Global goalie: Well-traveled Westlund returns home for shot at AHL
By MICHAEL FORNABAIO
Alex Westlund was sure it was some kind of joke.
His late-night caller, supposedly a hockey official, was a stranger
with an exotic accent.
This caller wanted him to go where to play hockey?
Khabarovsk, Russia, actually, for the 2002-03 season, and it didn't
take much longer for the goaltender to realize it was no prank.
An ECHL teammate in Cincinnati, where Westlund took the call, had
referred him to the Amur Tigers of Russia's top league.
That call set Westlund on a two-year journey around the world that
has led him back to Connecticut, where he is taking another shot at
the AHL with a different set of Tigers, Bridgeport's Sound Tigers.
Along the way, he faced a cultural divide, an unfamiliar alphabet, a
language barrier and some of the most grueling travel this side of
Odysseus' Mediterranean victory tour.
"Those first two months, I was so dependent on other people," said
Westlund, who turns 29 in December.
"You can't read signs. The food is different; not bad, just
different. The preseason was really tough, two-a-days, then you go on
a trip and fly eight hours across the country."
Not only had Westlund landed in a foreign country, but he'd landed in
the most remote outpost in Russian elite hockey.
Khabarovsk is easy to find on a map: Go to China's easternmost point,
up north in Manchuria. Then, hop your finger across the border into
Russia, to the city of nearly 600,000 people on the Amur River.
Actually getting to Khabarovsk is a little tougher. From New York,
you could fly to Moscow (nine hours) and connect to Khabarovsk (eight
more), or fly to Seoul, South Korea, via Anchorage, Alaska (16
hours), and connect to Khabarovsk (another two and a half).
Westlund would recommend the latter course on Asiana Airlines
("unbelievable experience," he said). That's how he got there in late
New old world
Arriving in his new hometown, Westlund stepped into a different
culture. Street signs were in the Cyrillic alphabet instead of Roman;
he couldn't drive and sometimes needed help to find his way around.
He knew almost none of the language.
Over time, he picked up Russian, though conversations took all of his
Aside from all the cultural differences, things just looked off.
"In America, there's landscaping everywhere, and I don't think we
realize it. There's landscaping on the highways even," Westlund
said. "Over there, it's 'Here's an apartment,' and it is what it is.
Moscow's a little different, and St. Petersburg is a little
different, but they don't worry about those extra little things."
Fortunately, Westlund had an interpreter, a couple of North American
teammates and a scouting report about the city from friend Jon
Coleman, who had played for the Amur Tigers the year before.
A coincidence in time differences also helped keep him connected to
home. It's 15 hours later in Khabarovsk than it is in Flemington,
N.J., so Westlund was often getting home for the night when his
mother was getting up.
"We'd instant message for 15 or 20 minutes," he said.
As a Yale graduate, Westlund compared Russia's hockey schedule to an
NCAA schedule: two games away, followed by two games home.
Those road trips from Khabarovsk were nothing like the Bulldogs'
jaunts up to Dartmouth and Vermont, though.
The Tigers' closest opponents played in Novosibirsk, a city in the
middle of Siberia, five hours away by plane.
Most of the teams were farther west, a seven- or eight-hour flight.
"I think 80 percent of the team was addicted to sleeping pills,"
Westlund said. "Fortunately, I could probably sleep in a trash can."
In Europe, professional teams play fewer games than in the United
States. In his first season, he played in 50 games, almost every one
Extend that ratio to an 80-game schedule like the AHL's, and that's
like playing more than 70 here.
Despite the hardships, Westlund played well and adapted. He even had
a chance to help out his interpreter's girlfriend, who taught an
English class. Westlund let them hear how American English actually
His visit happened to coincide with the beginning of the war in Iraq.
"We spent the whole two hours talking about the war and the Russians'
attitudes toward it," Westlund said. "It was hard for me to know what
the mood was like over (in the United States)."
Last season began for Westlund in Khabarovsk and ended in Yaroslavl,
northeast of Moscow, with a brief home stop in Trenton in the middle.
The year also included a couple of international tournaments. Last
November, he played with former Trumbull resident Ted Drury at the
In the spring, he played for Team USA in the World Championships in
the Czech Republic. The team won the bronze medal, and he got to
renew acquaintances with Yale teammate Jeff Hamilton, who played for
Bridgeport last year.
"For me, it's hard to really put how big an honor it was into words,"
said Westlund, who was perfect in his lone appearance. "It's simply
the biggest honor I've had to play for Team USA."
After all those international experiences, Westlund decided to return
to North America to try to establish himself at least at the AHL
level, if not higher. He has played just six games in the AHL and
eight in the defunct IHL in his five-year pro career.
"I'm not getting any younger," he said.
He targeted Bridgeport as a place that could eventually offer him
Part of the allure was his history with Yale. Holder of several
goaltending records there, he keeps in touch with coach Tim Taylor
and some teammates.
But he also saw a future opening, if the NHL lockout gives him that
chance. There's no No. 4 goalie in the New York Islanders
organization now, since former No. 2 Garth Snow is playing in
Either Wade Dubielewicz or Dieter Kochan would move up to the NHL
were the lockout resolved, leaving an opening in Bridgeport.
"We have to have some depth at that position," Bridgeport coach Greg
Cronin said. "We were poking around, and Westlund's name came up a
number of times.
"He could have gone to a number of camps, actually," Cronin said. "He
was going to pay his own way (here), he had that much conviction. He
felt this organization was the best place to start."
Playing in a mask with an American flag on one side and a Russian
flag on the other, Westlund made some fine saves among his 12 to
finish out a 4-0 victory over Albany in the first exhibition game
"From everything I've seen since I got here, it's a fantastic
organization," Westlund said. "I'm desperately trying to get to the
Next stop, Vladivostok
About Khabarovsk, a city near the end of the Trans-Siberian Railroad
where Alex Westlund played most of the past two seasons:
Eastern Russia, about 20 miles from China's border
POPULATION (GOVERNMENT ESTIMATE)
580,400, similar to Boston or Washington cities proper
Seven hours later than Moscow; 15 hours later than U.S. Eastern time
Amur Tigers Khabarovsk, named for the indigenous, endangered animal,
sometimes called the Siberian Tiger
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