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This is Russia: Life in the KHL -- Money

12/26/2013

An excerpt from the book “This is Russia: Life in the KHL - Doctors, Bazas and Millions of Air Niles,” written by Bernd Bruckler with Risto Pakarinen:

The money is good, especially if you consider what you get after taxes, which is the only thing that matters. There are also elaborate bonus systems on top of your individual contract, and then there are surprise bonuses that probably didn’t exist until you were down 2-0 after two periods, and your GM really, really, really wanted the win.

There are numerous stories of different GMs showing up in locker rooms during the intermission and promising everybody an extra $5,000 for a win in that game. Unfortunately, that never happened in Nizhny or Novosibirsk when I was there.

At the beginning of the year every player has his individual bonus. A goalie like me might get $5,000 for a shutout, and $2,500 for a one-goal game. A top-5 finish in the league save percentage or goals against statistics would mean a $20,000 bonus.

Our imports had several different bonuses for goals and assists, but they only got them if their plus/minus was in the plus.

One of my teammates had a clause for a performance bonus if he was plus-10 or better. Unfortunately for him, he got injured in a game in January. Unfortunately for the team, at the moment of injury, the player was also plus-10. He knew he wasn’t going to play more that season, but he had played more than half the games and had earned his plus/minus bonus. However, the next time he checked his stats, his plus/minus was plus-9.

Most likely, the team had made a call to the league, and as a result, the player didn't get his $25,000 bonus.

We also had a team bonus: If we made the playoffs, we’d get $1,000 per person for each point in the standings. That’s an incredible bonus, considering it took 75-85 points to even make the playoffs.

The tricky thing about bonuses is that they don’t always make it into the contract print, so sometimes they simply don’t get paid. In Nizhny Novgorod, the players negotiated having the points bonuses be added straight into their monthly payments, so in 2011-12, the year after I left, the team got the bonus for each point even if they didn’t make the playoffs.

Magnitogorsk and some other teams have a double bonus. For a win, they get $3,000, but then two straight wins bump up the bonus to $4,000, the third win to $5,000, and the fourth to $6,000. But when you lose, you go back to $3,000 for a single win. That’s the same across the board, from the first-line center to the seventh defenseman.

In Nizhny, we were supposed to get $5,000 dollars if we were in the top 6 in our 12-team conference in certain segments of the season. We weren’t, so the bonus became a moot point.

By my second year I thought I knew my way around the city and the league, and even spoke some Russian, but Russia and the KHL could still surprise me.

My first payment of the year was delayed again, and this time it wasn’t just the new players whose salaries were late, it was the whole team’s salaries. The club had switched banks, and the new bank hadn’t issued our ATM cards yet. (Banks liked having hockey teams as customers because they thought all the players would keep their money there.)

We had been with the team for a month and a half, and our captain, Mikhail Varnakov Jr., asked about the payments. There were rumours of the salaries getting paid shortly, but nothing happened. A week went by, and then, on Monday, they announced that everybody was getting paid that day after practice.

And that could mean one thing only. Cash.

After practice, the players were told to wait for their turn to get paid. There was a big guard in front of one of the storage rooms. He was, naturally, dressed in black. After a while, they called me in.

I grabbed a garbage bag and walked into the room. There were two more guards inside, and a lady behind a desk, and in front of her were wads of money, some in little plastic bags, some bound with rubber bands. Under each pile there was a note with the player’s name, so I could see where it said “Br├╝ckler”.

The team’s GM is the biggest boss, the one who negotiates the contracts with the players, and some with the sponsors. The sports director is responsible for the team during the season, and the team manager would take care of logistics, and things like my apartment. None of them were in the room when the payments were made.

The atmosphere was very ... Russian. Very official. This situation felt strange to me, so I just wanted to get in and get out. I was wondering whether anybody outside the team, besides the lady and the guards in front of me, knew that we were going to get paid that day. I had once left a poker chip case in my car, and when I came back thirty minutes later the back window was smashed in, the case gone. What if somebody knew I had 1.8 million rubles on me?

Russians don’t like to use big bills because of counterfeiting. Many places won’t accept a thousand-ruble bill, and that’s 30 dollars. Now, 350 dollars would turn into 77 one-hundred-ruble bills. A thousand euros was almost enough to fill Veera’s purse. So my first paycheck would require a garbage bag.

The lady asked me to show her my passport. In Russia, you always have your passport with you because you need it for everything. Then she asked me to sign a receipt -- there was no way I could have counted the money, so I simply trusted her -- and that was it.

I pulled up the garbage bag, stuffed it with the money, then tied it to my belt loops and pulled my shirt down over it, to cover it.

Some of the players didn’t want to get paid in cash because they didn’t have a bank account, and the imports had a few hundred thousand dollars together. One tip-off and there could easily have been somebody out there to stop our car.

Now, I had Yuri, my driver, waiting for me outside, as always, and I had my bank account, but my four American teammates didn’t know what to do with the cash. They could either deposit it in my account or hold on to it, which wasn’t a great solution. I’d heard a lot of stories about people taping cash into their shin pads, hiding it in their apartments, or stuffing it into the shafts of their sticks.

We got into Yuri’s tiny car and left the arena. I went to my bank, Raiffeisen, while the others went to get their passports translated so they could open bank accounts.

Nothing happened to any of us; we didn’t get robbed, and the money was safe.