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Hockey meets “The Terminal”

November 3, 2011

Martinka, left. Photo via IDNES.

Remember that Tom Hanks movie from about ten years back, the one in which Tom Hanks plays a wayward traveler and new emigre (or something like that) stranded in the terminal of an airport without papers. It featured the same methodical, pensive and sidelined by reality plot-line as “Castaway” but without the excitement, without Wilson the ball. I recall seeing it in a theatre. It left an impression, if only because hundreds of asylum seekers undergo the same sequence of events each and every day.

But this isn’t about film, nor is it about Tom Hanks. This is about a 24 year-old Czech hockey player named Ondrej Martinka who wound up stranded in Almaty, Kazakhstan and Moscow without the requisite documents and visa to travel onward. Who is to blame? His own team. Martinka joined the VHL, or Russian Major League, which stands for the Vysshaya hokkeinaya liga. It’s the second tier of hockey in Russia and the former Soviet Union, and it will eventually act the farm system, the AHL, for the KHL. Martinka played for Titan Klin, a team in the Moscow Oblast. It would seem Martinka’s prospects might be better remaining in the Czech Extraliga, but that’s another story.

And it looks like Titan Klin didn’t do him any favors. According to the article, Martinka had some difficulty with his new coaches, whose instructions were mangled and uncoordinated. Little effort was made to help him understand. He said there was little food available to the team. Fast-forward a few days and the team is on a road-trip to Almaty, Kazakhstan. The team  had possession of his passport, and was to arrange his visa to the country, but failed to. Once at the airport in Almaty, the coach bid him “good luck” and left. For the next four days, without passport, Martinka was on his own. No papers, no help, team abandoned. He managed to seek out the aid of Czech compatriots in the city, who provided him food and shelter.

Once he was able to return to Moscow, he visited the management of Titan Klin, who thought of his exile as one big joke. Needless to say, the harrowing four days were no joke to Martinka. Martinka calls Titan Klin an “awful organization.” And we can see why. He claims he would beat them into a heap if he could, if wasn’t owed money. But he was owed money, for the remainder of October, which he eventually received. With that money, he booked the next flight to the Czech Republic, where he’s resumed playing.

The young defenseman may not be back in the Russian system any time soon, but the incident serves as a stark reminder of the price to be had in playing in the KHL and VHL. Rumors have swirled about teams failing to pay players on schedule, but an incident like this, even if a mix-up, is unprecedented. The VHL should be determined to retain foreign talent, and accommodate their visa needs. It’s a side of hockey we rarely see, but teams all over the globe must handle the visas and work permits of their worldly players each and every year. It’s a daunting task, but one done on behalf of the employee. Titan Klin is sending a message that this isn’t of much importance, and leaving a player high and dry at Almaty International Airport during a road-trip isn’t problematic.

There would always be another side to the story. Was there more of a falling out? Why did Martinka continue with the team if it was clear it wasn’t working?

Hopefully we’ll some day know.

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