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Last Updated: Saturday, 12 March, 2005, 20:25 GMT
NHL exiles bring ice show to Russia

By Sarah Rainsford
BBC Russia correspondent in Voskresensk

Russian ice hockey fans
Russian fans can see some of the best ice hockey talent in the world
Russian sports fans are currently enjoying a rare treat, thanks to a bitter wage dispute in North America.

The decision by the North American ice hockey league, the NHL, to cancel its entire season following a lockout left hundreds of highly paid sporting superstars out of work.

But rather than hang up their skates, more than 70 are now playing in Russia.

They are a huge success with the public, but conditions for the stars are not quite what they are used to.

Bryan Allen was drafted in from Vancouver to Voskresensk - one of 7 NHL refugees signed by the Russian club to help them to the Superleague play-offs.

Approaching the town on the two-hour drive from Moscow, billboards welcome visitors to the "Ice Hockey Capital".

In fact Voskresensk is a nondescript place, made even more anonymous by a heavy snowfall.

But it is dominated by its Ice Palace: home to the Voskresensk Chemists, and gleaming after a $10 m facelift.

High class

Inside, Bryan Allen and the other NHL newcomers fly through their paces on the ice. "Russia is really lucky this wage row happened," coach Gennady enthuses, watching from the sidelines.

Bryan Allen
Voskresensk may have tradition but it's still a come down for some

"There are NHL players at almost every club here now - and they'll definitely leave a legacy: some techniques, some tactics maybe. As for the fans, this is their opportunity to see high-class hockey first hand."

For the visiting players, it is a chance to keep fit and keep earning during the lockout.

But adjusting to Russia has not been entirely smooth skating.

When Gennady gathers the team around him to explain the drill, the foreigners are clearly struggling.

"It's really tough," Bryan Allen admits later.

"It's all in Russian. Sometimes I try to go to the end of the line - or just play it by ear. I've messed up a few times, but they've been pretty lenient!"

The culture shock was pretty intense: the food, the way of life, everything!
NHL player Bryan Allen

It is quite a come-down for him in the team kitchen, too.

At dinner he tries out his semi-Russian on the chef before shrugging and pointing instead.

The pile of rice and bread he eventually sits down to are not quite the five-star service the NHL players are used to.

"The culture shock was pretty intense: the food, the way of life, everything," Bryan confesses - something of an understatement judging by his wide-eyed look.

And he is still adjusting to the shock news that the hockey season at home has been abandoned altogether.

'Worth the money'

Small-town Voskresensk is far from glamorous but the locals are extremely proud of their ice hockey history.

The club coached some of the greatest names in the game, including the first Russian player to transfer to America.

For now, that tradition lives on.

But Russia's vast oil wealth is already creating some serious new sponsors for sport, so managers here hope this temporary reversal of player traffic will soon become a regular feature.

"Russia has been paying more than the Europeans for players for some time," insists Alexander Tikhoneko, General Director of the Voskresensk Chemists.

"There are plenty of wealthy clubs here now who can afford expensive players. That's a real breakthrough. If we're not up to NHL level yet - then we are definitely getting close."

Voskresensk coach Gennady
The newcomers have to learn fast - as team talks are in Russian

He won't say how much it cost to sign his new players, but Alexander is adamant they're worth it.

They've certainly boosted ticket sales significantly.

When the Chemists file out onto the ice that night to take on Lada from Togliatti the stands are packed with fans.

"It's fantastic we can see players like Bryan Allen in real life!" Yury enthuses. "In the old days we had to learn from them by watching TV."

But this particular encounter proves money is no guarantee of success. It ends 3 - 1 to the car makers and descends into an almighty brawl.

Even so, it's another hit match with the fans. After all, they know this show's in town for one season only.

NHL heading for the precipice
17 Feb 05 |  US Sport

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