NPR

Russia's Hockey Glad To Have NHL-Lockout Orphans

Erik Christensen, right, from Lev Praha challenges Alexander Ovechkin from Dynamo Moscow during their KHL ice hockey match in Prague, Czech Republic, Tuesday, Oct. 9. Ovechkin is among those NHL players who were signed by European clubs because of the NHL lockout. (AP)

As the National Hockey League lockout drags into its 86th day, which featured news that more games have been cancelled including the All-Star game, some of the league's biggest stars are getting plenty of action back in their home countries.

In Russia, major NHL players such as Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin are giving a boost to the fledgling KHL—the Kontinental Hockey League.

Russian NHL players are scattered throughout the KHL teams that still carry names from the Soviet era when Russia dominated world hockey.

Ovechkin plays for Dynamo Moscow, the team that gave him his professional start. He's joined by his Washington Capitals teammate, Center Nicklas Backstrom.

They've made a happy man of Andrei Safronov, Dynamo's general manager: He calls Ovechkin "our hero," and says that he and Backstrom have been playing the kind of spectacular hockey that draws crowds.

On a recent night, Dynamo played a traditional rival, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl from an industrial city about 160 miles northeast of Moscow. Lokomotiv is bolstered by two more NHL players, goaltender Semyon Varlamov, who comes from the Colorado Avalanche, and Artem Anisimov, from the Columbus Blue Jackets.

This is a comeback season for Lokomotiv, still in mourning after an airplane crash in September of 2011 killed 37 team members, coaches and support staff. It's been a strong comeback, with Lokomotiv now in second place in the league's western conference, right behind Dynamo.

Ovechkin seems to have mixed emotions about being back in Moscow.

Last month, he told Russia's RT English-language television that it was good to be home with loved ones and his old crowd, even though he's working as hard as ever:

"The only problem with what I have in Washington..." Ovechkin said, "I miss my friends and family, but again, you professional, and if you have a time to relax you have to use it."

More recently, he complained in an interview on his blog about what he sees as the lack of interest in hockey in Moscow. He said Dynamo has been playing to unfilled arenas, and said he's still hoping to get back to Washington in time to lead the Capitals to the Stanley Cup.

Fans in Russia say it's true their league is still building a fan base.

The Kontinental Hockey League was founded four years ago, out of the remnants of the Russian Super League. Most of its teams are Russian, but it includes clubs from Belarus, Ukraine and four other countries.

Many clubs have been struggling to amp up their attendance.

Fan Oleg Shokov says the NHL stars lend some excitement to the season, but he said the league is gaining momentum, even without the outside talent.

"Maybe not this year, but maybe in a few years, of course we will be able to compete with NHL stars," he said. "Definitely. You'll see."

But Shokov can't resist asking an American reporter the same question many Russian fans keep raising: "And what about lockout? What you think, when it will be completed?"

The latest collapse in NHL talks means that that some of the NHL players, including Ovechkin, will be part of a Russian all-star team at the Euro Hockey Tournament in Moscow this week.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. The National Hockey League announced today that fans won't be getting any hockey for the holidays. The season has been canceled through December 30th. But some of the league's biggest stars aren't hanging up their skates because of the lockout. They're playing back in their home countries. In Russia, major NHL players, including Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, are giving a boost to the fledgling KHL, the Kontinental Hockey League. As NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow, Russian fans are in no hurry to see the NHL lockout end.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: U.S. and Canadian fans may be losing a big chunk of their professional hockey season, but their loss is Russia's gain. Instead of sitting the season out, stars such as Ovechkin returned to their native Russia, playing under this anthem in the KHL.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD SINGING)

FLINTOFF: Russian NHL players are scattered throughout the KHL teams that still carry names from the Soviet era, when Russia dominated world hockey.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

FLINTOFF: Ovechkin plays for Dinamo Moskva - or Dynamo Moscow, the team that gave him his professional start. He's joined by his Washington Capitals teammate, center Nicklas Backstrom. They've made a happy man of Andrei Safronov, Dynamo's general manager.

ANDREI SAFRONOV: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: He calls Ovechkin our hero, and says that he and Backstrom have been playing the kind of spectacular hockey that draws crowds. He looks a little anxious as he asks when the NHL lockout is going to be resolved.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)

FLINTOFF: On this night, Dynamo is playing a traditional rival, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl - or Locomotive, from an industrial city about 160 miles northeast of Moscow. Locomotive is bolstered by two more NHL players - goaltender Semyon Varlamov, who comes from the Colorado Avalanche; and Artem Anisimov, from the Columbus Blue Jackets. This is a comeback season for Locomotive, still in mourning after an airplane crash - in September of 2011 - killed 37 team members, coaches and support staff.

It's been a strong comeback, with Locomotive now in second place in the league's western conference, right behind Dynamo. Ovechkin seems to have mixed emotions about being back in Moscow. Last month, he told Russia's RT English-language television that it was good to be back home with loved ones and his old crowd, even though he's working as hard as ever.

ALEX OVECHKIN: The only problem is, what I have in Washington - I miss it. I miss my friends. I miss my family. But you're professional. And if you have a time to relax, you have to use it.

FLINTOFF: More recently, he complained - in an interview on his blog - about what he sees as the lack of interest in hockey, in Moscow. He said Dynamo has been playing to unfilled arenas, and said he's still hoping to get back to Washington in time to lead the Capitals to the Stanley Cup. Fans in Russia say it's true; their league is still building a fan base. The Kontinental Hockey League was founded four years ago, out of the remnants of the Russian Super League. Most of its teams are Russian, but it includes clubs from Belarus, Ukraine and four other countries. Many clubs have been struggling to amp up their attendance.

Fan Oleg Shokov says the NHL stars lend some excitement to the season but that the league is gaining momentum, even without the outside talent.

OLEG SHOKOV: You see, maybe not this year; but maybe in few - few years. Of course, we will be able to compete with NHL stars. Definitely - you'll see.

FLINTOFF: But Shokov can't resist the same question that many Russian fans keep asking.

SHOKOV: And what about lockout? What you think...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (LAUGHTER)

SHOKOV: ...when it will be - completed?

FLINTOFF: The latest collapse in NHL talks means that some of the NHL players - including Ovechkin - will be part of a Russian all-star team at the Euro Hockey Tournament, in Moscow this week.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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