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Bensalem's Gunderson finds success in Russia's KHL

Despite Russia's shaky financial situation, Ryan Gunderson is living and working in relative ease for the team in Finland.

RYAN GUNDERSON was intrigued by Russia, just not entirely sure he wanted to make the jump to the Kontinental Hockey League.

The Bensalem, Pa., native heard all the stories. Plus, he'd been making a nice living in Sweden, where he was the leading scorer among defensemen in two leagues. He met a girl from Sweden. He won a Swedish league championship.

The offers were tempting: a significant pay raise and a chance to play in the second-best league in the world.

The catch: living and working in Russia.

So Gunderson enlisted a former teammate from Sweden who recently made the jump for reconnaissance.

His teammate's first order of business in Russia was a visit to the team doctor for a drug test. When he entered the doctor's office, he was asked to provide his own cup for the urine sample.

Utterly dumbfounded, Gunderson's teammate assumed his difficulty was rooted in the language barrier.

After yelling and screaming at his newest patient, the doctor walked to the refrigerator and opened the door to avoid further delay. Inside were dozens of makeshift urine collectors: sawed-off Coke cans, empty beer bottles, Gatorade bottles and maybe even a shot glass filled with poorly labeled samples.

In Russia, you bring your own cup.

"Russia is just a different place," Gunderson said, laughing. "I figured if that was the worst I'd have to deal with, I'd be fine."

That didn't scare off Gunderson from the KHL. He chose to sign with KHL newcomer Jokerit in Helsinki, Finland, for slightly less money to get the best of both worlds - top competition and life in one of the world's great cities.

Jokerit's general manager is Hockey Hall of Famer Jari Kurri. Some of the historic club's retired numbers include those of Teemu Selanne and Esa Tikkanen.

Jokerit has also provided Gunderson, 29, a front-row seat to a socio-economic meltdown in Russia that has threatened the very existence of the 28-team KHL. Increasing multinational government sanctions, a precipitous drop in the price of oil and an overall sagging economy has sliced to value of the Russian ruble in half.

Multiple reports have surfaced of delayed or missed paychecks for players, who suddenly find themselves playing for half the amount they'd agreed to last summer.

Gunderson has been spared by the fact that he plays for one of the KHL's six teams outside of Russia. He is paid in euros, Finland's currency. There are also teams located in Slovakia, Croatia, Latvia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

"Really, I can't complain at all," Gunderson said. "The only hiccup that we had was really pretty mild. We get paid once a month here. The team told us ahead of time that our checks would be late, but they did come a few days later.

"There was no issue with the money or anything like that. We were told it was a delay with the bank, that the bank needed to make sure, since part our team's ownership group were Russian, that the funds weren't part of any government sanction."

Gunderson, a Holy Ghost Prep product who set the University of Vermont record for career games played, has still taken a little bit of a financial hit.

Most foreign players like him wire money back home to their bank accounts in the United States or Canada. Since the euro also has dropped a bit, though not as severely as the ruble, it all depends which day Gunderson decides to transfer his money home.

"It's a little bit of a gamble, like anything else involving markets or stocks," Gunderson said. "I think you just try and time it right, go to the bank on a day when the euro is as high as possible."

Overall, Gunderson hopes to net approximately $400,000 at the end of the season, after paying all of his applicable taxes. There is no more hiding foreign bank accounts or skirting the IRS from abroad anymore. His contract with Jokerit also allows for an apartment and car in Helsinki.

Other foreign players in the KHL haven't been as lucky. For instance, Gunderson passed on an offer last year for 50 million rubles. In the summer, that was worth approximately $1.2 million dollars. Last week, that was worth about $850,000 - if the checks were even coming in.

Most players, as Illinois native Tim Stapleton revealed to last week, are keeping more money than usual in their Russian bank accounts in the hope the ruble rebounds. Even that might not be safe, given the landscape.

Some players with high-priced contracts have been traded to other, wealthier teams - essentially bought - so their old franchise could stay afloat.

The result is an even more unbalanced league between the haves and have-nots. Gunderson estimates there are between 12 and 14 teams in the top half of the KHL whose operations are night-and-day between their poorly funded brethren.

"I think there is definitely a question about the health of the league for next year, with what's going on in the world," Gunderson said. "Everyone says this bubble is bursting with the money in the KHL, this is the last ride on the gravy train for players. I'm not sure.

"I think you might see a few teams drop out, for sure. The sponsorship seems really strong. It's a proud country, I get the sense [Russian president Vladimir] Putin wants to make sure this league stays alive."

Away from the bank, Gunderson said life in the KHL has been overwhelmingly positive. His view is different, of course, because of where he plays. He isn't subject to dorm life in Magnitogorsk, as former Flyers coach Mike Keenan gave a glimpse of in a recent interview.

Even travel has been a relative breeze, surprising considering the geographic expanse of the league, which stretches all the way to the border of North Korea. His team flies around Ukraine, where a Malaysia Airlines plane was shot down in July.

The KHL's team in Ukraine, HC Donbass, suspended operations for this season.

"They've regionalized the league. You still play every team, but I think we only have one 10-hour flight," Gunderson explained. "We had a recent road trip and the longest flight was 4 hours and 50 minutes back to Bratislava [Slovakia]. The security and transportation have been great. Anyone who travels a lot does think twice; everyone here knows what's happening in the world. You do your best to stay safe."

On the ice, Gunderson has found the hockey to be surprisingly competitive. It is much more defensively structured than he thought he'd find. He is fourth in the KHL in points among defensemen, with 26 points in 38 games. He is also a career-best plus-17, going up against players such as former Devils star Ilya Kovalchuk.

Gunderson led the Swedish elite league in scoring by defensemen each of the last three seasons. His pro career began with the Trenton Devils, where he was an ECHL all-star, and he spent a full year with the AHL's Houston Aeros before deciding to try his hand in Sweden in 2010.

A crafty puck mover with natural instincts on the power play, Gunderson has ended up on the Flyers' radar on occasion, but he acknowledged it would be hard to entice him with an offer short of a one-way NHL contract. An AHL deal, for instance, would need to pay him roughly $750,000 to net what he is earning in Russia.

As Christmas approached, and 33-year-old Rob Zepp made his NHL debut in net for the Flyers, Gunderson acknowledged he doesn't really spend much time even thinking about the NHL.

"I've kind of just put it off, thinking it's not in the cards," Gunderson said. "If the possibility were there, I think I would've heard about it by now. Right now, I'm enjoying it. The product and professionalism make this the best league I've seen in Europe. People talk and you hear all these stories. Really, it's not as bad as it might seem. If the money is still there, I'd sign up to play here again in a heartbeat."

He just knows to bring his own cup.

Local pro roundup

Johnny Gaudreau (Carneys Point, N.J.) became the youngest player (21 years, 131 days) to post a hat trick for the Calgary Flames since Joe Nieuwendyk on Dec. 28, 1987. Gaudreau is second among rookies in assists (17) and points (27) . . . Yardley's Brian O'Neill was last week's AHL player of the week. He has 35 points in 28 games for Manchester and is knocking on the door of the NHL with the Kings . . . Lumberton's Bobby Sanguinetti is back playing in the AHL with Utica after a stint in Russia . . . Cherry Hill's Bobby Ryan is tied for the Ottawa Senators lead in goals (seven) . . . Willingboro's T.J. Brennan is considered one of the best players not in the NHL right now. He's yet to make it back to the league after netting 72 points in 75 games last year for the AHL's Toronto Marlies as a defenseman . . . Roxborough's Eric Tangradi has racked up 143 career NHL games, including seven with the Canadiens this season . . . Villanova's Colby Cohen, 25, is playing in Slovakia for Banska Bystrica, hoping to make it back to the NHL.


Flyers (14-14-6, 34 points) at Predators (22-9-2, 46)

Tonight, 8 o'clock

Bridgestone Arena, Nashville

TV/Radio: CSN (Xfinity HD 847) / WMMR (93.3 FM)



16-9: Ratio by which Flyers have outscored Toronto, Winnipeg and Minnesota to start their three-game road trip.

8: Points for Jake Voracek in three games on the trip, meaning he has factored into half of the team's goals. The league's leading scorer is on pace for 111 points. His previous career-high was set last year (62).

6: Road wins for the Flyers this season. They've doubled their output (6-9-3) in just the start of this trip.


* The Predators will hand out Shea Weber bobbleheads at Bridgestone Arena before tonight's game. Coincidence that the Flyers are in town for the promotion? Probably not, after the Flyers offered Weber a 14-year, $110 million offer in July 2012 that the small-market Predators were forced to match.

* Weber's deal featured a crippling $68 million in signing bonuses, payable in lump sums every July, designed to make it tough for Nashville to keep their captain.

* Weber and Peter Laviolette were finally united this summer. Under the former Flyers coach, the Predators registered the fastest 20 wins to start a season (30 games) in franchise history. Laviolette, who turned 50 this month, is 411-291-90 in parts of 13 seasons as a head coach.

* The Flyers could hand Nashville their first back-to-back losses of the season. The Preds have responded to each of their first 10 losses with a win.

* Nashville scored only 216 goals (2.63 per game) last season under Barry Trotz. They've posted 95 already in 33 games (2.88) with Laviolette.

* Goaltender Pekka Rinne (all 22 wins, .934 save percentage, 1.84 GAA) has been the real difference maker for Nashville. He was limited to only 24 games last season because of hip trouble. Rinne, 32, figures to be the front-runner for the Vezina Trophy.

* The Flyers have gained at least one point (2-1-4) in six out of seven games at Bridgestone Arena since Nashville's franchise inception.

* No NHL team has a better home record than Nashville (12-2-1) this season. A staggering 12 out of those 15 games have been decided by one goal.