Kazakhstan: The True Story
Where to start? Control. Poverty. Corruption. Safe to say that I will not be allowed back in Kazakhstan after this blog has circulated the internet. Trust me, they could not pay me enough to go back to that place. Between forging signatures on contracts, stealing money from the players and ten-hour days at the rink, the only downtime was in a train cabin with three other Canadians for thirty-six straight hours. By the end of the season there will either be some criminal convictions or a suicide attempt, and I was not going to be a part of either, so I had to jump on the nearest camel and ride out of town while I still had the chance.
Some of you have read my initial blog regarding my experience during training camp. If I had the knowledge during training camp that I do now, I would never have played a regular season game for Beibarys Atyrau. However, hindsight is 20/20, and I started the season in Western Kazakhstan about 30 kilometers from the Caspian Sea. Do not let the thoughts of blue water and sandy beaches cloud your image. There is nothing pretty about this story.
My contract was breached in every way possible from the time I arrived until the time I left Kazakhstan. Salary payments were supposed to be made “promptly” at the beginning of the following month. So, salary payments for the month of August should have been paid September 1st … but they were not. Instead, we received a portion of our payment on the 17th. I say portion because we were not paid in full. The team director decided that we performed poorly at the exhibition tournament in Eastern Kazakhstan and deducted every player 10% of our “bonus” pay. When the imports and myself heard about this for the first time, we were taken by surprise. We had no idea what this “bonus” pay meant. Then it was explained to us from other players. Apparently, our salary (100%) was made up of two numbers: one number (70%) was the amount that was to be paid to us every month and the other (30%) was a bonus amount dictated by the coaches and team director. Our contracts that were written in English only had one number, and that was the number that we were to be paid every month. There was no mention of this 70-30 split. We were enraged. We were told our English contracts were translated into Russian. We signed our English contract, and Russian contract, assuming they were the same. Clearly they were not. We understood our English contract, but had no idea what the Russians ones stated. In the end, we only lost a few hundred bucks each, but the principle of our contracts being breached and the team management lying to us fueled our internal fire and left a sour taste in our mouths.
The man in charge of the decision to cut salaries was the team director. The government ran our team, so the person in charge of all hockey decisions had no hockey knowledge at all. In fact, the director also ran the professional basketball team. Important to note is that he is currently under investigation for the embezzlement of more than 65 million Kazakhstan Tenges (roughly $500,000) between the years of 2008 until now. It is widely known in the city of Atyrau that he is in a serious personal financial dilemma, and it is common knowledge that he skims money from both the hockey and basketball teams. Even the coaches of Beibarys have admitted on a number of occasions that the director takes money that is not his.
From how it has been explained to me by the coaches, the government has already allocated the funds for the hockey teams’ budget at the beginning of the season. Therefore, when portions of salaries are kept from the players, where do they go? We do not have team parties. We do not have sock tape provided for us. We do not have team bonding get togethers. The director does not send the money back to the government. I am trying to paint a picture for you here. I hope you can follow.
If the financial corruption picture has not been properly illustrated by now, there is more evidence to be depicted. When a player signs a contract with a club, the player provides a service and the club pays him a salary in conjunction with those services provided. I have never heard of players giving the coaching staff a portion of their salary in order to play … until I got to Kazakhstan. That’s right! No bullshit! I know there were current players in Beibarys that gave the coaching staff a portion of their salary in order to stay on the team. For example, if a player is making $3,500 per month, he would have to give the coaches $1,000 to play on the team. So, the coaching staff will negotiate the contract with the player, and the director will be none the wiser. When it is time to pay the player his salary, the player will get the full amount from the team accountant, but then he will have to slide the specified portion to the coaches or he is released from his contract. That is just another way for the coaches to skim some money. I know this is true because I read the email between the coaches and this player. I was asked advice on what to do about the situation. The wording was crystal clear and could not be misinterpreted in any way: “player” will make “X” amount of dollars and then he must pay “X” amount of dollars to the coaching staff in order to stay on the roster. I do not want to delve into too many specifics and give the description of the player away. All I will say is that when he mentioned this to management, they acted surprised. Then they broke down crying about how they would lose their jobs if this information were to be released. Management then had a private interview with the coaches before bringing the player back into the room. The player was told that his interpretation of the emails and the arrangement between him and the coaching staff was skewed, and that he was no longer welcome on the team. Talk about corruption and trying to cover up huge scandal. It truly is shameful.
Let us get off the topic of money for the moment and move in another direction: lies and deceit. From the beginning of negotiations between the team and the agent I was using, I do not recall any part of my contract being honoured to its specifications. First and foremost for me was the importance of visas for my family. I was told that there would be absolutely no problems to receive full year visas for Nancy and Tanner. In fact, I was told not to worry about that area because teams in Kazakhstan have no problems clearing the paperwork for girlfriends (especially when children are involved) to receive their visas. However, when I arrived in Latvia for training camp, I was told a different story. Nancy and Tanner could only receive a three-month tourist visa because we were not married. They knew this from the beginning, but they told me otherwise just so that I would sign and report to training camp. There is more. At the end of her three-month tourist visa, Nancy and Tanner would have to fly back to Latvia (via Astana and then Moscow) which would take about 8-9 hours without layovers and then stay in a hotel until all of the paperwork was filled out, approved (if that was the outcome) and filed. Now, anyone who has ever traveled with an infant is familiar with how difficult this process would be, especially without any help. And she would have to do this exact same process once again before the end of the season. One of the guys there now is going through this exact scenario. His girlfriend has been in Denmark for more than six weeks waiting for her visa paperwork to be approved. Like fuck I was going to allow Nancy and Tanner to go through that process without any guarantee that they would be allowed back in Kazakhstan.
Two other issues I had were with my hockey sticks and apartment. As soon as I signed my contract, the agent I worked with to complete this shitty deal took all of my skate and stick information. He told me that my equipment would be ordered the next day, and I would receive it when I arrived in Latvia for training camp in less than two weeks. When I arrived in Latvia, I brought six of my own sticks that I purchased myself for the summer (that the team told me they would reimburse me for upon arrival in Latvia). When I arrived in Latvia, I did not receive my reimbursement for sticks or my skates or my ordered sticks. My skates arrived about two weeks after my arrival. Still MIA were my sticks and reimbursements. I was then told that when we arrived in Kazakhstan in late August I would receive my reimbursements and hockey sticks. That never happened either. I was then told that my reimbursements would be given to me with my first months’ salary and that my sticks were on the way. We were supposed to receive our first months’ salary on September 1st, but that did not come until the third week of September … and my reimbursements did not come either. I arrived in Latvia on July 27th and received my reimbursements in the third week of October. My sticks were still not even paid for. I emailed the stick representative weekly asking for updates, and he would tell me that the sticks were not even ordered when the team was telling me that they were en route. The payment for my sticks was not even cleared until mid-October. I received my sticks in mid-November … finally.
My contract also stated that I was to be placed in an apartment for the duration of my contract. When I arrived in Latvia, I was told that the team had apartments for players that had those specific clauses in their contracts, and we would be placed in them upon our arrival to Kazakhstan. When we arrived in Atyrau in late August, I was brought to an apartment to see if it was appropriate or not. The apartment had a kitchen, a bedroom and a bathroom. That was it. I had told the team repeatedly that I needed to have two rooms for sleeping because my family was going to be coming. The team expected all three of us to sleep in a queen size bed. I told them it was unacceptable. The said they would find me another apartment immediately. My family flew into Atyrau on October 12th at 5am. An apartment was found for me on October 11th at about 8pm and I moved in around midnight giving me only a couple of hours to set everything up for my family. I cannot even tell you how many conversations I had with the team about the importance of finding me an apartment in sufficient time for me to get ready for my family prior to their arrival. Baby beds, groceries, and other necessities had to be purchased. Moreover, we arrived back in Atyrau from a road trip mid day on the 11th of October. Also, I did not like the apartment that the team found for me. I was shown another apartment that I was pleased with. It was much cleaner, newer and child safe. However, it cost $100 more per month. The team told me that if I wanted to live there then I would have to pay the difference because their budget per player was $400 per month … nothing was ever mentioned in my contract about that either.
The apartment that I was finally moved into was a pretty decent size, but it was dirty and did not meet safety standards to say the least. I was promised a playpen and high chair for Tanner, but had to go out and buy those items myself. When I brought the receipts to the team I was told that I was not to be reimbursed because they were not necessities for living. You are right … my 14-month old son does not need a place to sleep or eat. We had two “beds” which in actuality were futons. When I asked the team for a real bed I was told that they did not have any. I witnessed on several occasions a room full of spare beds at the team baza (a hotel-like building where the majority of players resided). Not sure why I was lied to. Also, we did not have any blankets. We had two bed sheets for blankets. When I asked the team to purchase blankets for my family and I, I was told that bed sheets were sufficient and that if I wanted any other bedding I would have to pay for them myself. On a weekly basis, the electricity would go off for several hours at a time. Moreover, the apartment complex would not have hot water for weeks at a time. The tap water would be brown for days as well. When I brought this up to the team management I was told that this was the same for the other players living in those apartments. I asked if I could be moved to another apartment and I was told no. When the weather outside turned for the worst, and it would rain or snow, the water would leak into the building, down the walls, and on to the apartment flooring. I asked for this to be repaired multiple times. Never happened.
I know it seems like I am being a whiner, and maybe it even seems a little too unrealistic. However, I can assure you that all of these things occurred on a weekly basis with no help from the team at all. These are the types of things that went on with all players, and team management expected flawless results on the ice from us as a team. When off ice issues like I have already mentioned go unresolved for long durations of time, it becomes detrimental to a players ability to perform on the ice. They begin to think more about off-ice issues than their on-ice play. It was no wonder to me that the team did not perform up to the standards that were expected of us. As players, we discussed this multiple times. As professional athletes, we are supposed to worry about playing our sport ONLY – hockey. All of the off-ice issues should be taken care off so that we can focus solely on our on-ice duties. Hockey in Atyrau was hopeless because the off-ice issues trumped everything else on a daily basis. The imports were not used to this at all, but it seemed commonplace for the local Kazak and Russian players.
There were stray dogs, horses and other animals everywhere in the city. A decapitated horse's leg was found about 15 steps from my front door where children play all day long. Our dressing room had scorpions that would burrow underneath our hockey bags and surprise us when we would pack our bags for road trips. Soiled toilet paper was thrown into the garbage cans, not the toilet. There were security guards around ATM machines carrying AK47’s. Every vehicle in Atyrau was a potential taxicab with hordes of drivers jostling with each other to give you a drive. Players had told us that the previous year they were boxed in by two vehicles, while riding in an unmarked taxicab. The four players were tasered and robbed of all their money. The grocery store close to the apartments continuously tried to overcharge all of the imported players and expats living in the area. I caught them overcharging me and illustrated to them that the products in my bag did not add up to what was on the receipt. Other players caught the store charging them for prepaid cell phone credits that they did not even purchase. It was like the entire city bred corruption.
I believe I touched on the notion of control in any earlier blog. Things did not get any better as time passed. Not only were we banned from eating ketchup, drinking pop, consuming alcohol and other items that had no relevance to common sense thinking, but we were told when to go to sleep and what to do on our “optional” days. I put optional in quotations because an “optional” day was not optional. The coach would tell us that we would have an “optional” practice the following day, but we could all use the time wisely to work on aspects of our game that needed improvement. He told us that we should use that “optional” time to better ourselves and help the team. Therefore, if we took our option and rested our bodies, we would be looked upon being selfish and not helping the team. Not that an optional day would help us out any … being at the rink for 10 hours per day was not enough, I guess …
Some other interesting topics to discuss are the dress code, warm-ups and other game-related incidents. Our day before games, and game day, dress code consisted of a team tracksuit. However, two players forgot to wear their tracksuits to breakfast the day before a game and were fined 50% of their salary. That’s right – 50%. One of the players’ salary was $8,000 US per month … $4,000 deduction is a little steep for forgetting to put on some trackies. Have you figured out where that 50% deduction went??? Our pregame meals consisted of miniscule portions of food. One game I recall us playing at 2:00pm, and our only source of food was a bowl of oatmeal at 9:00am. When I brought this up to the coaching staff, they deemed it as a sufficient meal. We were not allowed to talk during warm-ups either. We would have to jog and do plyometrics without smiling or talking to each other. If caught, we were told to be quiet and not to smile. Seriously, I think smiling was a crime in Kazakhstan. Nobody ever smiled there. There were photos of Olympians on the walls of our hockey arena. One guy had 7 medals around his neck but looked as if he just watched his dog get hit by a train. Coffee was banned before games, but we were allowed to take an inordinate amount of “pills” distributed by the team “doctor.” I was brought into the coaches’ room one day and told to stop playing music before the games because some players did not want to listen to music and the team should be concentrating on the game. I have never heard of a hockey dressing room not to have music on before games. Oh, and all injuries and sicknesses were dealt with by administering the magic needle or IV drip. Players would complain of headaches or muscle spasms or other injuries and the “doctor” would inject them with “the needle.” When we asked what the needle consisted of nobody could tell us. We were just told that they were vitamins.
Control manifested in many other ways as well. We were playing in the Kazakhstan Cup at the beginning of the season. It is a tournament consisting of all the teams in the league. The winner gets bragging rights for the duration of the season until the league champion is crowned. However, in order for your players to be eligible to play, they must sign their contracts before hand, and then be signed by the team directors/president and then be faxed off to the Kazakhstan Hockey Federation to be signed and stamped. Well, our director was not present at the tournament, but someone had to sign the contracts from all of us imports. Me and another teammate watched as the head coach practiced the signature of the team president on a napkin over and over and over again. Then, we watched as he forged the signature on every contract that had to be sent to the Kazak Hockey Federation. That was not the only instance of forging going on.
During the four months I was in Kazakhstan, there were about five “revisions” to our contracts. We were never given an honest answer as to what was going on. We were told that dates were wrong, or numbers had to be changed or the government needed updated contracts. What would the government need updated contracts for? We were told that they had to be signed immediately and sent to the Federation or we would not be allowed to play. Of course, the contracts were in Russian, so a few players and myself refused to sign them until we had them translated. To this day, I have never signed one of those contracts. Just trying to figure out how I was allowed to play if my “updated” contracts were never signed by myself.
A couple of the local Kazak players (who were really Russian, but had phoney Kazak passports created for themselves) told us that the head coach had control over their salary and passports. They told us that the coach held on to their passports so that they could not leave the team. When we would go on road trips, they would be given their passports prior to the trip, but would have to return it to the coach after the trip. Apparently, their salary was controlled by the coach as well. One of the players told us that they would be given an allowance out of their salary, and the coach was to hold on to the remainder of their earnings. These players are petrified of the coach. We had originally heard a rumour about these claims, so we asked the players involved. They did not want to talk about it, but one admitted to it as long as we kept their names silent. This is not a surprise to me as the team would hold on to my, and other imports, passports for days at a time. They would take them for some paperwork, but we would not see them for up to a week at times. And let us not forget about one of the players that had signed a contract earlier in the year prior to joining the team. He was told shortly after he joined the team that he was being released. When he told them that he had a contract with the team, the management told him that his contract was an illusion. Those were the exact words. Unreal!
I do not hate Kazakhstan. In fact, I met a lot of nice people there (most were expats), but regardless, it was not all bad. They have tasty ice cream bars, decent pizza … did I mention the ice cream?! All in all, it was the worst hockey decision I have ever made in my career. I ate better food in prison and had much more freedom in prison. Between the 10-hour days at the rink, the continuous corruption and control and the squalid living conditions, you could say that I spent four months in a Kazakhstan prison to start off the season.
When the players, past and present, found out I was writing a blog about my time in Kazakhstan, I was bombarded with facebook messages and emails insisting that I add their stories to my blog. I could not do that, as I had no proof of what they were saying. I do not want to start rumours; I want to state facts. However, one story involving my previous team was very interesting. After confirming the story with multiple sources from both teams involved, I am deciding to add it to my blog. A couple of years ago, Beibarys was playing Arystan in the playoffs. The Arystan players were supposed to receive a bonus for reaching the playoffs, however, travelling to Beibarys by plane was very expensive for the team. Therefore, the Arystan and Beibarys coaches got together (as they are friends) and came to an agreement. Arystan already had to travel to Beibarys for the first two games of the series. So, Arystan told their players to purposely lose all four games so they would not have to travel back to Atyrau by plane again. If Arystan did not comply, they would not receive their playoff bonus as it would go to support the cost of the teams travel back to Atyrau. Instead, if Arystan lost all four games, they would receive their playoff bonus from their team as well as receive $1000 from Atyrau. Therefore, Beibarys paid off Arystan players and coaches $1000 each to purposely lose playoff games. That story was confirmed by players from both Beibarys and Arystan.
I did not want to write this blog and sewer the organization or coaching staff. I wanted to be professional and respectful about this chapter in my life. I had told everyone involved from the beginning that I did not want my family to be disrespected or my money to be screwed around with. Anything else was open to a casualty of war. However, the ball was in the team’s court and they dropped it repeatedly. Prior to leaving the team, I wrote the coaching staff a two-page word document outlining my reasons for leaving. At that point, I was owed a good portion of money, and I did not want any problems leaving the country. I expressed that my family was unhappy and it would be a good decision if we could part ways and let me move on with my career elsewhere. I believe that one of the coaches copied and pasted two paragraphs of my letter on a message board somewhere saying that I was ungrateful. What he did not post from that letter was how if the team did not want to be respectful of my decision and let me go quietly than I would outline all of the corruption and dishonesty that was experienced by myself and several other players. They made the bed that they have to sleep in. Bottom line, I did leave because my family was unhappy. However, I also left because they felt unsafe in Atyrau, the living conditions that we were forced to live in were nothing short of shitty, the team believed in a corrupt form of salary deductions that would go directly into the president and coaches pockets and there were too many off-ice issues to be able to concentrate on hockey. The last straw for me was when the hockey club made the decision to cut a players’ salary by 50% for “poor play.” This player had only played in four games in the month of November because he was injured. However, the disturbing part for me was that his wife was five months pregnant at the time of his salary deduction. Beibarys, have some respect for your players and carry yourselves with a little bit of class.
When it comes down to it, we have to live with the decisions that we make in life. I know all about that. I served 65 months of a 90-month prison sentence for something I committed when I was 23 years old. I made a shitty career decision in signing in Kazakhstan because the money was good. Well, it was too good to be true. I am sharing my experience with everyone out there so that they do not make the same mistake. Do not follow the money because if it seems too good to be true, it usually is. If I was the only player that left the team in Atyrau this season because of issues, you could call me a pampered baby that is making excuses. However, I am not the sole player that has left that team. In fact, there have been seven others and couple more possible departures in the near future. I have learned that where there is smoke, there is fire. Well, call the fucking fire department because that place is about to burn down.