PRAGUE – Seconds into the third period, Alexander Ovechkin took control of a loose puck—one that had stopped in a pool of water.
With three defencemen closing in, the Washington Capitals star backhanded a shot into the net for the game-winning goal.
It’s not the NHL, but as long as the lockout goes on, it’s as close as there is.
Ovechkin is one of the most recognizable names forced to head overseas by the NHL lockout, and he didn’t have to think twice about where to find an opportunity to play. The star simply returned to his former Russian team, Dynamo Moscow—the defending champion of the Kontinental Hockey League.
“Home is home,” Ovechkin said during a road trip to Prague to face Lev Praha. “My family, friends, all people who wouldn’t have a chance to see me can come to watch the games.
“Besides, I’m glad that I can repay my debt to Dynamo. It was the club that got me ready for the big hockey.”
The NHL has already cancelled the first two weeks of the regular season, wiping out 82 games from Thursday through Oct. 24.
In the meantime, the ambitious Russian-based KHL, which includes teams from other Eastern European countries, has clearly benefited from the availability of many top players.
“The NHL is not working right now,” said Ovechkin, the 2008 and ’09 NHL MVP. “So, the KHL is the best league.
“Well, of course you can see the difference. The first difference is the bigger ice and the game is not that fast than in the NHL , not that many hits in the game, but I can see the level of the game. I can see the guys—the skill of the players how they have great technique.”
Evgeni Malkin, a centre with the Pittsburgh Penguins and the NHL’s reigning MVP, is committed to his hometown team in Magnitogorsk, while New Jersey Devils forward Ilya Kovalchuk has been signed by SKA St. Petersburg.
Zdeno Chara, a towering Boston Bruins defenceman, just joined Lev Praha, a new KHL franchise based in the Czech capital.
“As of right now, it is important for a lot of players, including myself, that we stay in shape and that we play and be in kind of organized hockey and keep up in good shape,” Chara told The Associated Press.
Chara played for Sparta Prague’s youth team before joining the Prince George Cougars in Canada’s Western Hockey League in 1996, after he failed to make the Sparta roster.
Fans are flocking to KHL arenas to see the best players on the planet.
When Ovechkin’s and Chara’s teams met Tuesday in Prague, it was before a KHL record crowd of 16,317.
“It’s very nice to see so many fans show up,” Chara said after a 1-0 loss on the goal scored by Ovechkin, his fourth of the season. “There’s not too many chances for people to come and see such great NHL players. Now, it’s the time.”
The KHL is not the only competition luring NHL players. Others have signed up to play in Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, Germany, the Czech Republic and even Britain.
Center Patrice Bergeron, Chara’s teammate with the Bruins, has reached a deal to join Swiss club Lugano. Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog plays for Swedish second-division club Djurgarden, and Philadelphia Flyers centres Claude Giroux and Danny Briere have been signed by Eisbaren Berlin.
In the Czech Republic, provincial team Kladno attracts big crowds because of the presence of its owner, Dallas Stars forward Jaromir Jagr, who is first in goals, assists and points among active NHL players. Jagr has signed four other NHL players for Kladno, including Tomas Plekanec of the Montreal Canadiens.
Nearly 400 NHL players suited up in 19 different European leagues during the lockout that cancelled the entire 2004-05 season. It’s not clear yet how many are coming this time, but the migration started a debate that the NHL players pushed others out of jobs.
“That’s absolute nonsense,” Jagr argued on Czech public television this week. “You can believe me that the young players now have somebody to learn from. I doubt that I would have ever reached my hockey level if I hadn’t had players such as Paul Coffey and Mario Lemieux around me. I learned from them every day.”