Sunday, July 13, 2014

Home for the holidays?

December 22. 2013 11:11AM

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Anton Zlobin misses the food, particularly the borscht and pierogies. Tom Kuhnhackl misses his mother’s turkey dinner, complete with eight sides.

Dominik Uher simply misses spending tie with his family.

For many pro hockey players, particularly thos from Europe, Christmas often means another holiday away from home. This year, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins have four days off for Christmas. For some players, that’s enough time to go home and get back in time for practice on Dec. 26.

But for others, especially those for whom home is another country across the Atlantic Ocean, there simply isn’t enough time to fly there and back again to celebrate Christmas.

So what do they do?

Well, in Uher’s case, it will be four years since he celebrated Christmas with his family in the Czech Republic town of Ostrava. He thought that streak might be broken this year as his family planned to fly to Wilkes-Barre, but passport issues nixed that idea.

“I haven’t really thought about what I’ll do,” Uher said. “I might just hang out in this area, buy a tree and spend it with Kuhnhackl.”

That’s if Kuhnhackl doesn’t make other plans.

His parents told him they may try to come in from Landshut, Germany, but that may not be practical as they just visited a month ago.

Kuhnhackl’s backup plan?

“I might go to Windsor (Ontario) and spend Christmas with my old billets family or I might go to New York for a couple of days,” Kuhnhackl said.

For Zlobin, whose family lives almost 4,700 miles away in Moscow — farther than Kuhnhackl’s and Uher’s hometowns — spending Christmas with the folks just isn’t feasible.


“I spent the last three Christmases in Canada and I’ve been playing them by myself since I was 17, so I’m used to it,” he said. “This is going to be my first Christmas in America.”

Actually, in Zlobin’s home country the Christmas holiday is celebrated on Jan. 7 — the date it is recognized by the Russian Orthodox Church in accordance with the Julian calendar.

Still, that won’t Zlobin from enjoying the four-day break and doing what he can to celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25, which most likely will be spent with teammates.

“It’s a big holiday in Russia and I miss being there for it with my friends and family,” Zlobin said. “But I’ve spent it with teammates over the last three years and I liked it.”

Having been a pro for 15 years, Penguins captain Tom Kostopoulos and his family have opened their home for many European teammates over the years during Christmas. It’s something the veteran players on just about every team do to make sure no one is alone for the holiday.

“My wife has made quite a few turkeys for teammates over the years,” Kostopoulos said. “Usually, if someone is staying in town, their family will have some of the European guys over who don’t have a place to go.”

The day together allows teammates a chance to experience Christmas customs from each other’s country. Kostopoulos recalled a holiday he spent with Alexander Zevakhin when the two were teammates in the early years of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton franchise.

“He had me over for some borscht,” Kostopoulos said. “I’ve asked some of my European teammates how they celebrate it back home, and most like to break out the vodka. It’s a custom.”

Spending the holidays away from family is just a circumstance of being a pro hockey player. Kuhnhackl said it falls in line with the long road trips, call-ups, trades and just the overall uncertainty that comes with the job.

When the playing days are over, he said, that’s when you can make up for lost time with the family back home.

Kostopoulos knows what it feels like. On one hand, he’s been fortunate that most of the teams he’s played for have been within flying distance of his family’s home in Toronto. But the two seasons he spent with the Kings in Los Angeles six years ago made that trip impossible.

“For a pro hockey player, a lot of times the Christmas holidays aren’t quite what they were when you were a kid,” Kostopoulos said. “We’re lucky this year to have a few days off that allows some of us to get back.”

Considering that Kuhnhackl is 21, and Zlobin and Uher are each 20 might make it appear especially tough to be away from home for such a big holiday. But thanks to their years of playing junior hockey in North America, all three players are veterans when it comes to spending Christmas on their own.

“You know, back home we celebrate Christmas on Dec. 24 with presents, a big family dinner and we sing carols, but this year I’ll Skype with them on Christmas Day,” Uher said. “My family was a little disappointed this year because we had it all planned and it is hard, but I understand that I have to be here and stay focused on playing hockey. That’s just the way it is.”

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