluous precaution -- the arena is small enough for every seat to be a good seat. (Though admittedly, due to the proclivity of Soviet architects to design buildings with huge cement outcroppings, there are a handful of obstructed view seats.) It's best to get tickets an hour or so in advance -- not only does one avoid the long lines and requests to "buy a ticket for a friend" (who foolishly drank away the 50R that was supposed to buy his ticket), but also it leaves time to sufficiently prepare oneself for the match in one of the various plastic-walled, Uzbeki eateries/cheap-sources-of-alcohol located not far from the kassa. Find the right girl and the hockey game can turn into a fun and inexpensive date -- two 100R tickets (or even spring for the 200R) and four metro rides comes to 250R, less than $10. In the NHL, perhaps the least fan-friendly sports league in the world, the equivalent tickets cost $70 EACH plus $10 or so for parking. It's pretty obvious that Russian hockey gives great proverbial bang for the buck.

A cursory perusal of the crowd reveals a different demographic than at American sporting events. By and large, the crowd is composed of male, diehard fans -- couples and families are rather rare. This results in a rather high frequency of profanity. There is also a section for the suits, where once, the two animal-tamers from Great Moscow Circus were spotted, one of whom was carrying what North Americans would call a purse. Also of note are the cheerleaders. They come out before the first period in warm-ups, lose the warm-up for the second and shed the warm-up pants prior to the third. Lord help them if during the playoffs the game goes to overtime. Contra America, in Russia cheerleading does not enjoy the prestige of being considered a sport by a handful of idiots, so the cheerleading routines, which occur during stoppages of play, remind one of strippers dancing. While similar to an ocular-based siren's song at first, it quickly loses its luster, kind of like Manilov for readers of Gogol out there.

More engaging are the crowd chants. While not drastically different from standard chants across the world (e.g., Charge = Vperyod and the standard three syllable deconstruction of a team's name, DI-NA-MO), there are some intriguing idiosyncrasies. On power plays or other times of extended pressure, shouts of "shaibu" (goal) resound through the arena. Chants of "bullshit" at the officials are eschewed in favor of the simple, but expressive "The ref is a fag!" Lyrics of traditional sports songs are altered, and inevitably include "Dinamo" somewhere in its midst (for example, "Hey Hey Hey Goodbye" becomes "Hey-O-O Di-na-mo"). The visceral hatred that Dinamo fans have toward Spartak is demonstrated almost every match. Should an opposing player suited up for Spartak at any time during his career, shouts of "myaso" (meat) hound him around the ice, referring to Spartak's meat-like, red-and-white uniforms. For the self-same reason, a yell of "shashylk" welcomes opposing players to the penalty box.

Experienced viewers of hockey will notice several differences between the NHL and the Superliga. Probably the most important difference is the extra width of the ice surface. This allows for more space for the players to maneuver and greatly reduces the effectiveness of any sort of neutral-zone trapping system, the scourge of North American hockey. But the larger rink also means that the speed of the game is a tick or two slower, as players have to cover more ice surface during their shifts and thus conserve their energy. Automatic icing, the legal two-line pass, tag-up offsides and lack of periodic 90-second commercial breaks combine to make the game flow superbly, noticeably better than the NHL. The style of play, which results from decades of Soviet hockey tradition, is quite distinct. Whereas North Americans move in straight lines from A to B, dumping the puck into the offensive zone when necessary, Russians prefer to maintain puck possession and navigate from A to B via C, D and E. This results in less hitting, body checking and fighting (which is rare, but not non-existent, in the Superliga), but more slashing and other stick fouls. Thanks to the influence of European and South American soccer (or, more simply, soccer), diving and self-refereeing are common among a portion of the players. The refereeing by the referee proper is oftentimes inconsistent, lending credence to the worth of the NHL's two-referee system. The skill level of the forwards is more or less on par with NHL forwards, but the average model of defenseman has more in common with a Lada than a Merc. Between the pipes there are two or three great goaltenders in the league, four to five solid goaltenders, but from there the drop-off is rather dramatic.

The foreigner content is rather low at the games -- for example, my boisterous comment in English, "Holy shit, it's Martin Havlat! [who was playing in his first game for Dinamo]" elicited synchronized head-turns within a ten-seat radius. The lack of foreigners means Russians will want to talk to you, the most common question being "How does Russian hockey compare to the NHL?" At the games I have met many good people with refreshing outlooks on life. I have also met less savory people, one who wanted to know if it's really true that in America, there are parts of cities where lots of black people live, and one who reeked of cabbage, constantly screamed offensive obscenities and chased away no less than four people who had the misfortune to elect to sit next to him for awhile (seat assignments in the fan section are only loosely followed). On a different note, perhaps the funniest sports commentary that I have ever heard occurred following a public address announcement that AK Bars (Kazan, a team that has spent literally millions of dollars in order to enlist bonafide NHL stars in conjuction with the 1000th year of the city's existence) lost to Khimik (Moskovskaya Oblast). It went something like, "Oh man, now even more Tatar girls will have to be sold into prostitution in order to finance the transfer of more NHL'ers. Kazan can't lose to teams like Khimik and still expect to have a happy millennial celebration."

And a final word of advice -- don't walk alone through the streets of Moscow wearing sports-themed apparel. As I was walking through the prokhodnaya to the platform of glorious Vykhino on my way to a game, a young man, noticing my belo-goluboi scarf, the colors of Dinamo, asked me for the time. I politely answered and then received in return, "Remove your scarf and you won't have any problems." Naively thinking that this gentleman had once had a problem with the police because he had been wearing a sports scarf, I started to take off the scarf. At this point, when his hand grabbed at the scarf and started pulling, I quickly realized that I had misunderstood the particulars of his request. Unwilling to surrender without a fight, I also started pulling. And here, a hitherto unnoticed second gentleman emerged from the crowd and punched me square in the upper lip, effectively separating me from my scarf. Amidst shouts of "Bozhe moi!" and "Gospodi!" from old ladies, I calmly wiped the blood from my lips. Meanwhile, having run a little ways down the passage, the two gentlemen turned around, kind of shook the scarf at me, looked me right in the eye and yelled "Spar-TAK!"

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