Don’t knock it until you try it.
That would be Ryan Whitney’s message to professional hockey players in North America considering a stint in the KHL.
“In 2013, I knew my ankles were shot. My career in the NHL was done,” Whitney wrote in a thoroughly entertaining post in The Players’ Tribune Monday. “I had been fortunate enough to make a lot of money in the league (thanks for those backdoor tap-ins, Sid), and I could have retired. But I was only 30. Even though I couldn’t skate well enough to play at the NHL level anymore, I still loved the game and knew I could play in Europe.”
LISTEN: Ryan Whitney talks time spent in KHL on Prime Time Sports
The fifth-overall pick from 2002 spent the bulk of his NHL career split between the Pittsburgh Penguins, Anaheim Ducks and Edmonton Oilers. During the 2013-14 season, Whitney played seven games with the Florida Panthers and 45 with the San Antonio Rampage in the AHL. At age 30, after getting a call from his agent, he decided to take a leap of faith and continue playing the game he loved. He signed with Sochi HC, an average-to-below-average team in the KHL.
“It was such a raw, real experience,” Whitney wrote. “You don’t necessarily realize that the NHL is a such a bubble until you travel to a very, very different culture. It’s almost a cliché, but really, you’re like ‘OH MY GOD.’ It puts not just your career, but your life into perspective.
“It’s a funny cycle because you make it to The Show and you get all these perks and private planes, but it’s not real life. Then at the end of your career, you almost go back to the start — the way it was when you were coming up in college or the AHL on the long bus rides and the stinky hotel rooms with your buddies."
To say the least, his adventures in Russia were unusual compared to his time in the NHL and even AHL. Whitney recounted some memorable moments including but not limited to: nurses smoking cigarettes, watching Netflix and eating gummy bears, hilarious Russian-to-English translations and routinely being gassed at practice.
"In Russia, the smoking era is still in full effect. On the team plane, there are ashtrays at every seat." https://t.co/W1osPbnqL3
— The Players' Tribune (@PlayersTribune) January 11, 2016
“For any NHL guys reading this right now, let me tell you something: You don’t know how good you have it. A normal practice in Sochi was harder than any day I ever had in an NHL training camp.
“In Russia, they skate. Then they skate some more. You’re dying. You’re about to fall over. Your coach is screaming. You look at your Russian teammate and ask, ‘What did coach say?’
And he says, ‘This warmup.’”
— Ryan Whitney (@ryanwhitney6) January 11, 2016
Among his teammates on Sochi were former NHLers Andrei Kostitsyn, Oleg Saprykin and Canadian Cory Emmerton, who Whitney says was a huge help in the transition process. His team finished eighth in the league’s Western Conference and was swept in the opening round of the playoffs. Whitney registered six goals, 19 assists and 23 penalty minutes in 42 games that season.
Despite the less-than-ideal conditions he said he wouldn’t trade his experience in Russia for anything in the world.
Whitney, now 32, signed with Modo in the Swedish league last summer and played two games before retiring from pro hockey in September.