Bernd Bruckler’s first plane ride in the Kontinental League would be enough to make most Westerners call their agents and request a one-way ticket home. In spy-film fashion, he was quietly ushered into an aircraft, through the back door, along with his teammates. When he saw the inside, he was astonished. It was little more than a cargo-like shell. “This plane had been completely gutted,” he says, “and they had just put rows of seats in there. No carpet. No insulation. You’d knock on the wall and could tell there was literally one sheet of aluminum separating you from the outside. It was so loud. There were six huge oxygen tanks in the first row instead of seats. It was a shocking experience.” Fortunately for Bruckler, it was a one-off. Future road trips with Nizhny Novgorod and later Novosibirsk Sibir were flown on more standard, comfortable vessels. But it reinforced a mindset he’d had going into Russia: expect the unexpected.
The 32-year-old Austrian born goaltender, who flew the sometimes friendly KHL skies from 2009 to 2012, says that approach of open-mindedness helped him and his then girlfriend (now wife, Veera) not only get through three years of life as a stranger in a strange land, but to fully embrace and relish it. This despite nearly killing a pedestrian, dealing with a gun-toting chauffeur, sleeping occasionally in unheated dorms, witnessing eye-opening corruption and enduring insane traffic.
Oh, and there was that nasty bout of, umm, Stalin’s Revenge when he arrived. “Most of us who come from the West, for the first week, we have straight diarrhea,” he recalls. “It’s part of the adaptation.” A Philadelphia Flyers fifth-round draft pick in 2001 who played his college hockey at Wisconsin, Bruckler had a few cups of coffee in the American League and ECHL before opting to start more frequently in Finland. He jumped at the chance to join Nizhny Novgorod, the former Soviet city of Gorky, in 2009; he knew he was going to the second-best league in the world and the money was good. Very good. But he was also aware life wasn’t going to be like it was on campus at Madison, or in Salzburg or Helsinki. This was Russia. He had to train his brain to accept that what lay ahead would be an adventure. It was his saving grace.
“That’s what has killed a few guys,” he says. “They had high expectations coming from the NHL or North America. All of a sudden you get there and not even stick tape is provided for you on a regular basis. Or your sticks don’t arrive on time because they’re held at the border. And when they finally are released, of the 30 you shipped, 15 get there because someone opened the box and helped themselves to a nice gift.” Bruckler said it’s often a reality check for the more pampered pros, guys who are used to having most things done for them most of the time. Suddenly, they have to worry about travel, food, language, perhaps an inexperienced pilot. The culture shock, coupled with the increased responsibility, can be overwhelming. “I haven’t met anybody who went over there and took off right away,” he says. Something that helped him and Veera adapt more quickly was learning Russian. Or at least understanding words and phrases. The Cyrillic alphabet, he claims, isn’t as scary as it looks. He highly recommends this to any player pursuing a career in the KHL.
He also had to come to grips with pervasive corruption. In Russia, he learned, you can pretty much pay your way into, or out of, anything. Nightclubs. Driver’s licenses. Even airplane pilots’ permits, according to rumor. “I’d heard stories of guys driving drunk and having to pay 30,000 rubles ($1,000) to get out of their dilemma,” he says. “Money talks. In all facets of life.” Bruckler had first-hand experience with the power of the ruble, as he details in his book
This is Russia. While driving his car on a sunny, wintry day, he turned a corner, pulled down his sun visor and heard a loud thump. He’d struck a man, who flew over the car. Sheer terror turned to mild relief when he saw the man sit up. The victim was taken to hospital and released shortly thereafter. Bruckler spoke to his GM about the incident, who he says told to bring him 150,000 rubles the next day, an amount that would put the matter to rest. He followed directions and says he subsequently learned the money was split three ways: 50,000 to the victim, 50,000 to the police officer who handled the case and 50,000 to a mysterious third party. “Don’t even ask who it is,” the GM told Bruckler. Cash was also an issue early in Bruckler’s tenure for a different reason. He was paid that way. Like the devoid aircraft, it only happened once, but it made the hairs on the back of his neck bristle. The Torpedo brass hadn’t activated bank cards or accounts for the players quickly enough, therefore couldn’t e-transfer funds to them and had no other method to compensate them. So, knowing they were a few weeks behind on payroll, club management decided to go old-school. Russian style. In a small, storage-like room, they set up a table with everyone’s stipend divided into massive piles. A woman sat at a desk with the club roster in front of her. Security guards flanked her. Players approached the room, one at a time, signed for their mountain of rubles and quickly left. For some of the higher-paid players on the club, the pick-up was the equivalent of $100,000. Maybe more. “I put mine in a black plastic garbage bag,” Bruckler recalls. “I stuck it in my pocket and said, ‘I need to get the hell out of here quickly.’ I had my driver waiting for me. And I had a bad feeling in my stomach. We made it to the bank OK and I deposited my money right away.”
Drivers are recommended for most players in Russia, due to the traffic and tricky-to-navigate back streets. Bruckler’s drove a BYD Flyer, a Chinese designed sub-compact model. He was a working-class kid named Yuri and the two eventually formed a bond, but not before reaching an understanding. Early in Bruckler’s tenure, they were driving to the rink, off the beaten path, when Bruckler became uneasy about the sketchy neighborhoods they were touring. To help ease his client’s fears, Yuri reached under his seat and pulled out a gun. Bruckler reacted. And not well. “He then taps me with his elbow while holding the gun in the same hand and says, ‘don’t worry about it,’ ” Bruckler says. “He spoke to me in Russian and said, ‘I’m your driver and your security guard.’ I didn’t understand that at the time, I was just a few weeks in. I didn’t know what to do, if he was even on my side.”
Sandwiched between Bruckler’s unique adventures was hockey, which for the most part was excellent. While his teams didn't win any championships, he posted a .913 save percentage in his final season with Novosibirsk Sibir. He found the training methods odd and antiquated at times, but got to play with and against some formidable talent, including Jaromir Jagr, Dominik Hasek and Vladimir Tarasenko. He didn’t care for the baza, the compounds at which players would often stay the night before home games. It’s a concept for team bonding and building that most Russian teams used at one time, particularly during the Communist era, but just a handful employ now. The facility Bruckler encountered was very spartan, with two players per room and an old TV that aired Russian programming as the only diversion. There was no air conditioning or central heating in the dwelling and on his first night there he saw a rat floating in his toilet. He snuck out on a few occasions to get a proper night’s sleep at home. “It’s just crazy,” he says. “It’s surreal you have to stay there.”
As it turns out, that doesn’t happen much any more. Things are changing in Russia. They’re slowly adapting and adopting Western ways, both in terms of amenities and coaching styles. Even if they weren’t, Bruckler would still cherish the memories he brought home, saying he would have stayed longer if he’d been offered another contract. Not just for the money, which has helped set up Veera and their three children very well, but for the caliber of hockey and the life experience. “It made me a wiser man and a bigger person,” he says. “I appreciate so much the Russian way of life and their culture. I would have re-signed there in a heartbeat.”
Bernd Bruckler’s book, This Is Russia, co-written with Finnish journalist Risto Pakarinen, is available at Amazon.com.