If Tim Stapleton has learned anything about playing in the KHL, it’s that you never quite know what you’re going to wake up to.
Just last week he saw his iron man streak end at 142 games because of a minor lower-body injury. The next morning his Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk teammates were clamouring to speak with him.
“I came downstairs for breakfast and the Russian players (were asking): ‘Are you on strike?’ ” Stapleton said Thursday. “I was like ‘what?’ … I wouldn’t even know what to do on a strike. When I think of a strike I think of people picketing outside of a courthouse or something.”
The source of the confusion, apparently, was a report from Russian website Championat which claimed Stapleton and fellow imports Dan Sexton and Ville Kolppanen were striking because the plummeting ruble had devalued their contracts so much.
It was patently false.
Stapleton returned for the next game and scored a goal and there was no more mention of any strike. But then on Thursday night, shortly before we spoke by phone, he was told that he had been traded to Metallurg Magnitogorsk.
This is how turbulent life is right now in the KHL — the best hockey league outside of North America — especially for foreign players on high-priced contracts.
Stapleton has no idea where the notion that he was striking came from and wasn’t told why Neftekhimik decided to trade him. He was the team’s second-leading scorer and didn’t see it coming at all.
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“You never know,” said Stapleton. “I’m having a decent year I think within the team. I don’t know if the team was kind of fearing that we’re not making playoffs — we’re kind of struggling as a team — so I don’t know if they’re trying to shed money or whatever. Or maybe because of the ruble they’re trying to shed money, I don’t know.
“I was kind of in shock, but you never know what’s going to happen in this league.”
That statement is especially true right now.
Russia’s slumping economy has thrown the 28-team loop into disarray, with numerous reports of missed or delayed paycheques and sponsors pulling their support. Oil prices in the country are declining at the same time Western sanctions have been increasing — sending the ruble plummeting in the process.
As a result, the value of Stapleton’s contract has been decreased to roughly 50 per cent of what he thought he was agreeing to last summer. While he doesn’t personally monitor the currency market very closely, his teammates have had an endless conversation about the state of the ruble all season long.
“You’re waking up every day and you’re feeling like someone’s stealing money out of your pocket,” said Stapleton. “But then again, we’re in Russia and we make rubles, you can’t really kill yourself over it. It’s out of your control.”
Stapleton is quick to point out that he’s been paid in full since heading overseas during the NHL lockout in 2012. The only hiccup so far came when Dynamo Minsk was a month late with a cheque during his first season in the KHL.
He’s built up enough savings to try and play the long game with the ruble and plans to leave his money in a Russian bank account while hoping for the currency to bounce back.
“I think a lot of guys are doing that,” said Stapleton. “You kind of have no choice right now. To send your money back right now at half of what it was usually, I mean what’s the point?”
The graduate of the University of Minnesota-Duluth knew what he was signing up for. At 32 years old and after a journeyman career, Stapleton has a pretty deep understanding of the business of pro hockey.
He played 118 NHL games for Toronto, Atlanta and Winnipeg earlier in his career and had opportunities to return to North America each of the past two summers. The Florida Panthers offered him a deal in 2013 while the Columbus Blue Jackets extended a two-way contract last off-season, but neither was anywhere near as lucrative as what he could earn in Russia.
Even with the ruble plunging, Stapleton figures he’s still making more than he would be anywhere else — although likely not enough more to consider the KHL a good long-term fit.
“You come for the competition, but obviously I’m not going to lie: You come for the money too,” he said. “The money’s really good here. But when you realize that you might only make a little bit more than what you can make in Switzerland or other countries you kind of reconsider.”
These are the thoughts running through the mind of every import player in the KHL right now. Living in Russia can be tough on North Americans, in particular, because of how different the culture and lifestyle are.
If the money completely dries up, it will be a considerably less desirable destination.
Stapleton is clear that he will finish out the remaining couple months on his contract despite the uncertainty swirling around the league, reasoning that “you’re still playing hockey and it’s still really good money.”
His particular case is a little more complicated than most because his girlfriend, Marissa Foradas, is back home in Chicago and expecting the couple’s first child in February.
She spent the past two years overseas with him, but they decided that it was best for her to stay in North America during the pregnancy. It’s worked out pretty well given how unusual this season has been, especially with Stapleton now facing an in-season move to Magnitogorsk during the holidays.
While he’s excited about joining the reigning Gagarin Cup champions and playing for coach Mike Keenan, there’s no telling what the next few months will bring.
“It’s different,” said Stapleton. “It’s Russia.”