The Polish way

Originally Published: December 22, 2004
By E.J. Hradek | ESPN The Magazine

Editor's note: ESPN The Magazine's EJ Hradek is traveling with the IMG/Primus Worldstars and will be filing periodically throughout their European tour.

Last stop is the best
KATOWICE, Poland -- Who knew? Who could have guessed that of the 10 stops on the Worldstars tour, the final game against the Polish National Team would be the most fun?

TOUR SCHEDULE
Dec. 7: Leave Toronto
Dec. 8: Arrive Riga, Latvia
Dec. 9: Worldstars 4, Riga 2000 2
Dec. 10: Arrive Moscow
Dec. 11: Russian all-stars 5, Worldstars 4; travel to St. Petersburg, Russia
Dec. 12: Worldstars 5, Russian all-stars 4 (Worldstars win series in 2-1 shootout)
Dec. 13: Arrive Prague, Czech Republic; Worldstars vs. HC Lasselsberger
Dec. 14: Arrive in Bern, Switzerland
Dec. 15: Worldstars vs. SC Bern
Dec. 16: Arrive in Karlstad, Sweden; Worldstars vs. Farjestad BK
Dec. 17: Arrive in Jonkoping, Sweden; Worldstars 5, HV71 1
Dec. 18: Arrive in Linkoping, Sweden
Dec. 19: Linkoping HC 6, Worldstars 4
Dec. 20: Arrive in Oslo, Norway
Dec. 21:Worldstars 7, Norwegian all-stars 6
Dec. 22: Arrive in Katowice, Poland; Worldstars vs. Poland national team
Dec. 23: Return to Toronto

In front of a packed and pumped-up house of 7,700 at the Spodek Arena -- a smaller cross between the Calgary's Saddledome and New York's Madison Square Garden -- the Worldstars completed their barnstorming tour with a 4-3 shootout win over Poland. They finish the tour with a very respectable 7-3 record.

They almost lost their final game, though. Down a goal in the final minute, the Worldstars forced the shootout with just four seconds left on the clock. With a six-on-four advantage (pulled goalie and a power play), Ducks star Sergei Fedorov blasted a slapper past Polish goalie Tomasz Jaworski from the right wing circle.

Fedorov then scored on the first shot of the shootout. Goalie Martin Brodeur made it stand up by snuffing out all five Polish shooters, much to the dismay of the local fans. They quickly got over their disappointment and gave a rousing ovation to both teams.

Throughout the game, an over-caffeinated PA announcer kept the flag-waving, air horn-blaring, NHL jersey-wearing -- more than half the clubs were represented in the stands -- Polish crowd roaring with few breaks. And when the home team managed to grab a 3-2 lead on Jacek Zamojski's fluke goal off the skate of Stars defenseman Stephane Quintal midway through the third period, the MSG-like roof almost came off the 35-year-old building.

"It was a blast," said Brodeur, talking about the atmosphere in the building. "I almost didn't mind seeing them score, just so I could hear the crowd react. If this was the last game I play this year, it really was a blast."

Blues defenseman Barrett Jackman, aboard for the entire trip, echoed Brodeur's sentiments.

"It was awesome out there tonight," Jackman said. "The people were so excited and they really appreciated us coming here to play. I'd have to say it was the best stop on the tour."

From the Worldstars' arrival at the small airport about 45 minutes outside of Katowice, it was quite apparent that the locals were thrilled to see the skaters from league lockout. Several local media members met the team at the airport before the club received a police escort to its hotel in downtown Katowice.

At the hotel, they dined on a lunch (pasta, chicken and steak) specially arranged by Polish-born NHLer Mariusz Czerkawski.

"Having been in the NHL for a while, I know what kind of food the players like to eat on the day of game," said Czerkawski, who was instrumental in getting the tour to stop in Poland.

"It was always my dream to do something like this," Czerkawski said. "When the IMG people called, I did everything I could to make it happen. After that, the local sponsors took over and did a great job getting it together."

While those in Poland figured the game would be a big hit, the NHLers weren't so sure what to expect.

"I was a little reluctant to come here at first," Brodeur said. "But it turned out to be the best stop on the tour."

Yeah, the last stop was definitely the best stop. Now it's off to the airport for the long, long flight home.

Boyle joins the Worldstars tour
OSLO, Norway -- In a perfect world, Lightning defenseman Dan Boyle would be getting ready to move back into his refurbished Tampa home (damaged by a fire on the same night the Lightning and Flames played Game 1 of the Cup final) and helping his team try to defend their first Stanley Cup championship.

But, as we know, there isn't much perfect about the lockout-closed NHL these days.

So, instead, Boyle found himself on the Worldstars bench -- a late tour re-enforcement -- for their 7-6 win over the Norwegian All-Stars in front of a small, but enthusiastic crowd at the downtown Oslo Spectrum.

It was an easy trip to Oslo for Boyle, who'd been playing with the Stockholm entry in the Swedish Elite League for the past month. Boyle and fellow Swedish League teammate/Flames forward Marcus Nilson jumped aboard for the final two stops on this skating tour through Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. They've helped replace departed stars Brendan Shanahan, Rob Blake and Kris Draper.

"The timing was right for me," said Boyle, explaining how he ended up in a Worldstars sweater. "I had some off time in Sweden, so I was happy to join in."

While he's slowly getting used to the style of play in Sweden, Boyle is quick to let you know he'd rather be somewhere else.

"It's a big-time disappointment [not to playing in the NHL]," Boyle says. "It's disappointing not to be able to raise that banner and try to defend the Cup. Our team is pretty young, with the exception of Dave Andreychuk, and we were really looking forward to taking another shot at it."

Boyle was among a handful of Bolts to attend a very muted Stanley Cup ring ceremony, which took place at a Tampa hotel.

"I flew in for the day," Boyle says. "Only about half of us could be there, so it was a little strange. I guess the league didn't want us to have the ceremony during the lockout."

On the bright side, Boyle's house is just about fully repaired after the fire, which damaged most of the second floor.

"I lost a lot of clothes and a couple of TVs," Boyle says. "But most of the things I've saved from hockey, were down on the first floor and they survived."

He still remembers being shocked when he got the news of the blaze. In fact, he first thought that it was his other house, in Ft. Lauderdale, that had been burned.

"[Panthers goalie] Steve Shields was renting that house," Boyle explains. "I thought he left the oven on or something. It took me a minute or two to realize it was the house in Tampa."

For now, though, that house will sit without its owner, who's chasing pucks halfway around the world to stay in shape. If his NHL world somehow manages to right itself, Boyle wants to be ready. He'll play in the final game of the Worldstars' tour, against the Polish All-Stars in Katowice, Poland.

Morrison, Knuble find success in Sweden
LINKOPING, Sweden -- Canucks center Brendan Morrison and Flyers right winger Mike Knuble got to see some old friends on Sunday evening when their Swedish Elite League team, Linkoping, hosted the Worldstars at the new Cloetta Center.

Morrison and Knuble weren't the best of hosts, each scoring a goal en route to a pretty uneventful 6-4 win over the Stars, who fell to 5-3 with two games remaining on their overseas tour.

The two Canadian-born skaters -- who, along with Panthers left winger Kristian Huselius, form one of the top lines in Sweden -- seemed a little homesick after seeing a team full of their NHL comrades.

"It's a little sad not to be going back with them," said Knuble, who signed a three-year deal with the Flyers last summer. "That's a mental thing we're going to have to get over."

The two skaters have been with Linkoping since the opening of training camp. Morrison says he started thinking about the possibility of playing in Sweden during the World Championships. He was drawn to the relatively small city because of his friendship with fellow University of Michigan grad Mike Helber, who came to Sweden as a player a decade ago and now serves as the team's president.

"Mike told me what I could expect if I came over," Morrison said. "That definitely helped my decision. After working out the details, we reached an agreement in early August."

Both players brought their young families with them on their Scandinavian adventure. Morrison has two children, while Knuble has three kids, including a 6-month-old. While the guys have made a pretty quick adjustment to the different style of play and the bigger ice surface, they are still finding their way adapting to a new environment.

"I miss the everyday interaction with people," Morrison said. "Most people can speak some English in this area (a two-hour drive from Stockholm), so we can communicate. But, most of the time, you're asking about directions and trying to get some help with things. Sometimes, I do feel a little bit lost."

After the latest round of negotiations between the NHL and the NHLPA, neither player sees too much light at the end of the tunnel.

"I was optimistic after our recent proposal," Morrison said. "But now, I'm pretty much planning to be here. I think for everyone involved with the NHL, it's pretty frustrating."

The lockout has been particularly frustrating for Knuble, who was looking forward to playing with his new team in Philadelphia. Still, for the most part, he has been trying to enjoy the new experience.

"There's only one thing that I would change," Knuble said. "I wish I would've gone home for the holidays. We get a holiday break here, so we could have gone back. It would have been nice to be back home for the holidays."

For the time being, they'll have to settle for their Swedish success. With the NHL and the union at odds, Morrison and Knuble can expect to be there a while longer.

Regehr reining it in -- some
JONKOPING, Sweden -- Soft-spoken and thoughtful off the ice, supersized Flames defenseman Robyn Regehr is one bad man on the rink. On this Worldstars tour, Regehr and some of his fellow blue line thumpers (Barret Jackman, Rhett Warrener and Sean O'Donnell) have had to play a more mellow game.

That changed a bit after the Stars took a 6-1 drubbing from Farjestad. The next night, facing HV71, Regehr & Co. decided to ratchet things up a notch. The result was a commanding 5-1 victory over the defending Swedish Elite League champs.

"I think we were a little pissed off [about the Farjestad loss]," said Regehr, who spent some off his lockout-induced free time touring the Australian coast with his brother. "They like to use their sticks a lot over here, so we figured it was time to play a little more of our game."

Regehr was nasty, making it a particularly painful night for any HV71 forward who dared to come near the Stars' net.

"Obviously, for a guy like me, it's much easier to play in this type of game," says Regehr, who was specifically tough on HV71 forwards Alexander Larsson and Andreas Jamtin. "It has been a little different on this tour. A lot of us are definitely out of our comfort zone."

Regehr has enjoyed the trip, but, if the lockout cancels the rest of the NHL season, he won't be making another trip across the pond.

"I'm not going to be one of the guys who plays in Europe," Regehr said. "The style of play is not for me. I'm sure I'd get frustrated pretty quickly."

The physical nature of the game against HV71 did make the All-Star defender a little itchy to get back to work.

"I think we all miss playing," Regehr said. "That's why we came on the trip. But this type of game does make you think a little more about playing back home."

Whitney, 51, nets a cameo
KARLSTAD, Sweden -- The old song says, "fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you, if you're young at heart." That lyric played out near the end of the Worldstars' otherwise dreary 6-1 loss to Farjestad (Swedish League) at the sparkling Lofbergs Lila Arena in Karlstad.

With a little more than two minutes to go in the one-sided tilt, the Worldstars coaching staff decided to send 51-year-old Floyd Whitney into the game to replace Dominik Hasek in the Stars' goal.

Whitney, the father of Red Wings sniper Ray Whitney, has been a practice target for the Edmonton Oilers for more than two decades. He came on this trip with his son;,bringing along his gear to help with practice. He never figured he'd dress for a game, let along get into the action.

"Marty Brodeur came up to me around noon and asked me if I wanted to dress (as the backup) for the game," the elder Whitney said. "I figured, why not?"

Whitney, who came out of the stands during the 1999-2000 season to serve as the Oilers' emergency backup when Bill Ranford went down with an injury in a game against the Capitals, took part in the team's pregame skate and was introduced to the enthusiastic crowd. As he skated onto the ice, wearing No. 2, Swedish writer Magnus Nystrom leaned over and asked, "Who's Floyd?"

The Edmonton cop watched the game from the end of the bench. But, as Farjestad turned the game into a rout in the third period, coaches Marc Bergevin, Marty McSorley and Pat Brisson started thinking about giving Whitney a cameo appearance. With five minutes left on the clock, Brisson asked Whitney if he wanted the last two minutes. He was quick to grab the rare opportunity.

After Hasek gave his approval from the crease, Whitney skated to his crease. In his two minutes and nine seconds of play, he stopped both shots he faced, including a shoulder-high bullet from top of the faceoff circle. At one point, he almost left the crease to play a loose puck near the corner. But he quickly thought better of it.

"I definitely thought about it," Whitney said. "But I saw Rob Blake coming for it, so I figured I should stay out of the way."

Afterward, father and son soaked up a moment neither will ever forget. As far as anyone could remember, this was the first time a father and son had played together in a game since Gordie Howe and sons skated together in the 1970s and early '80s.

"I was a little nervous for him," said the younger Whitney, who scored the Worldstars' lone goal. "But he has been a practice goalie for so long, it was pretty exciting that he got a chance to go in."

See, fairy tales can come true if you're young at heart. Floyd Whitney is living proof.

Skating with the stars
BERN, Switzerland -- When I packed for this two-week trek across Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, I had to decide whether or not to bring my skates. Although I'm too old, too slow and a bit too heavy, I still love to skate. So, after some thought, I decided to bring them along.

That decision paid off Wednesday morning, when the Worldstars staff was nice enough to let me join the team for an optional morning skate at the Bern Arena, a big barn of a rink that serves as home for SC Bern of the Swiss League.

On the ice for that morning's twirl were tour additions Brendan Shanahan, Stephan Quintal, Eric Belanger and Ian Laperriere as well as Kris Draper, Ray Whitney and Martin Brodeur, who didn't wear his goalie equipment. Assistant coach Marty McSorley, IMG Hockey Managing Director Pat Brisson, IMG Hockey Director of Marketing Brad Robins, IMG VP Claes Elefalk, IMG media coordinator Jim Nice and tour coordinator Brant "Senator" Feldman rounded the morning skaters.

On the ice, you can't help notice just how well Brodeur handles the puck with a regular stick. Dressed in sweats and a ski cap in the cold arena, the happy-go-lucky goalie was firing slappers and flicking off wristers that would make some of the league's top snipers proud.

"I remember at one of our team skills competitions, I took a shot with my full goalie equipment on and registered an 87 on the speed gun," said Brodeur, leaning on the boards. "It really put the pressure on my buddy, Kenny Daneyko."

With no equipment, other than my skates and a borrowed stick and gloves, I tried to stay out of the way& and not get myself killed. Eventually, I took turns with Robins feeding passes to Whitney, who one-timed each into the net. The scoop on Whitney: He's good!

Whitney's dad, Floyd, donned the goalie pads and joined us on the ice. An Edmonton native, he has served as the Oilers practice goalie for nearly two decades.

"I was just at the right place at the right time," the elder Whitney says. "I've been doing it ever since."

After about 30 minutes, McSorley organized a little four-on-four shinny at one end of the ice. I drew a "what-are-you-doing-out-here" look from Shanahan. And Quintal gave me a few playful bumps as we tangled near the net.

Afterward, I was tired and feeling a little old. Still, I was glad I tucked those skates in my bag. Maybe I'll get another chance to use them in Sweden. We'll be there for four days, the longest stop on the tour.

A view from abroad

Barrett Jackman (L) and E.J. Hradek
Barret Jackman, left, and the writer watch the CBA press conferences on a laptop.
BERN, Switzerland -- One of the few good things about sharing a room with Bruce Bennett, Getty Image's director of hockey photography, is his computer savvy. While I still struggle with sending a simple e-mail, Bennett has the knowledge and the software to take full advantage of the technology.

That came in handy on our first day in Bern -- a rare off day -- when Bennett was able to pull up Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow's live post-negotiation press conferences on his computer late Tuesday night (early Tuesday evening in Canada).

An obvious topic of conversation for all the various hockey people (players, agents, trainers, media) on the trip, it was important to find out exactly what was being discussed on the other side of the ocean.

A few minutes into Bettman's remarks, we were joined in the room by Blues defenseman Barret Jackman and his agent, Steve Kotlowitz. Jackman and Kotlowitz sat silently, trying to drink in the information and the responses of both men.

Afterward, when asked what he thought of the latest confrontation between management and union leadership, Jackman could only shake his head.

"It's a lot to think about," said Jackman, playing for the first time since suffering a season-ending shoulder injury as a result of a collision with the Canucks' Todd Bertuzzi early last season. "I guess we'll see what happens next."

Despite the sour tone taken by both men, the optimistic Kotlowitz still thinks a deal can be struck to save the season.

"I think there's still time to get it done," said Kotlowitz, who came on the tour as a guest of his barnstorming clients Jackman and Dominik Hasek. "I have to believe that Gary Bettman realizes the devastating effects the loss of a season would have on the game. And I think he'll come to the spirit of compromise to make a deal."

Everybody on this tour certainly hopes he's right.

Where are Blake's skates?
PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- A funny thing happened on the way to Prague; Rob Blake lost his skates. Well, he didn't actually lose his skates. He knew where they were. They were in Moscow. They were accidentally packed in the bag of Luc Robitaille, who flew back to the Russian capital for the Igor Larionov retirement game.

With no way to get the skates back for that evening's game against Plzen (Czech League), the training staff began to scramble to find a new pair for the All-Star defenseman. Eventually, they hooked up with a local Bauer rep. He had the skates sent to the hotel. IMG agent J.P. Barry picked up the tab (about $800 USD) and brought the skates to the Plzen Arena in time for the game.

The new skates, which were a tad too wide, didn't seem to bother Blake, who helped the Worldstars to an 8-3 win in front of a full house of 14,000 enthusiastic fans.

"For tonight, it was OK," said Blake, who found out about the problem around noon. "If it was an NHL game, it would have been a little tougher for me. I have a custom-fit skate, so it's a little different playing with something off the rack.

"Because I like a stiff skate, I usually go through about 10 pairs of skates during the season," Blake continued. "As players, sticks and skates are the most important parts of our equipment. If we have those, we can get by with just about everything else."

Like his Worldstars teammates, Blake has enjoyed the chance to play some pressure-free hockey.

"It's been really fun for me," said Blake, who had been training and surfing near his beachfront home in Southern California during the lockout-induced break. "It's great to see guys smiling and laughing on the ice. Obviously, you can't do too much of that in the NHL."

The end of the earth
ST. PETERSBURG -- Under the best of circumstances, traveling from city to city after games can be dicey business. You can multiply that by 10 when you're buzzing around Russia.

For those who haven't been to Russia, things move at a different pace. The tremendous differences in language and culture make it difficult to get around. It isn't any easier when the Russian Ice Hockey Federation is making your hotel reservations.

In St. Petersburg, we took a late-night/early morning bus ride to our downtown hotel. Well, there was one problem with the hotel: It wasn't downtown. No, our hotel -- arranged by the RIHF -- was at the foot of the Sea of Finland. That might have been fine in the summer, but this is winter. It felt like the end of the earth.

At the hotel, we again traded our passports for a room key. In this cavernous marble structure, it didn't really seem like a fair deal.

While several players went out seeking the remains of the evening, others wisely opted to turn in. Regardless of that decision, no one had the benefit of his or her full luggage because of the continuing plane-weight issue. Everyone, including the players, dumped one of their bags on a truck in Moscow for transport to St. Petersburg. Those bags didn't arrive until much later in the morning.

At the rink, the training staff was still working by the seat of their pants. Because of the language barrier, the simplest tasks -- like laundering the players' socks and undergarments -- caused unexpected problems. The trainers asked their Russian helpers to toss the players' netted underwear bags into the wash. The closed bags are washed that way to keep the players' socks and underwear separate.

Trainer Steve Latin arrived at the arena to find everything laundered - and in one big pile. The locals had emptied the bags into the wash. Oddly, only the bag of Worldstars Russian-born defenseman Sergei Gonchar was handled correctly, raising a few conspiratorial eyebrows. As it turned out, the players were able to separate their clothes without much trouble.

On the ice, this Russian All-Star squad wasn't quite as formidable as the gang in Moscow. The Worldstars ran up a 5-2 lead before hanging on for a 5-4 victory. Or, so they thought. The Russian federation determined the winner of the two-game series would be decided by total goals, which were tied, 9-9. So, they announced to the crowd (approximately 8,500) that there would be a five-minute overtime session.

That didn't appeal to the Worldstars management staff that wanted their tired troops to call it a day. The debate between the sides went on for nearly 10 minutes right by the Worldstars' bench. In the interim, Tie Domi entertained the crowd with an impromptu jig to the Russian music. After several minutes, head coach Marc Bergevin re-emerged from the locker room -- suit jacket off, tie undone -- wondering what was going on. He'd gone in, figuring the game was over.

Finally, through the fine diplomatic work of assistant coach Marty McSorley, the clubs agreed to decide the game with a shootout. McSorley made the proposal knowing he had Martin Brodeur on his side. Mats Sundin and Luc Robitaille scored on their chances and Brodeur made it hold up, allowing just one goal in five chances.

Following the game, there was no more travel. The tour was stopped for the night in St. Petersburg. While everyone welcomed a little break, most were ready for the next stop in Prague. Really, we couldn't wait to get there ... and leave Russia.

A taste of All-Star Weekend in Moscow
MOSCOW -- It's funny how rumors can spread. On Day 5 of the Worldstars tour, word was that Russian President Vladimir Putin was going to attend the game. (Personally, the Putin rumor didn't do too much for me. As a New Yorker, used to the disruptions caused by such a visit, I was hoping he'd stay home.)

The extra-tight security around Malaya Arena certainly didn't do anything to deflate the rumor. The local police were inspecting cars before they were allowed admittance into the Luziniki Park area (where the arena is located).

Inside the Arena, the Worldstars' trainers and equipment staff (Steve Latin, John Wharton, Thom Plasko, Mark Baribeau, J.C. Ihrig and Brant "Senator" Feldman) had bigger things to worry about. Because of a weight problem due to excess baggage on the flight from Riga to Moscow, the tour management staff decided to truck the trainers' tools of the trade-including the skate sharpener-to Moscow.

Unfortunately, the equipment was stopped at the border due to customs issues -- a never-ending factor in Russia. After a discussion, the Worldstars travel coordinators opted to divert the equipment to the Czech Republic, where the team will go after games in Moscow and St. Petersburg. So, Lavin & Co. were left to their own devises -- a flat sharpening stone and a screwdriver.

"I've never worked a game under those kind of circumstances," said Latin, who has worked for the Whalers, Red Wings and Penguins during his 25-year career around NHL rinks. "I guess it goes to show you, if you have to get it done, you can."

On this afternoon, the Worldstars were facing a star-studded All-Star team from the Russian League, which included the likes of Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk, Alexei Kovalev, Nikolai Zverdev and 2004 top draft pick Alexander Ovechkin.

The game was preceded by a skills competition between the two clubs. There were two particularly different variations to this skills game, as compared to the one at the NHL All-Star weekend.

First, there was a hardest shot competition -- with no speed gun. In this competition, a shooter would lineup on the blue line, near the boards, then fire a shot around the dasher. The shooter whose shot carried the furthest around the boards was declared the winner. The odd competition was actually pretty entertaining for the non-sellout crowd (approximately 8,000), which howled as the puck pinballed around the rink. The key to the competition: keep your shot on the yellow dasher at the bottom of boards.

Rob Blake got it right, with his shot carrying almost a full lap around the rink. Tie Domi didn't, firing a shot a little too high on the boards. The puck made it about half way around the rink, near the Worldstars bench. His teammates tried to wave the puck further up the boards, a la Carlton Fisk in the 1975 World Series. Always a showman, Domi skated over and gave it a second shot to the crowd's delight.

The second unusual competition was a simple four-man relay race with a twist -- players would have to pass their sticks like a baton on each leg. The sometime difficult handoff made it a more interesting proposition. The Russian team, bolstered by the speedy Ovechkin, edged out the Worldstars' foursome.

During the game, the Russians controlled the action for the first two periods, building a 5-1 lead against Dominik Hasek. Kovalev netted a highlight reel breakaway goal where he seemed to place the tip of his stick on top of the puck, before quickly dragging it to his backhand for an easy flip into the open part of the net.

The exhibition nearly turned nasty when Kovalchuk tried to get tough with Blues defenseman Barrett Jackman. To his credit, and everyone's relief, Jackman kept his cool.

The Worldstars rallied for three goals (two by Detroit's Ray Whitney) in the third period to close the gap to 5-4. But, their chance for late tie died when Whitney just missed with a quick wrister at the buzzer.

With their second game in the books, the Worldstars enjoyed a few postgame beers, signed some autographs, grabbed a quick dinner and headed back to the airport for the short flight north to St. Petersburg.

In the end, Putin rumor proved untrue. The Russian president was a no-show. Some observers did say they saw Pavel Bure floating around the building. But not having seen the mysterious Bure for myself, it's still just a rumor.

And they call this progress?
MOSCOW -- Even the best-laid plans of big-money management groups can go astray. Such was the case for the Worldstars tour on Day 4.

Things started smoothly enough, with a police escort leading the team buses to the Riga airport for the 75-minute flight to Moscow. Once on the plane, however, the schedule started to unravel.

A mechanical miscue caused the overhead oxygen masks to drop down -- as a passenger, this is something you never want to see -- and caused a 30-minute delay in departure.

Once airborne, Tie Domi seized the opportunity to play a practical joke on tour coordinator Andy McCreath, who was fast asleep. Domi, retaliating for what he believed were phony phone calls from McCreath (who denied making the calls), lathered McCreath's ski-capped head with shaving gel. Domi, moving with the precision of an experienced cat burglar, never woke his victim.

McCreath vowed revenge. "I won't say where or when," McCreath said, "but I'll get even."

Advice to McCreath: Be careful. Like elephants, NHL tough guys never forget.

Upon arrival in snowy Moscow, we surrendered our passports and moved quickly to the waiting buses. Not too surprisingly, things work a little different in Russia, where arriving foreign passengers and their luggage are screened one at a time. The process left everyone sitting on the bus for about 90 minutes.

We were cleared a shade after 3 p.m. The plan was to go to the Malaya Arena for a short practice and press conference. That plan, however, didn't include a New York-style traffic jam. About 90 minutes into the 30-minute drive, the decision was made to divert directly to the hotel. The practice and press conference were a healthy scratch.

Finally, just before 6 p.m., the buses pulled up to the hotel. Ready to check-in, right? Wrong. In Russia, foreigners must present their passports to check into a hotel. At that moment, the passports were being transported from the airport, where they had been scrutinized by Russian customs officials. It would be an hour before they arrived.

The players, accustomed to travel delays, kept themselves occupied in the lobby of the Hotel Mezhdunarodnaya. A couple of them, like local legend Sergei Fedorov, talked to the Russian media, which had staked out the hotel, and posed for pictures.

After the passports arrived, the room keys were distributed. There was just one other matter: luggage. Our bags were still on another truck, still 40 minutes away. Eventually -- and thankfully -- the luggage arrived within the hour.

After a long day on the road, the players scattered, some going for a short sightseeing trip to Red Square, others retreating to their rooms for a little rest to prepare for a stretch of three games in three cities in three days.

Mission accomplished
RIGA, Latvia -- If the idea behind this Worldstars tour is hockey and fun, the first stop was a stunning success. The Stars, playing behind a formidable goaltending duo of Martin Brodeur and Dominik Hasek, bested a young Riga 2000 team, 4-2, in front of a very appreciative near sellout crowd of approximately 6,000 people at the weathered Riga Sports Arena.

Judging by the smiles and laughter in the Worldstars' dressing room after the game, the road-weary bunch was happy to be back on the ice in a game situation. Understandably, they weren't very crisp and committed numerous turnovers. That was all the better for the baby-faced bunch from Riga, which had the benefit of only one NHL-caliber player: defenseman Karlis Skrastins.

It was an entertaining game that could have gone either way. Riga's young players, a few of whom were just 18, were thrilled for a chance to skate against some of the NHLers they'd idolized from afar. No one was more excited than 20-year-old forward Renars Undelis.

The diminutive winger got Riga 2000 on the scoreboard and tied the game 1-1 early in the second period by converting a two-on-one chance. For Undelis, it wasn't so much the goal as it was the goalie he beat -- Brodeur, the three-time Stanley Cup, Olympic and World Cup winner.

"He came right up to me after the game and asked me to autograph the puck for him," Brodeur said. "He was a pretty young guy. He said he was 20, but he looked a little more like 15. I don't think he was shaving yet."

At the postgame reception, which was attended by both teams, Brodeur spent a little time talking to Riga's 24-year-old goalie Olegs Romasko, who made a nifty glove stop on Sergei Fedorov in the first period. The Riga 2000 stopper told Brodeur about his short experience in North America playing with Greensboro in the ECHL and in the Canadian junior system.

"He [Romasko] told me that he'd signed a contract to play with St. Petersburg in the Russian League, but then he had to move down a peg when the goalie market changed due to the lockout," Brodeur explained.

Oddly enough, the lockout's trickle down effect put Romasko in a position to play against and chat with the top active player in the position.

"It was fun playing again and it was fun talking to all the guys on the other team," Brodeur said. "They were so excited about the whole thing."

At least for one day in this lockout-clouded year, mission accomplished.

EJ Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send EJ a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

E.J. Hradek

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.

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