Here’s an excerpt from This is Russia: Life in the KHL – Doctors, bazas and millions of air miles, Bernd Brückler’s memoir of his three seasons in the KHL.
This excerpt is from the chapter called “Medicine Men”.
The Russians have their own philosophy when it comes to getting in shape. It’s not a complicated one. In fact, it’s fairly simple: They help themselves in this process by taking as many pills and supplements as possible.
In the beginning, our team doctor would come up to me and offer the pills.
“What’s that for?” I asked him.
“For your heart,” he said.
I was shocked. I was 28 years old, and an athlete, I didn’t think I needed pills for my heart. Then he popped out some more pills and handed them to me.
“Take two, for general health, immune system,” he said.
And so it went.
In our locker room in Nizhny Novgorod there was a large table with a huge jug of electrolyte drink on it. All around it were piles of multivitamins, magnesium, joint aid and other pills.
I recognized some European ones, others were Russian, some were creatine. There were boxes of liquid amino acid shots, and protein powder, and then there were other kinds of pills that I didn’t know.
On a blackboard on the wall, there was a table with one column for “breakfast”, one for “lunch”, and a third for “dinner”. On the rows, the doctors had written instructions for taking the pills — whether they are to be taken before practice or afterward, how many, and how often.
It was a mind-boggling sight, and once I did the math and concluded that if I had followed the instructions correctly I would have taken sixteen pills a day.
“Morning: Take three white, one blue, one big white, and one grey”. That’s six.
“Lunch: Two orange, two large whites, and a purple one.” Five more.
And so on.
When I asked the doctor about the pills again, I got the same answer:
“Brucks. You need.” Then he would go through the pills: “This, for your heart. This, for your immune system, and this, to keep you going.”
“To keep me going? What does that mean?”
“It’s OK, you get tested, don’t worry. I look out for you,” he said.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody. All athletes eat supplemental nutrition, and the image of a Soviet athlete was of a robot put together by mad scientists in their white coats. Wasn’t that a part of the adventure?
The Soviet national team was called the Red Machine. Think about it. A machine.
But being there, in the midst of it all, I decided to stick to my one multivitamin pill a day and a protein shake after off-ice workouts.
The KHL does do regular doping tests: Two players get tested after each game. But I can’t guarantee that they don’t give players illegal pills because I also know at least one player who was very worried about getting caught, so I assumed he must have taken some illegal substances. But he was told not to worry about it too much.
There are very few doping cases in hockey, but Ilya Solaryov was tested positive for salbutamol, a performance enhancing asthma medication, at the 2013 second-tier World Championships. He received a two-year ban from international competition, today he plays for Barys Astana in the KHL.
Also, when Alexei Cherepanov died in 2008, the Russian Federal Investigative Committee reported first that according to blood and urine samples,“for several months Alexei Cherepanov engaged in doping,” and that the banned substance found in his blood was nikethamide, a stimulant. It had been administered three hours before his last game.
Later, the committee reported, “It is impossible to determine how and with what aim this medicine was administered,” and that Cherepanov had been taking cordiaminum to stimulate circulation and breathing as well as the central nervous system, to treat myocarditis, a condition that obstructed blood flow to his heart and other organs.
He was first carried to the dressing room, where he briefly came to. The ambulance that was supposed to be at the arena had already left — since there was only less than three minutes on the clock — and had to be called back. The doctors started to attend to Cherepanov fifteen minutes later, but the battery on the defibrillator was empty. He was revived two more times, but collapsed again, and he died at the hospital.
Avangard Omsk’s President, GM, and one doctor were suspended from the KHL indefinitely, and Avangard’s other doctor received a two-year suspension. But no one faced legal charges, as annual check-ups since 2002 revealed no heart problems.
After that, the KHL changed their medical testing requirements, which is why I had to get tested at a hospital in Helsinki, Finland and bring the results with me to [my first] training camp.
If you look at the development of Russian players, some of them seem to take a huge leap forward in their teenage years. While I don’t think steroids are as common in hockey as they are in some other sports, I’m sure some guys take them; although, I have never seen it.
The Russian players on my team didn’t ask any questions about the many pills, they just took everything. I asked my friend Yevgeni Korolyov about it, and I asked my goalie partner Alexander Fomitchev about it, but they just shrugged their shoulders and told me it was just the way things were. They had always done it.
In Novosibirsk, it wasn’t quite like that, although they did provide some pills. But while there may have been fewer pills, the doctors there made sure you ate them. I took the pills, and then spat them out afterwards.
But in Nizhny, I saw my teammates take all sixteen pills a day, and then some. Then, after we’d gone through the training camp workout cycle a few times, it started to make sense to me.
Let’s say, for example, that I would do a hard leg day in the off-season, and do hurdle jumps. Working out on my own, I would do five sets of ten jumps, so that’s a total of 50 jumps. In our training camp, we kicked off the leg practice with 140 jumps — three times my usual — and by the end of the four-week program, we were doing 360 jumps a session. One period was 120 jumps, and we’d do three periods, like in a hockey game.
By the end of it, I couldn’t even move my arms — trying so hard to beat the Earth’s gravity — let alone my legs.
In Russia, everything is about quantity.
And that’s why you take the pills.