Posted: December 10, 2012
The NHL lockout has sent many Russian players home to play for a league very much in need of star power as it tries to revive hockey's popularity in a place where the sport was once dominant.
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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