The KHL is about to welcome its first ever British player. From a land more widely associated with soccer, and the mysteries of cricket, Ben O’Connor is heading to Kazakhstan to play for Barys next season.
Ben O’Connor, 29, comes from a hockey family. His father, Mike, was a rugged Canadian defenseman who spent several seasons with the Durham Wasps – Ben was born in Durham – before moving on to the newly-formed Sheffield Steelers in the early 1990s. His career brought him pretty much every domestic prize in the British game as well as helping Team GB to a rare season in the World Championship Elite Pool in 1994. Mike also briefly played on the same roster as Alexander Kozhevnikov, a Soviet Olympic Champion who had a short spell with the Wasps in 1990.
With that background, Ben could hardly escape a life in and around the game and he duly followed in his dad’s footsteps by becoming a formidable defenseman in his own right. Unusually for a British player, he was willing to explore opportunities outside his native country and spent three full seasons playing in the Kazakh championship for Saryarka Karaganda then Arlan Kokshetau. At that time, there was talk of KHL interest in a productive blue-liner – in his final full season with Arlan he potted 56 points in 51 games – but ultimately O’Connor returned to Sheffield. However, the Kazakhs kept track of the defenseman and after he helped GB pip Kazakhstan to promotion in this year’s World Championship Division IA in Budapest, a deal was struck to bring him to Astana.
Now, O’Connor is hoping that he won’t be the last Brit to head off for Europe’s strongest leagues as the national team prepares for its first World Championship appearance in 25 years in Slovakia next May. “British players have seemed to get overlooked for some reason and I think the success of the national team is making people take notice now,” he told the Elite League’s website. “I would certainly love to see more guys ply their trade abroad and it’s only a matter of time when you consider we’re in Pool A against some top teams next year and the world will be watching.”
Footnote: O’Connor is the first British international player, but not the first British-born player to feature in the KHL. Medvescak defenseman Thomas Larkin, born in London but an Italian international thanks to his mother, played two seasons in Zagreb. And goalie Danny Taylor, another ex-Medvescak man, was born in Plymouth but learned his hockey in Canada. He’s due back in Novosibirsk next season after spending 2017-18 with the Senators organization.