MARQUETTE - Former Northern Michigan University captain Nathan Oystrick has heard a variety of the stories about the four-year-old Kontinental Hockey League.
The league that spun out of the Russian Superleague and before that, the Soviet Championship League, was described back in January by the Toronto Star as one of "gun-slinging owners" that plant drugs on high-priced athletes franchises don't want to pay anymore.
According to a Star article published shortly after a plane crash that killed the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl KHL team, life in the league can consist of overnight stays in remote military bases, long flights on Soviet-era planes and locker rooms that lack shampoo, bathroom tissue and even toilet seats.
San Jose Sharks center Torrey Mitchell (17) battles for the puck against Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Nathan Oystrick (39) during the first period of a preseason NHL game on Sept. 24 in San Jose, Calif. After six professional seasons in North American, Oystrick signed this offseason with HC Lev Praha of Prague, Czech Republic at the Kontinental Hockey League. The KHL is regarded as the premier league in Europe and second best to only the NHL. (AP file photo)
Oystrick has heard it all, yet none of those tales are deterring him from a new adventure in what's being touted as not only the premier hockey league in Europe, but the next thing to the National Hockey League.
"There's all these horror stories about different leagues and guys not getting paid and stuff," Oystrick said. "I don't know how much truth there is to that. It's just something that guys go over there, have bad experiences and they talk.
"I've only heard good things about the league. I have lots of friends who have played in the KHL and they're all happy. They came back home alive and with their money."
After six seasons of bouncing back-and-forth between the NHL and American Hockey League, Oystrick decided this summer to pass up on the North American free agent frenzy and agree to terms with the KHLs' HC Lev Praha in Prague, Czech Republic.
Oystrick was a defenseman for NMU from 2002-2006, earning the CCHA's Best Defensive Defenseman Award in 2004-05 along with All-CCHA First-Team honors. He captained the 2004-05 and 2005-06 squads, as well.
He, his wife Lindsay, their pets - a cat and dog - and some translation applications for their iPad and iPhones depart Denver today for Europe.
They will arrive in Prague on Thursday. By Sunday, Oystrick will be taking tests and training with his new team in a new country on a continent he's never been to before.
The KHL regular season officially begins in September and runs through April. But before then, Oystrick and his team will embark on a high-
altitude training trip to Switzerland, followed by a preseason tournament in the Ukraine.
"It's not every year you get an opportunity to go see different parts of the world and play in all these different cities," Oystrick said. "I've seen all the cities in North America 100 times now. It's not that it's getting old, it's just cool to see different places in the world.
"I've never really been able to travel because of hockey. It's a way to play in an elite league and see the rest of the world."
Oystrick, drafted No. 198 overall in the seventh round of the 2002 NHL Entry Draft by the Atlanta Thrashers, finished with 11 goals and 32 assists in 60 games with the AHL's Portland Pirates - an affiliate of the Phoenix Coyotes - this past season. His only NHL action came in the preseason, however.
The 32 assists matched a career high set during his rookie season of 2006-07 with the AHL's Chicago Wolves. The following year, Oystrick won the Calder Cup in Chicago.
In 2008-09, Oystrick played what has turned out to be his only full season in the NHL with the Thrashers - now the Winnipeg Jets - scoring four goals and eight assists in 53 games.
Since that season, Oystrick has only appeared in 12 NHL games, including three in 2009-10 after being traded to the Anaheim Ducks and nine in 2010-11 with the St. Louis Blues.
With his 30th birthday coming up in December, Oystrick said he knew his window of opportunity in the NHL was beginning to close.
"I just felt like I wasn't getting the opportunities anymore over here with the NHL that I wanted, or that I felt like I deserved," Oystrick said. "It was another option to go play in a good league, see the country a little bit and see what else is out there for hockey. I'm pretty excited about it."
The financial incentives of the KHL are what lure many of the world's top players, despite some of the horror stories told in the press and by former players.
Since the league started in 2008, veterans such as Jamir Jagr, Sergei Zubov and Segei Fedorov have made millions in the KHL in the twilight of their careers.
Others like Jiri Hudler and Ray Emery went to the KHL to revive their careers and make a few extra million dollars they couldn't secure in North America. Now both are back in the NHL.
Oystrick believes he can be a Hudler, but wouldn't mind being a Kevin Dallman - the Niagara Falls, Ontario, native who spent time with the Boston Bruins, St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings.
Dallman finished fifth in scoring in 2011-12 in his fourth KHL season with Barys Astana, though he left in the offseason for HC Ska St. Petersburg after his wife was banned from the team's home country of Kazakhstan for comments made in a blog.
While unwilling to disclose exact terms of his contract, Oystrick said he'll make "a lot more" in the KHL than he would in the AHL. His one-year KHL deal will even allow him to take home more than he would if he was receiving the minimum in the NHL.
"Financially, it's obviously going to help," Oystrick said. "It's a time of my life where I'll be 30 this year and there aren't too many 30-year-olds busting into the NHL and turning heads. I think everyone over here knows what I can do."
Oystrick's new team, Lev Praha, is one of three new KHL squads this year in Central Europe, along with franchises in Slovakia and the Ukraine.
Besides Russia, the league also has teams in Latvia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. The Eastern-most franchise rests 30 miles from the Chinese border and more 5,000 miles from Moscow.
"It's going to be a learning experience for me in a new situation," Oystrick said. "Hopefully, I go out there and love it and get another opportunity to go back."
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252.