Pretty much everything went according to plan with the Carolina Hurricanes‘ recent historic trip to St. Petersburg, Russia. And if it weren’t for actually having to play an exhibition game there, the trip might have been the perfect precursor to the NHL’s staging a regular-season game in Moscow.
But the Hurricanes did end up playing an Oct. 4 exhibition game against St. Petersburg, and the game turned into an ugly affair with Carolina coach Paul Maurice pulling his No. 1 goaltender, Cam Ward, and top forward, Eric Staal, out of the contest for fear they would be injured.
In the wake of the debacle, the first time in two decades the NHL had played on Russian soil, one imagines the entire notion of returning to Russia to play either exhibition or regular-season games in the future has to be moved to the back burner, if not shelved entirely.
GM Jim Rutherford told ESPN.com he “couldn’t recommend to another team that they should go back [given how things turned out on the ice].”
The Hurricanes’ experience is diametrically different from the experiences of most other teams that have made the jaunt across the Atlantic for preseason and regular-season openers in a variety of different countries, including England, Germany, Switzerland, Finland, Sweden and Slovakia.
But — and here’s the news flash — Russia is different.
For SKA St. Petersburg, which just happens to be owned by the head of the Kontinental Hockey League, Alexander Medvedev, this game was much more politically charged than any other game previously played overseas since the lockout. The game held a vastly different meaning for the hosts than for the Hurricanes, who were trying to prepare for two regular-season games against Minnesota in Helsinki.
For St. Petersburg, the game was about showing the competitiveness of the KHL against a team from the best league in the world.
“Our approach to it and their approach to it was totally different,” Rutherford said. “The game got pretty ugly.”
Most serious among the transgressions reported by the Hurricanes were what they viewed as multiple attempts to rough up captain Staal. “They started going for guys’ knees, especially Eric Staal,” Rutherford said.
By the end of the game, the Hurricanes were not using regulars Joe Corvo (injured), Tim Gleason (out for fighting), Staal and Ward (coach’s decision). Luckily for the Hurricanes, they were able to ice a full lineup in Helsinki and won both games against the Wild.
But Carolina’s experience gives pause to what has been a largely positive experience since Anaheim and Los Angeles kicked off the so-called Premiere Games in London in 2007.
If the NHL is going to continue these annual jaunts — this season featured six teams playing two regular-season games each in three different European locations — then it is natural it will want to continue to explore events in Russia. From a North American perspective, the interest in watching Alex Ovechkin or Evgeni Malkin playing a regular-season game in Moscow will be significantly higher than watching them lace up the skates in Prague or Stockholm.
The history that exists between the NHL and its clubs and Russian hockey is significant and emotional. That is part of the draw of moving forward with these kinds of games. Frankly, it makes no sense to continue to jet over to Stockholm and the rest of the European hockey centers on an annual basis if the NHL isn’t going to break ground in Russia.
Carolina agreed to go to St. Petersburg for the exhibition game because Rutherford said he believed it was an important first step for the NHL in repairing and improving its relationship with the KHL and Russian hockey. By the end, though, he was wondering whether it turned out to be a step backward.
“There was really nothing proven by it,” he said of the game. “I’m glad we went to Russia. It was a great experience for everybody. They were great hosts. But all in all, the Russian experiences were great except for the game.”
In the end, as the NHL ponders its next European move, that is a significant problem.