Russian stay lingers with Brathwaite

 

Gloves. Long johns. A good winter coat. And a large furry hat. Essential items for any Canadian hockey player, or anybody, who steps off a plane in southwestern Siberia in the middle of winter.

 
 
 
 
 

Gloves. Long johns. A good winter coat. And a large furry hat. Essential items for any Canadian hockey player, or anybody, who steps off a plane in southwestern Siberia in the middle of winter.

Fred Brathwaite had to fly for two days last December just to reach Omsk, the historical heartland of the Siberian Cossacks and a bustling city with more than a million people and a hockey team -- Avangard Omsk -- the locals are crazy about.

It was freezing cold the morning Brathwaite arrived. It was like a bad Russian dream the diminutive goaltender had lived through once, and one he had signed up for all over again.

"I kind of knew what I was getting myself into, since I played in Russia during the [National Hockey League] lockout," Brathwaite said yesterday from sunny Florida. "But when I landed, it was like: 'Oh my god, I'm back here again.'

"Because when I left, I didn't think I'd ever go back."

He will not be going back again, not even to play behind Avangard's newest star, Jaromir Jagr, in what is now the Continental League. While the circuit has had success in luring a handful of players to Russia -- Jagr, Ray Emery and Alexander Radulov among them--Brathwaite has signed on to play for Dave King with Mannheim in the German elite league.

Brathwaite spent much of the last 15 years bouncing between the National Hockey League (Edmonton, Calgary, St. Louis and Columbus) and the American Hockey League (Cape Breton, Manitoba, Saint John, Syracuse and Chicago).

The 35-year-old was happy in Chicago early last season, until the Atlanta Thrashers demoted Ondrej Pavelec, their goaltender of the future, and told the coaches to play him as much as possible.

Brathwaite was not ready to be a cheerleader. So when Omsk called and offered him a half-million dollars -- or twice what he was making with the Wolves --he jumped at the opportunity. Sort of.

"It was a very tough decision for me, but I still wanted to play at the highest level I could," Brathwaite said.

The Avangard fan club was waiting at the airport when he arrived.

"I don't know if there is nothing else to do there," Brathwaite said, "but they are definitely European-type hockey fans."

They would sing fight songs, bang drums and turn the stands into a carnival during home games. But it was away from the rink where Brathwaite suffered his most shattering culture shocks.

The team provided him with a decent apartment, and a driver to shuttle him back and forth to practice. And globalization dropped a Kentucky Fried Chicken, a Subway and a T. G. I. Friday's into Omsk, providing three culinary refuges Brathwaite could recognize.

But the perks did not include a private language tutor. While Brathwaite can muddle his way through a Russian menu now, having a conversation, making a phone call or simply picking something up at the corner store was out of the question.

He was Avangard's starting goaltender, but he was trapped in an English bubble. Luckily there was a multilingual angel of mercy in the dressing room. Pavel Rosa, a Czech star with Russian language skills, had played his junior hockey with the Hull Olympiques and married a girl from Gatineau. He adopted Brathwaite and the team's other Canadian, defenceman Ross Lupaschuk.

But as a black goaltender in Omsk, he still stood out away from the rink. People would openly gawk at him as he went about town.

"I definitely felt like I was [the only black person] in town," he said, chuckling. "People were staring, and I think they were just ignorant, which was kind of funny, because Omsk is very close to Asia and there are some Asian people in the city."

The hockey was all European, with players hanging on to the puck on the open ice surface, looking to make the perfect pass.

"In the AHL, it was a lot of shots," Brathwaite said. "But over there, they are very skilled. They are always looking for the nice play.

"It's not the NHL, that's for sure, but I'd say it's a little better than the AHL."

He also had a few words of advice for the North American players who will be helping to try to bridge the gap.

"Bring gloves," he said, "and don't forget your long johns."

joconnor@nationalpost.com

 
 
 
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