SALZBURG, Austria – Back in 2008, Bernd Brückler played for the Espoo Blues in the Champions Hockey League. And played well. In fact, he played so well that he caught the attention of several KHL clubs. His first deal with Avangard Omsk that would have covered only the remainder of the season fell through, but he then signed a two-year contract with Torpedo Nizhni Novgorod in 2009.
After the 2010/11 season, Brückler signed a new two-year contract with Sibir Novosibirsk, but he got fired during the training camp in his second season – just hours before a pre-season game he thought was going to play.
This fall, Brückler wrote a memoir of his time in Russia. The book is titled “This is Russia: Life in the KHL - Doctors, bazas and millions of airmiles” and it was written with the help of IIHF.com’s Risto Pakarinen. The two chatted recently about the book, about Brückler’s time in the KHL, and about the process of writing the book.
When did you decide to write a book about your time in Russia, and why?
Bernd Brückler: The why and the when are related because as soon as I had settled in Nizhni Novgorod, and had travelled with the team a little bit, I realized it was going to be an adventure. I’ve played in Austria, and in several small towns in Canada, and in Finland, and college hockey in the U.S., and I was thrilled to experience Russia. It was actually my agent who first suggested I should write a book about my time in the KHL. By then, though, I had also been blogging about it, and writing columns that were published in a local paper in Nizhni Novgorod.
A lot of the stories going around in hockey circles in the West have to do with the gruesome travel and the money. What’s the first thing you think about when you think back to your time in the KHL?
Oh, it’s a wave of things. I think of the travel, of course, because it’s such a big part of the experience. Even short trips, like the 500 kilometres from Nizhni Novgorod to Moscow can be memorable, for several reasons. Travelling to the east is an ordeal, because the time difference can be six hours, and we always tried to stay in our own time, in our minds. That meant that a 7pm game was actually an “afternoon game” for us.
But I also think about the great players I got to play with and against. How I met Jaromir Jagr, and practiced with Vladimir Tarasenko when we were teammates in Novosibirsk.
And how could I not think about the money. [Chuckles]. Not only about the money I made, but also the differences between what we, hockey players, made, and what others made. We were the privileged ones, the ones in the VIP line. Both literally and metaphorically. It really made me appreciate the sacrifices the fans made to see us play.
What do you mean?
For example, I was told that some fans pooled their money to buy a ticket to a game and then they took turns in getting inside and watching parts of it. The ones outside would listen to the game on a radio while waiting for their turn to get in. Once when we were in Moscow, a group of fans had made the trip from Nizhni Novgorod, but they didn’t have the money to get back home so they asked the players for help.
And when Lokomotiv’s plane crashed, the games were cancelled, but our fans had already made the trip to Omsk where we were supposed to play. The players chipped in and paid for their bus so they wouldn’t have had to pay for it, for nothing.
How was the hockey in the KHL? How did you do against Jaromir Jagr?
I did OK, I think I kept him off the scoresheet. Hockey in the KHL is really good, but it’s very much its own breed. The Russian players and the Russian coaches still emphasize the importance of the passing game, which can be very frustrating for a goalie both in games and in practices.
There’s a lot of skill in the league, and with the influx of players and coaches from Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, the style of play has already changed a little. It’s a really good league.
Obviously, I enjoyed my time there. After all, I did play there for three years, and would have liked to have played for even longer.
Any pointers you’d give to players heading out there?
Keep an open mind, work hard, use your head. Stay curious. Did I say work hard? Many things in Russia may strike you as a little odd in the beginning, but most of the times there is a rational explanation to why things are done in a certain way. Then of course, sometimes, the answer is just “this is Russia”. I’m afraid it would take a lifetime to really understand Russia, but it sure is a fascinating country.
Footnote: Brückler is now in his second season with Red Bull Salzburg in his native country Austria. His book This is Russia: Life in the KHL - Doctors, bazas and millions of airmiles was published in December and is available on Amazon.