Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford last went to Russia for the World Championships in 1979, when the country was still part of the now disintegrated Soviet Union, the Cold War was experiencing a re-awakening and the Soviet national team was virtually unbeatable.
Traveling with Team Canada to Moscow for the tournament, Rutherford recalls staying at a hotel a block away from Red Square and experiencing the most difficult competition he'd face in his 13-year playing career.
"Playing in Europe, even now but especially in those days, when those teams were so strong, it was really hard, very difficult competition," Rutherford told NHL.com. "That's something I'll remember my whole life."
Rutherford is going back to Russia for the Compuware NHL Premiere Challenge, but this time the political and athletic backdrop is so vastly different from what he experienced 31 years ago.
There is still the frosty relationship between the NHL and KHL to serve as a scene setter, but when the Hurricanes play their final preseason game of 2010 on Oct. 4 against SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL, the focus will be on the game, not on world events surrounding it.
Yes, it's expected to have intensity and an energy Carolina would never find in an exhibition game in North America, but that's only because of the pride on the line. Carolina's visit to St. Petersburg will be the first time in 20 years an NHL team played a game in Russia.
"When you're in a league like (the KHL) there are always points to prove and I would suspect that that game is more meaningful to them than it is to us," Rutherford said. "Of course we'll play that game hard and to win, but the main purpose of that game for us it to prepare for the two (NHL) games in Helsinki (against Minnesota)."
Carolina coach Paul Maurice told NHL.com he expects St. Petersburg, led by former Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov, to "be looking at this as an opportunity to make a statement about their league and how it compares to the National Hockey League, so we expect their best."
But he said he doesn't feel any added pressure to win for the NHL.
"There is pressure and then there is the regular hockey season and playoffs, but we're going to want to be at a certain level at that point," Maurice said. "A lot of times when you get to those last exhibition games some of your veteran guys are just playing it to get it over with, but I think this will bring enough emotion out that we'll be able to play at a high level and that will really prepare for our games against Minnesota.
"There isn't the political backdrop you saw 20 or 30 years ago," he added. "There isn't that animosity that you saw with the hockey that we watched growing up."
Maybe not, but here's how serious the 'Canes are taking this game:
Maurice said the Hurricanes will dress their regular-season game lineup, ideally the same lineup that will suit up three nights later in Helsinki against the Wild.
"We're going to look at that as a real test for us to start the regular season," he said.
'Canes captain Eric Staal admitted to NHL.com that beating a Russian team, "especially in their building," would be a big deal.
"You always want to win, especially against the Russians," Staal said. "You want to make sure you're playing well for your league."
Maurice also said he will likely have to point out in his pre-game talk to the team that it is still just an exhibition game and that the real reason they're playing is to prepare for the Wild.
"I think we all know we're going into a game that won't be viewed like that," he said.
"When the puck drops you have the jersey on and you'll do everything you can in that game to get a win," Carolina forward Jussi Jokinen told NHL.com. "Nobody can assume what kind of atmosphere it's going to be and how that game will be played, but it certainly will be interesting."
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