As the tenth season of the League is now in full swing, KHL.ru decided to pay tribute to ten of the finest foreign imports which have graced the ice over this action-packed decade. Of course, there are as many possible permutations as there are stars in the heavens, and we do not pretend our list is definitive, but we do hope it will trigger wonderful memories and lively discussion among those who love our game and the multinational stars who play it.
We begin our list with the formidable Finn, the last line of defense for the reigning champions. It may surprise some that Koskinen's move to the KHL was triggered by pure chance. The story begins in the summer of 2013, with current Severstal netminder Julius Hudacek. The Slovak's move to Sibir was not going according to plan, to put it mildly, and the Novosibirsk club's hurried search for a swift replacement led them to Finland's Espoo Blues, where former New York Islanders goalie Koskinen was plying his trade. Four years on, and Mikko's packed trophy cabinet includes two Gagarin Cups.
There was a taste of things to come when he helped Sibir claim a famous first-round play-off series victory over favorites Ak Bars, and by the following spring his imposing frame was once again facing the Kazan team, but now he was guarding the net for the Petersburg Army Men. We already mentioned his two Gagarin Cup triumphs, but even during SKA's unsuccessful post-season in 2016, the cool-as-a-cucumber Finn still managed to post five shutouts – more than any other goalie in the playoffs.
The affable goalie from Saskatoon is a bit of a rarity in this list, having never raised the Gagarin Cup, and his most recent season in the League was a best-forgotten episode spent amid the off-ice troubles surrounding Medvescak Zagreb, but nonetheless, the ex-Atlanta Thrashers man has been one of the most solid and reliable goaltenders throughout the League's ten-year history. In his nine seasons, Michael has racked up 401 KHL appearances, far and away the best total of any goalie among our Foreign Legion, and the third-best total overall, surpassed only by Vasily Koshechkin and Konstantin Barulin.
As one of the first pioneers from North America to grace the League, Garnett has garnered invaluable experience over the years and is a veteran of two Gagarin Cup finals. When Oleg Znarok was plotting his minor miracles at HC MVD, he chose the Canadian as the foundation stone on which to assemble his team, and the men from Balashikha came within a whisker of claiming the KHL's ultimate prize. Three years later, he once again found himself in a final series, and this time Znarok was on the opponent's bench. Michael performed admirably for Traktor, although by then the Chelyabinsk fans were calling him, “Misha,” as they already regarded him as one of their own. High praise indeed.
When anyone mentions Barys, thoughts of Dallman are rarely far from one's mind. Even his two years in the Northern Capital could not sever the link between the team from the Kazakhstan capital and the popular defenseman from Ontario. He left Petersburg without a trophy (their glory years were just around the corner) but Kevin can hold his head high. In the 2013 playoffs, for example, he was the highest-scoring defenseman, and back in 2008-09, his first year in Russia and the KHL's debut season, he recorded a stunning haul of 58 points – a record for D-men, and one which was only surpassed last year by his compatriot, Chris Lee.
He arrived in the country fresh from spells with the Boston Bruins, St. Louis Blues, and Los Angeles Kings, and he kept his early momentum, winning the Gentleman on Ice award and meriting six(!) call-ups to the All-Star Game. If we were seeking a man who most merited the title, King of the Blue Line, then the Canadian with Kazakh citizenship is surely the first player on anyone's short-list. His overall tally in regular seasons now reaches 361 points - more than those of superstars such as Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexei Morozov – and there is surely more to come.
The importance of Chris Lee, another import from the Great White North, to the fortunes of Metallurg Magnitogorsk is clear from the team's dip in form this season, as the men from Steel City struggle to cope without him. During his four-year tour of duty, Metallurg graced three final series and claimed two Gagarin Cups, the second of which was particularly sweet for Chris, as he was not only the top-scoring defenseman in the playoffs, but also struck the decisive, championship-winning goal. If anything, despite his 36 years, last season he seemed to grow younger and better, or possibly maturing like a fine wine, and he provided more assists in the regular championship than any other player. In the spring, he followed this achievement by becoming MVP for the playoffs.
Much has been written in praise of Magnitka's lethal offensive line, but we must not forget that it was often Chris Lee, the “fourth forward,” supplying the assassins with the vital ammunition, picking out killer passes from all parts of the ice. In just four campaigns in the KHL, Lee became the second-highest scorer among foreign defensemen, surpassed only by the man we lauded above, Kevin Dallman.
Traditionally, the arrival in the KHL of players from some countries - such as Denmark, Norway or Slovenia – initially arouse more curiosity than “Great Expectations,” and even though Patrick Thoresen was one of Team Norway's leaders when he left Switzerland for Ufa in 2009, and had the Edmonton Oilers and the Philadelphia Flyers among his previous employers, few were predicting he would become one of the greatest imports ever to grace Russian ice. He soon earned a reputation as a hard-working, honest forward, the kind whose head never dropped when the going got tough and who never went missing in crucial games, and the fact that he achieved the rare feat of winning the Gagarin Cup with two different teams speaks volumes about his qualities.
In 2011, when Salavat Yulaev emerged victorious in the battle for the Gagarin Cup, Thoresen was not only the top assistant but also the MVP of the playoffs, while in the regular season, marauding alongside Alexander Radulov, he was the Foreign Legion's top scorer, an achievement he repeated two years later. By that time he was in the colors of SKA, and in 2015, again under the reign of Vyacheslav Bykov and Igor Zakharkin, he raised the Gagarin Cup for the second time. In that victorious playoff campaign, the Norwegian Viking was the second-highest scorer, beaten only by his team-mate, Evgeny Dadonov.
Unlike Thoresen. Nigel Dawes certainly knew the burden of expectations, being part of Canada's U20 World Championship-winning team which many in the game considered to be among the finest in history, but although spells at the New York Rangers, Phoenix Coyotes, Calgary Flames, Atlanta Thrashers and Montréal Canadiens followed, only once – at Calgary – was the promising forward given a full season on the ice. The opportunities that were missing in North America were found in the KHL. The men from the Kazakhstan capital showed full faith in Nigel, and in placing him alongside Boyd and Bochenski they created one of the most ruthless forward lines in the League, and one which would be the scourge of defenses for the next six years.
This North American “troika” spearheaded Barys's charge to the playoffs, and at times resembled an unstoppable machine, while Dawes – a natural goal-scorer- three times broke through the magic 30-goals-in-a-season barrier, and would have been Numero Uno in the entire League were it not for the exploits of Steve Moses one year, or Sergei Mozyakin the next. However, that statistical oddity would not prevent him from becoming a living legend to the Barys fans and to Kazakhstan hockey. At the World Championships in Moscow, Dawes made his debut for his new country, while at Barys he began the tenth KHL Championship with new linemates and a new role – team captain.
This talented American, who arrived in the KHL back in 2010, boasted that elusive elixir of sporting excellence so desperately sought by generations of coaches – consistency. In the seven seaons Brandon spent in the League with Barys, he never once dipped below 40 points, and the only time he dropped under the 20-goal mark was 2016-17, after which he decided to hang up his skates. And when injury finally called time on a distinguished career, he was the captain of the Astana Men and the proud bearer of a Kazakhstan passport.
Bochenski's biography will include stories of his time with the Ottawa Senators, Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins, Providence Bruins, Anaheim Ducks, Nashville Predators and the Tampa Bay Lightning, but the main chapters will be devoted to his stunning achievements in the KHL. His appearance in the playoffs was restricted to a mere 31 outings, thanks to frequent first-round elimination (although, his being on the losing side did not stop him recording a more-than-respectable 25 points), but he still forced his way into the record books. Bochenski became the League's top sniper in the 2011-12 season, and he finished as the fifth highest scorer in KHL history,. Who is above him in that list? Only the Russians: Mozyakin, Radulov, Shipachyov and Zaripov. O all the Foreign Legionnaires, Bochenski is the top man.
The first foreign import to claim two Gagarin Cups was Niko Kapanen (2009 and 2010 with Ak Bars), while Jan Kovar matched the feat with Magnitogorsk in 2014 and 2016. Indeed, the Finnish forward and the man from the Czech Republic have much in common. Both are centers, and both are genuine fighters in the knockout stages, the kind who really burst into life during the playoffs. Both are particulalry deadly from the face-off spots, but the strongest link is that each has been part of a line with Danis Zaripov and his illustrious partners, although Kovar roams alongside Sergei Mozyakin while Kapanen was flanked by Alexei Morozov.
The reason for mentioning the parallel lives is to concede that Kapanen is one of many outside our top ten who deserve a special mention, but also to underline that Kovar nonetheless eclipsed his predecessor, appearing in more finals, inflicting more damage to defenses, and clinging to his treasured place in the fist line for much longer. It was the experienced eye of Mike Keenan which spotted that Jan could be one of the Steel City team's sharpest weapons, and he has held his place in that formidable threesome ever since. He is the stuff of defensemen's nightmares – the kind who can pull the strings of his own team while getting right under the skin of the opposition. For four straight years he has been top assistant, whether in the regular championship or in the knockout stage, and last season, despite Magnitka's falling at the final fence against the SKA goal machine, the Czech was the top scorer in the Gagarin Cup playoffs.
Admittedly, Linus Omark's trophy and medal collection is nowhere near as glittering as those of many on this list, but what the dashing Swede lacks in silverware, he more than makes up for in entertainment value. It is hard to find any of the eminent foreign stars in the ten years of the KHL who match Linus for being so exciting, so often. He seems to produce something intriguing in almost every shift, effortlessly reproducing in competitive matches any of the tricks he tries for fun in training. Little wonder that he is a star of Youtube and invites frequent comparisons with Pavel Datsyuk.
Omark's first foray into the KHL was with Dynamo Moscow in 2009. He was still very young, but was fortunate to have his elder and more experienced compatriot, Johan Harju, as a team-mate. This was followed by spells with the Edmonton Oilers and the Buffalo Sabres before a return to the KHL in 2014-15, this time to don the colors of Jokerit. With the Helsinki men he linked up with Steve Moses and Petr Koukal in one of the most fearsome forward lines in the League, and the following year he moved to Salavat Yulaev, where he became the mentor and seemingly telepathic partner to upcoming star Kirill Kaprizov. And of course, in spite of all his skill and wizardry in the fiercely competitive cauldron of the Championship, for many Linus Omark will always be the Man with the Burning Stick from the All-Star Game Super Skills shootout.
We complete our list with the inclusion of one the National Hockey League;s greatest overseas players, and a man who needs little in the way of an introduction. Two Stanley Cups, Olympic gold, two World Championship golds, sublime stick-handling, dashing offensive raids – the man with everything. Admittedly, the great man's dry statistics in the KHL are not as stunning – he never raised the Gagarn Cup, or topped the scoring charts for a season, but his contribution to the fledgling KHL was immeasurable, or maybe, to use a word beloved of one of our sponsors – priceless.
The Czech legend's arrival at Avangard on a three-year contract in the League's early days sent a resounding message across the hockey world that this was the birth of a truly international Championship, and the fans who packed stadiums across the continent just to see him play roared their approval. His name adorned Red Square as he led one of the two competing teams in the first KHL All-Star Game, and no lists of statistics, rankings, cups, or medals can fully illustrate the joy he gave to hockey-mad fans across the vast territory of the Kontinental Hockey League.