The former NHL forward, who signed a one-year contract with Kunlun of the Kontinental Hockey League on July 4, 2019, needed time to adjust to new customs and surroundings. But Cracknell said he learned the area and a few useful phrases.
“You learned how to deal with the travel now; it was a great experience going over,” said Cracknell, who’s back home in Cranbrook, British Columbia. “I had so much fun with the guys and the staff; they treated us very well. I had a good time in Beijing before everything kind of hit.”
What hit was coronavirus, which began spreading from Wuhan, China, approximately 715 miles south of Beijing, in late December. Cracknell left his wife, Teresa, and his 1- and 3-year-old daughters in Beijing on Jan. 23 for what he thought would be a weeklong road trip through Helsinki and Moscow.
He never returned to Beijing.
“A couple of days into our trip, after the virus was really starting to hit, the league said, ‘Hey, you guys are not going back to China,'” said Cracknell, who scored 43 points (21 goals, 22 assists) in 210 career NHL games with the St. Louis Blues, Columbus Blue Jackets, Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers, Dallas Stars, New York Rangers and Anaheim Ducks. “So, we ended up finished the season on a 33-day road trip.”
The family’s stay in Beijing ended abruptly, with Cracknell traveling through Russia for more than a month and his wife trying to find a safe place for her and their daughters. Teresa said their final few days in Beijing were surreal.
“On Wednesday (Jan. 22), we heard a rumor that Wuhan was facing some sort of serious disease and people were panicking a little bit, but Beijing at that moment was still kind of status quo,” Teresa said. “By [Thursday] afternoon, the government said everything in Beijing had to shut down, everyone had to stay home. By Friday, everyone had a mask on and the streets of Beijing were dead. It’s a city of 25 million people, and there was not a soul anywhere. If you did go outside, there were police on the corners taking your temperature and there were drones flying around.”
Teresa, their daughters and their nanny, who is Chinese, were already planning to go to Hawaii in February because her husband’s schedule included several games in Russia. But by late January, the United States was not accepting any foreign nationals who had been in China for the previous 14 days. Teresa and the girls couldn’t go back to their home in Cranbrook; they rented it through the end of March, which they’ve been doing every hockey season.
“And living in my parents’ basement for two months [in Cranbrook] in the dead of Canadian winter wasn’t exactly appealing,” Teresa said with a laugh. “So, I just looked online at where a good place would be to go. We went to Bali for two months, and our nanny came with us because she didn’t want to be [in China]. It all happened so fast.”
Bali, Indonesia’s main tourist destination, has a population of more than four million but hasn’t been too affected by the pandemic; to date, it has 314 confirmed cases, including four deaths, due to coronavirus. Teresa, her daughters and their nanny traveled from Beijing to Bali on Jan. 28, just before some travel restrictions were implemented.
“At that point, we were on the last flight that still allowed Chinese citizens to enter Indonesia,” Teresa said. “We didn’t know this; we wouldn’t have paid attention because we’re not Chinese citizens. We got in there and immigration was like, ‘Oh, you’re on this last flight. Anyone after you can’t enter.’ They had a giant temperature gate that everyone had to walk through at the airport.”
Cracknell, meanwhile, was traveling through Russia. There were many long plane rides; the shortest from Beijing was 4-5 hours to Amur in Khabarovsk, Russia. The longest was approximately 12 hours to Sochi, which included a stop in Novosibirsk, Siberia.
“We’d have to stop to refuel about halfway, just because our plane was loaded with so much gear you couldn’t fill the plane up all the way,” said Cracknell, who estimates the team flew approximately 100,000 kilometers (more than 62,000 miles) last season. “We had a lot of fun on the trips, playing cards, some guys would watch movies, sleep. You found ways to entertain yourself. We didn’t have WiFi, so there’s a lot of 1-on-1 contact with each other, talking. We made it through and had fun with it.”
Cracknell tried to communicate with his family whenever he could.
“Half the time my wife didn’t know where we were,” Cracknell said. “I would keep them up to date, find out how they were doing. You just talk when you can; sometimes they’d have to get up in the middle of the night, just before things got hectic. We made do. It wasn’t hard. She was having a good time with the girls and experiencing that life. I’m glad we were able to do that, and I was able to be with them after the season.”
Kunlan finished its regular season on Feb. 24 with a 2-1 loss to Dinamo Riga in Novosibirsk. The team didn’t qualify for the 2020 Gagarin Cup, and the KHL playoffs were canceled March 25 due to the coronavirus.
Cracknell flew to Bali on Feb. 25, and the family stayed there for another month. As hectic as things were the month before, they were able to spend a peaceful few weeks together.
“It was a nice experience,” Cracknell said. “You meet a lot of interesting people, it’s a very friendly culture, [we] got to see some very neat things after a long season. Throughout the year, it’s long being away from your family, so it was nice to spend some good, quality time together.
As for playing in Beijing again, Cracknell said he’s hoping to return next season, whenever that is.
“Obviously, everything’s still on hold, but I’d like to go back,” he said.