German forward Felix Schutz collected many air miles in North America but never before has he travelled as much as this season with Admiral Vladivostok.
Admiral was the newest addition of the Russian KHL’s 2013/2014 season as the second city in the country’s Far East and the first at the Pacific coast. A stone’s throw away from the border with China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, one can imagine how long it takes to travel to road games.
“We usually were seven to ten days on the road and played like four games, and then we went back to Vladivostok and played four home games. That’s how it went all season long,” Schutz said. “We flew straight from Vladivostok to Moscow but unfortunately we were not able to collect air miles (laughs).”
Three daily flights lasting eight-and-a-half hours connect the Russian capital with the terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway, which would take one to the city in about a week.
Going to another continent was nothing new for Schutz. After playing his first World Junior Championship he opted for two years of junior hockey in Canada and was drafted in the fourth round by the Buffalo Sabres. After a year for the DEL’s ERC Ingolstadt he tried it with the Sabres where he spent two seasons with the AHL affiliate Portland Pirates.
“After a camp with the Buffalo Sabres we decided to go back to Europe. There has been interest from different countries and we wanted to go to Germany,” Schutz said. He spent three years with Ingolstadt and Kölner Haie in his homeland before looking for a new adventure.
“After the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship there was interest from Russia so I sat together with my family and decided to go there,” he said.
At that point there was no hockey, no operating arena and no team in Vladivostok. And Schutz had to look on the map first.
“I thought ‘Wow, that’s really far away!’, that’s not around the corner but in a part of the world I have never been before. I hadn’t thought I would land in Asia for hockey rather than for holidays but it’s been a good time so far,” Schutz said.
“It’s a Russian city. You notice the Asian influence with the Japanese cars where the driver has to sit on the right side while driving on the right lane. That was a bit unusual.”
Before travelling to their new home, Schutz and his new teammates had to start in Russia’s west while construction work was still going on at Fetisov Arena.
“We had a preparation camp in Moscow and the club set up a little office in the hotel. It was a bit unusual. Players hardly knew each other and we didn’t have a city yet since we hadn’t been to Vladivostok,” he said. “But I went through this already one time with the Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL) who were also a newly established team so it was the second time for me.”
It was a good start for the club. In its first season it reached the playoffs as eighth-placed team in the Eastern Conference, knocking out more famous clubs like Avangard Omsk and Traktor Chelyabinsk before losing 4-1 to Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the first round. The club averaged 5,256 fans in the regular season, ninth among Russian teams in the KHL.
The Far East derbies against Amur Khabarovsk, which finally got an opponent not several hours away by plane, were a special affair.
“It was different for us because it was just a one-hour flight like I was used to in Europe. You could see ticket demand was bigger and it was a rivalry. Everybody wanted to win these games and it worked out well for us,” Schutz said.
The native of Erding ended up as scoring leader for the team ahead of Swedes Niclas Bergfors and Richard Gynge, and Russian national team player Enver Lisin. In 59 games in his first KHL season Schutz had 18 goals and 23 assists. But Schutz also enjoyed the new environment off the ice.
“I learned that the people are quieter and I also became quieter. And I learned that wherever you are and even if you don’t speak the language you can always get along even if you need to speak with your hands and feet,” Schutz said. And as a soup lover he felt comfortable with Russian cuisine. “They often eat soups. Especially borscht is very tasty.”
Schutz is a restricted free agent in the KHL without a contract for the new season yet but the club made him a qualifying offer. The German plans to go back to the KHL and aims at improving his Russian.
“I may play some more years in Russia so it would be a pity to be there and not be able to speak the language,” he said.
Having played here before with Admiral, the Minsk Arena is not totally new to Schutz, who is impressed with the conditions in his fifth IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship for Germany.
“The organization and hotel are great. Minsk Arena is the best rink I’ve played in a World Championship and there are over 10,000 fans each game no matter whether we play Switzerland or Kazakhstan. That’s crazy,” he said. “They did a really good job here. You feel very special here and the atmosphere is great. That’s how it should be.”
However, on the ice things didn’t work that well for Germany. After beating Kazakhstan and Latvia, the Germans lost to Finland, Switzerland and Belarus. Particularly, the defeats to the latter two, closely ranked opponents hurt.
“We should have played more aggressively and earn points but that’s how it is. It goes back and forth and on the other hand we also had a bit of luck in the games against Latvia and Kazakhstan. It’s a tight group and we have to earn points where we can,” said Schutz, who now hopes for points against Russia and Team USA.
“It will be very difficult but we enter every game with the aim to win and we saw that it’s not impossible, the Latvians also beat the Americans. It’s doable but we need a top performance.”