5,800 Miles From New York, Ranger Finds Hockey and More

New York Times, Oct 25, 2012
by Jeff Z. Klein

Defenseman Ryan McDonagh is averaging 22 minutes in six games for the K.H.L.’s Barys Astana.
But that was not the only thing to catch the eye of Ryan McDonagh, the Ranger plying his trade with Barys Astana of the Kontinental Hockey League during the N.H.L. lockout.

“My first impressions were how clean the city was,” McDonagh said via e-mail from Astana, a city transformed over the last 15 years from a dusty town on the steppe into the gleaming capital of Kazakhstan in Central Asia. “Some very cool buildings, and everything you want to have in your home city — lots of malls, movie theaters, grocery stores. I was surprised at the traffic and amount of people.”

Some 140 N.H.L. players have joined leagues overseas since the lockout began Sept. 15, and more are expected to follow after all games through Nov. 30 were canceled on Friday. The first wave consisted mostly of Europeans heading to their home countries or nearby. But as the lockout has dragged on, more North American players find themselves far from home — though few as far as McDonagh.

“I’ve had to learn a lot about getting visas,” he said via e-mail earlier this week before a road trip took him from Astana to Chekhov, Russia; Minsk, Belarus; and back to Astana — a 4,400-mile trip through three of the K.H.L.’s seven countries.

“I needed to get a visa for all the different countries I’d be playing in, and it was interesting to see all the work that needed to be done just to get a visa,” McDonagh said. “I had to visit the U.S. Embassy in Astana to get more pages put into my passport so they could put the visas on a page. It was my first time ever going to an embassy.”

McDonagh, 23, is one of three players in the Rangers’ foreign legion. Rick Nash has 7 goals and 12 points in nine games for HC Davos of the Swiss N.L.A., where he played during the 2004-5 lockout; and Carl Hagelin has 4 goals and 9 points in five games for Sodertalje SK, his hometown club in the Allsvenskan, Sweden’s second-tier league.

“I had no prior experiences of Astana or the K.H.L. before deciding to come here,” said McDonagh, who signed with Astana on Oct. 9.

His agent, Ben Hankinson, suggested Astana after another client, Tampa Bay’s talented young Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman, went there earlier in the lockout. McDonagh said he also talked to veteran Rangers with experience playing abroad, and the two Americans already playing for Barys, the former N.H.L. journeymen Brandon Bochenski and Andrew Hutchinson.

McDonagh is in the process of moving out of a hotel and into a newly built apartment complex where other players live. One of his favorite spots is the Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center, a fantastical 500-foot-tall glass tent that includes a beach on the top floor that makes the Mall of America in McDonagh’s native Twin Cities seem plain.

A shiny new city and a high degree of organization within the Barys club show how far Russian professional hockey has come since the 2004-5 lockout, when 56 N.H.L. players joined what was then the Russian Superliga. Players noted that the 16 Superliga teams were often disorganized and rinks were often shabby. The worst case was that of the Devils’ Patrik Elias, who contracted hepatitis A while playing for Metallurg Magnitogorsk. Now, in the more organized K.H.L., every club has a farm team and a junior team, and Barys plays in an architecturally ambitious rink that resembles something out of “The Transformers.”

McDonagh went to Astana for hockey, and he said, “The hockey has been the best part by far.”

In just a season and a half with the Rangers, McDonagh established himself as one of the top defensemen in the N.H.L., and now he is doing the same in the K.H.L. After six games with Barys, McDonagh has 3 assists, a plus-4 mark and an average of 22 minutes of ice time per game.

His usual defense mate is Hutchinson, but he also sometimes skates with Hedman. The lineup for Barys — the name is the Kazakh word for leopards — also includes the former Rangers Nik Antropov, now with Winnipeg, and Nigel Dawes.

McDonagh said he was able to get by in Astana with English and a few words of Russian (although he said he needed to learn the term for “to go” at his local coffee shop). On the ice, the language barrier is not a problem either.

“Our head coach doesn’t speak English to the team in the locker room or on the ice,” he said, referring to Vladimir Krikunov, who has served as national team coach of Russia, Belarus and Slovenia. “We have a goalie coach who is always right beside all the import players to translate what the coach is saying about the game or a drill for practice.

“It’s not too difficult to tell if the coach is happy or upset with you, though. We do video after every game and we work hard to correct our mistakes as a team. The language barrier isn’t as big of a problem at the rink as I thought it would be.”

McDonagh is fascinated by the differences in the pace of play in the K.H.L., which is more deliberate than in the N.H.L.

“The big ice sheet changes the game a lot,” he said. “The game at times can be real slow and methodical but also can become high tempo when teams start opening up and taking chances. You try and hang onto the puck as long as you can because it can be hard to get it back on the big ice.

“Our team plays a very defensive style — we don’t pressure as hard as the New York Rangers do. We try and capitalize on other teams’ turnovers and score more goals in transition. There is a ton of skill on our team and the teams we’re playing against. You really have to make certain you’re always in good position, because the passing and playmaking skills are very sharp with the players in this league.”

When Rangers fans saw the first photos of McDonagh in a Barys uniform on the Internet, some said he looked sad. But that does not seem to be the case.

“The experience has been better than I expected it to be,” he said. “Astana is a great place and the Barys team has treated me very well. The atmosphere of the games is great — the crowd is always chanting and beating drums. The group of guys on the team all get along well and play hard for each other. That’s all you can ask for when you’re joining a team in the situation like I did.”

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