Cracknell's KHL Opportunity Gives Him Unique Insight Into Current Global Pandemic
The former Gulls forward, who played in China this season, experienced firsthand the Coronavirus outbreakApr 29, 2020
By Joe Spurrier/SanDiegoGulls.com
What a difference a year can make.
Just one full calendar year ago, former Gulls center Adam Cracknell was in the middle of a postseason run with San Diego in the 2019 Calder Cup Playoffs. The journeyman forward led San Diego with 16 points (7G/9A) in 15 postseason games to lead the Gulls to their first ever Western Conference Finals appearance.
After the postseason run, the 34-year old forward signed with Kunlun Red Star of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), the first professional hockey team based in China. Cracknell recently discussed his time and experiences in China, including living in the country where the COVID-19 outbreak began.
“It was quite a transition, going from San Diego beach to the heart of Beijing, China,” said Cracknell in a recent interview with SanDiegoGulls.com. “It was an interesting year. We had a lot of fun as a family and we got to see a part of the world that we never thought we’d go to.”
The KHL has 24 teams, primarily located in Russia, with five teams residing outside of the country, including Cracknell’s new club. Cracknell never visited China prior to joining Kunlun. Along with his wife Teresa and two infant daughters, he had two former teammates to keep him company during the new experience – former Gulls defensemen Andrej Sustr and Trevor Murphy.
“On one of our days off, Sustr and I did the Great Wall of China with Jake Chelios and a couple of other guys,” the former Gull recalled. “That was a great experience, and none of us had been there before. I went down to Hong Kong with a couple other guys. Obviously, when you’re in Beijing, you stand out quite a bit, especially when you’re walking with a guy like Sustr at 6-5. They all thought he was a superstar basketball player.”
Living in another country can create some incredible experiences, as evidenced by Cracknell’s list of new places he visited. However, the completely new culture and various language barriers also brought challenges with things as simple as finding a good meal. Once he and his family settled into their new home, they found it easier to navigate the new lifestyle.
“You just kind of look and hope you’re buying the right thing. There’s a lot of pictures,” Cracknell explained with a laugh. “When you go to restaurants, everything is like a pop-up book and you just point and hope that’s what you get. Once you get settled and it doesn’t seem like the city is moving so fast around you, especially somewhere so different in the world, you’re able to find nice grocery stores and good places to eat. People are so friendly there and willing to help you out.”
Cracknell, again, was among his club’s top scorers, posting 24 points (10G/14A) in 52 KHL games, although Kunlun fell just short of qualifying for the postseason. This was his first professional experience outside North America in a career that began 2006 and spanned seven NHL clubs and nine AHL teams from 2006-19.
“Traveling around Russia, and going to Finland, Kazakhstan, Riga, Latvia, and different parts of the world, the hockey was amazing, and the fans were awesome,” added Cracknell. “The hockey experience was great, I found it to be a very challenging league. There’s a lot of very good players out there. Hopefully, I can go back and keep playing.”
Diving a little deeper into what hockey and the fans are like overseas, Cracknell explained it’s a completely different environment. Among the things he missed most about his experience in China and Russia – the fans stood out above them all.
“When you go to Moscow, you play these big teams, it’s like going to a soccer game,” said Cracknell. “Everyone’s chanting, they have these massive flags everywhere and they’re just very passionate about their hockey. They have live DJs hanging out above the Zambonis, there’s lights going on. It’s like you’re in a night club but there’s an ice rink. Just the atmosphere over there is a lot different than over here. San Diego is very loud, but these guys are chanting the whole time. That’s what I miss, playing in front of those types of crowds.”
Cracknell expected to find himself in the middle of an offseason in China, but the global pandemic cut short his new and exciting experience.
As the 2019-20 KHL season was in its final weeks, the COVID-19 outbreak became a harsh reality. Cracknell’s experience with coronavirus was unlike many other professional hockey players as he and his family were living roughly 650 miles from Wuhan, China where the pandemic began.
“We were in China at the time when the rumor of this virus was hitting, and they shut down Wuhan,” said Cracknell. “We were just like, ‘Wow, they just shut down a whole city.’ It’s pretty wild to be in a country that did that, and we were thinking it must be pretty serious. Busses started canceling that people take to their cities or villages.”
For a hockey club like the Kunlun Red Star, located in a country outside of Russia, road trips last a minimum of four games, with the closest trip requiring about a five-hour flight. The team finished the season on a 33-day road trip while COVID-19 was growing from an unfortunate story in a large city to a growing pandemic that would eventually spread around the globe.
“We only had two home games left at that point, so we did one home game in Moscow as a home game for us,” said Cracknell. “Then we finished the last game of a 33-day road trip in Siberia. It was crazy times because you don’t know what’s really going on. We were traveling and can’t watch the (local Chinese) news so all you can do is get on North American news and see what’s happening back home. I was a little nervous.”
Prior to Cracknell’s road trip, the family decided it was best to get out of China to ensure they were in the safest possible place before any travel bans were enforced. Just a few days after the month-long road trip started, Teresa took their two daughters to Bali to take shelter in a safer environment than the congested nation’s capital of Beijing.
“The family ended up taking off three days later after (the road trip began) on January 27th and we rented a small house in Bali, Indonesia to get them out of there because our house in Canada was rented,” explained Cracknell. “There were some things we kind of had to stickhandle around with. I came after the season for about three and a half weeks to catch up and enjoy that part of the world. We cut our trip short because of travel bans and we had to make sure we could get home before we got stuck in Bali.
“You can keep in touch, but with time zones and everything like that, it’s difficult,” added Cracknell. “You don’t know what’s really going on. I was always on edge. You’re worried about people back home and how serious it was getting. It was a very difficult 33 days being away from them, that’s for sure.”
Being on the road with a traveling group of 30-40 people kept he and his teammates outside the country and focused on hockey despite what was transpiring back home.
“I wasn’t really in shutdown mode until I got home,” said Cracknell. “We still had events going on and we were able to finish our season before the KHL canceled the second round of playoffs. Once all that happened and sports started canceling here (North America), it was a very strange time. I was glad we were able to finish our season, but at the same time, it was getting real. By the time we got home for lockdown, it was a long two weeks being indoors.”
Fortunately, the former Gull and his family were never exposed to the virus and made it back home to North America safely. After a whirlwind journey, the family is currently sheltering in place in Cranbrook, British Columbia.
Now that he, Teresa and the kids are safe, Cracknell is enjoying the simple things, like spending time with his wife and two daughters.