Former Buffalo Sabres forward Tim Kennedy thought he knew what he was getting into when he signed to play for Nizhnekamsk Neftekhimik, a Russian team located in a closed town – seriously, you need permission to visit – and led by a Soviet-era coach.
“I knew that going in that it was the worst city and I heard that the coach was really tough, but you figure how bad can it be and how bad can the coach be?” Kennedy said last week. “You get there and it was like my worst nightmare.”
Isolated and thrown into a radically new culture and lifestyle, Kennedy, 30, struggled to adapt to the Kontinental Hockey League in 2015-16 after seven North American pro seasons. He usually spent six or seven hours at the rink and rarely enjoyed a day off. Following two or two and a half hour practices, his team worked out another two hours and then finished by jogging 90 minutes.
That was after the coach, Vladimir Krikunov, held two-a-day practices during training camp.
“Not all the teams are like that in the KHL, but there’s still a few older coaches from the Soviet eras, and I just happened to play for one,” said Kennedy, a South Buffalo native. “He really believed in to be your best you have to work hard for a lot of time.”
Kennedy left his wife, Janelle, and twin daughters, Harper and June, at home in West Seneca. Before he arrived in Russia, he thought he might have them eventually join him.
“Once I got there, I said, ‘No way,’” he said.
Since the town has a military rubber factory, outsiders can’t enter without an invitation from the Russian government, he said.
“You can only come to the town twice, and then once you come there twice, you can’t come back for five or six years,” said Kennedy, who had a Russian visa. “Like, you’re banned from coming to town.”
Kennedy shared a nice house with some teammates – it belonged to a friend of the owner – yet he was rarely there. Players were forced to stay at a base the team operated the night before games. Kennedy said Neftekhimik played every other day for the first month of the season.
“So we basically lived at their Russian base,” he said. “The only time we could go back to the house was after games. So we’d be at the house (from) 11 o’clock at night until 8 the next morning.”
Kennedy, a veteran of 162 NHL games, including 79 with the Sabres, struggled on the ice, mustering only one goal and five points in 29 appearances.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” he said.
By the end of November, with neither side happy, Kennedy was sent to the minors in a paper transaction. He knew he needed to find a new team. Kennedy and Nizhnekamsk then agreed to a contract buyout.
“If I wanted any chance to play back over there in the KHL, I knew I needed to go somewhere else,” he said.
Kennedy was talking to other Russian teams before Jokerit, a KHL club based in Helsinki, offered a contract at the last second.
“It was like playing over in North America,” he said about his Finnish experience.
In just days, Kennedy went from one extreme to the other. He enjoyed his new city, living downtown and the team, which is coached by former Sabres defenseman Hannu Virta. Kennedy played much better, scoring three goals and nine points in 18 games.
Kennedy occasionally spoke to his old Russian teammates after leaving.
“They were telling me every day, ‘We were at the rink for six or seven hours,’” he said. “I’m like, ‘We practiced for 20 minutes with an optional lift and we were home in an hour.’”
Still, despite finishing strongly, Kennedy plans to play in North America again next season. Ideally, he would like to find a team a few hours from Buffalo on the East Coast.
“I only saw my wife and my kids for like 12 days in six months,” he said. “So that was probably the hardest part of the whole experience.”
As a veteran point producer – he was an AHL All-Star with the Hershey Bears in 2014-15 – Kennedy should have no problem finding work. At his age, teams want him to mentor prospects and provide veteran depth in the minors.
Kennedy, of course, hasn’t closed the door on the NHL, but he understands everything likely needs to fall into place for him to earn another long look.
“I’m going into the season,” he said, “knowing I can still play in the NHL.”