Until April of 2019, CSKA Moscow had not won a post-season title since the fall of the USSR. Under the reign of Anatoli Tarasov or Viktor Tikhonov, expats would not have found themselves in the hallowed halls of Red Army—an enduring symbol of Soviet fortitude, and the great challenger to Canadian hockey dominance. A sign of political thaw and hockey’s globalization, Linden Vey, born and raised in Wakaw, Saskatchewan, was an integral part of CSKA’s Gagarin Cup championship. The skilled forward was an addition that Sergei Fedorov could not have dreamt of when he laced up for Red Army thirty years ago, but one he would mentor for the past two seasons as a fellow center.

A 2018 Canadian Olympian, Vey was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in 2009. After a few difficult seasons on and off of NHL lineups, Vey took his career abroad to Barys Astana—a squad anchored by perennial high-scorer Nigel Dawes. The Dawes family would help Vey to settle into the KHL rhythm, and the pair of Barys alumni have remained close since both of their departures from Kazakhstan. After a brief stint with the ZSC Lions in which Zurich took home the Swiss League’s top prize, Vey joined red-hot CSKA—promptly breaking a curse that spanned three decades. Igor Nikitin’s impressive roster was well on its way to a repeat until the 2019-2020 season was canceled.

Vey is set to join army rivals SKA Saint Petersburg next season, under the newly-appointed leadership of head coach Valery Bragin. We caught up on his impressions of CSKA, Wakaw’s “Vey Day” tribute and much more.

Gillian Kemmerer (GK): How are you keeping busy in Saskatchewan during quarantine? 

Linden Vey (LV): Well, I've actually been pretty fortunate. We've been building our house for the last couple of years, so that's kept me busy. Getting home early allowed us to get a lot of stuff done. For [CSKA], we had a good chance to make another run. You never want to not finish the playoffs, but the bonus is a little extra time to spend with family. I was able to put a gym into our house, so I've been able to stay in somewhat decent shape, and hopefully to continue to ramp up towards the next season.

GK: As you mentioned, CSKA was poised to advance before the playoffs were canceled. Did you have any trouble getting home in the midst of the travel chaos? 

LV: Yeah. I mean, for me, [CSKA] had made it to the second round. The KHL postponed for a couple of weeks, and I stuck around. Obviously I wanted to make sure that if the playoffs were going to continue, that I would be able to participate. All of a sudden, they canceled the league and we tried to get flights home. It was a bit of a whirlwind. We ended up getting on a flight four or five hours before they actually closed the borders. It wasn't the quickest way home [laughs], but we made our way home. And like I had said to you before, it's always nice to be home and close to family when times like this are happening throughout the world.

GK: Igor Nikitin has had undeniable success at the helm of Red Army. What is distinctive about his style? What set your championship team apart?

LV: As a coach, I really enjoyed playing with him, playing for him. CSKA definitely has a defense-first mentality. I think when I first arrived, it was a lot of change. I've never really played that style of game before. It took probably half the year to three quarters of the year for me to really figure out what he wanted from a center iceman. We were pretty fortunate to have [Ilya] Sorokin as a goaltender, and I think that was a huge part of why we won. Its been very fortunate over the last few years with the goaltending. Even with Sorokin leaving, they still have Lars Johansson there and they were two of the top goaltenders. That’s a huge reason why we've been so successful in the postseason the last few years. But it doesn't matter the players he has, Nikitin’s defense-focused coaching style is always going to give teams a chance to win. 

Linden Vey. Credits: Vladimir Bezzubov

GK: Why did you ultimately decide to relocate your career abroad? 

LV: Things didn't go as well as I had hoped in the NHL. I had a couple of years and a couple of opportunities to play, but it never seemed to work. It got to the point where I wasn't even sure if I wanted to play anymore. When you're going up and down between the American League and the NHL, it can be a grind. Finally, my wife told me that we should try something new—and I think it changed my career and gave me a new love for the game. During my first season in the KHL and Astana, I think I really got the love back for the game and I have enjoy the last three years a lot more.

GK: How would you compare your initial transition to Barys Astana versus your eventual arrival to CSKA? 

LV: When I first went to Astana, I was pretty lucky. I got paired up with Nigel Dawes and he took me under his wing, so the transition went pretty smoothly. He's one of the better players to have played in the league since its start, and I was pretty lucky the first season to go into that situation and be able to play the minutes on a line with him. Astana was more of a run-and-gun type of team the year we were there, and then I went to CSKA where we rolled four lines and had such a deep team. It was really a defense-first mentality, so that took a bit of getting used to.

GK: I interviewed Nigel at the start of the season, right after you had won the Gagarin Cup. He felt that CSKA traditionally lost in the postseason because the teams had burned out before the playoffs began. You weren’t on those squads, but I am wondering if you sensed a prioritization of rest? 

LV: Like you said, I can only talk about my two years there. Training camp was very hard, but throughout the season, they were adamant about rest. I mean, they were constantly talking to guys. The strength coach was always gathering information about how the players were feeling throughout the season. I know that they did talk the year before when they lost in the finals. CSKA had run into some illnesses and stuff like that, and they felt like they just didn't have enough at the end of the year. They were huge on the rest, especially throughout the season. For them, it was all about the playoffs and all about gearing up for when we did make it to that postseason.

GK: I am almost afraid to ask, but…what does Red Army training camp look like? 

LV: As a North American guy, training camps are so short, you don't have enough time to get into shape. You get to camp, you do a few days of team stuff, and then you're playing games. You always had to do the best you could at getting into shape before you went to camp. Whereas here, I found that you had to make sure to maintain yourself. The camps are so long and so grueling that you almost can't work out too hard before you go to camp because they’re so much. You're doing two skates and two workouts a day for two, three, four weeks.

GK: Those first few days must be hell. 

LV: I think for some of the imports, it's a little shock to the system. From my first couple of days at the camp, especially in my first year, I didn’t know if it was worth it! You're thinking, "Why did I come overseas?" But after that training camp is over, it makes the season a lot easier on your body just because you're in such good shape. It makes the games seem like less work than normal.

GK: How did you get by in terms of language barrier on CSKA? 

LV: I was pretty fortunate. I mean, I was on a line with Mikhail Grigorenko for two years. He's been in North America for forever. And most of the team in Red Army speaks English. Having those guys around, the guys that spoke English, made things a lot easier. I didn't even have to sit by the translator—I sat by Grigorenko for most of the year, and he was very good for easing that transition.

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GK: Red Army is one of the most important teams in the history of hockey—its legacy is known across the globe. How often did you feel reminded of its significance? 

LV: I think when I first signed there, it was pretty special. The KHL is getting bigger, and hockey lovers would know teams in the KHL, but just your everyday sports fan would recognize Red Army. When I would say that name, people would know it. The history behind the team makes it more recognizable. I think winning there was one of the better moments in my career. Anytime you win a championship, it's such a great feeling—but for the history behind that team, and for a team that has gotten so close for so long and never been able to do it, to be a part of finally getting it done was pretty special.

GK: Speaking of Red Army history, Kirill Kaprizov told me that Sergei Fedorov worked a fair bit with the centers. 

LV: Sergei Fedorov was around a lot in the two years. He worked with us [centers] a lot, especially as it got later in the season, on face-offs and certain things. For me, he was very helpful throughout the two years and he's a big part of their organization. It's pretty easy to take him as a role model when you look at the body of work throughout his career. He's a pretty special player.

GK: Who were some of the most impressive talents that you worked with during your two seasons in Moscow? 

LV: It's hard, I mean, everybody on that team was so good. We were so deep throughout the whole organization. Alexander Romanov, a young kid—he’s got a great future and I've never seen a guy that young who could be that strong. When you watched the World Juniors, you could see how physically dominant he was. When you give him more time to continue to work at that, he'll be able to take control of games. He's got a bright future wherever he decides to go.

GK: You had a brief stint in Switzerland. What are some of the nuanced differences that you observed between the NLA and the KHL? 

LV: Obviously I'm biased, but I think that the KHL is the second best league in the world, right behind the NHL. It’s not that I don't think there are some really good hockey players in the Swiss league, but I just didn’t see the depth throughout the whole organization. I think the game is totally different. It's a lot of run-and-gun, high-pace in Switzerland, whereas there are a lot of systems in Russia. That's one thing that I never expected from Russian hockey. I thought it would be more open ice. When I got here, teams were very defensive and harder to score on. You don't get as many scoring chances in the KHL as I expected.

GK: You are off to Red Army’s biggest rivals—Saint Petersburg! Valery Bragin was only just appointed head coach. What have you heard about him, and how did the opportunity present itself to you? 

LV: I never would've thought during the year that I'd be going to St. Petersburg. I think that when you introduce a salary cap, there are a lot of things that will happen. You're seeing it around the league, players are having to move to different teams. The big teams can't necessarily fit everybody into their cap space. I know CSKA has had a little bit of an issue trying to get everybody to fit in, and now for us, we have to move on. I haven't heard a whole lot about the coach, other than talking to [Roman] Rotenberg a few times. Roman said that Bragin is looking toward playing a puck control, high-intensity game. They were really playing well at the end of the season last year. It seemed like a good fit for my game, and hopefully it will be an exciting year there.

GK: The atmosphere at their home games is incredible. 

LV: When we played them in the playoffs, it was pretty crazy. It was a tough building to play in. If we didn't have home ice our first year, I don't know if we would have beaten them. We really struggled in St. Petersburg—it’s a tough rink to play in. It'll be something that I look forward to being a part of.

GK: Going back in time, you were named to the 2018 Canadian Olympic squad. Where did you get that call? 

LV: I think I was out in Vladivostok, actually. Obviously a very exciting time. I always thought that the NHL would continue going, and I never thought that I would have that opportunity. It was a pretty special time—especially for Canada and hockey. It's exactly like Russia in that it's such a big deal. That's our sport. It was a really special time for my family as well. I had eight or nine family members go over and be a part of the Olympics. Unfortunately [Canada] fell short in the semifinals, but just to be there and be a part of that was pretty special.

GK: I read that your hometown hosted “Vey Day” in your honor! What did that entail? 

LV: I think they all just got together at the rink, and the businesses in the town had a bunch of decorating contests. I think my grandpa went around and judged them all! It was a pretty cool moment, especially for my mom and my grandparents to see the support. They even did something when I got home and had a little event. When you come from those small towns, everybody rallies behind the people from that area and you always get a ton of support.

GK: What were some of your favorite Moscow haunts on those rare days off? 

LV: We spent a lot of time around Patriarch’s Ponds. Our first year, we lived not too far from there. We were always there for breakfast or brunch. Over here in North America, you sometimes get not such a nice view of Russia. Ever since I've been alive, its always been that Russia was the competition. And I think sometimes people don't think of Russia the way it actually is. For the people that came over to visit us and see Moscow, it has so much history. It's such a beautiful city and there is so much to see. We were always touring people around and we really enjoyed our time there.

GK: Lastly, how did you pass the time on the colossal road trips? Books, podcasts, cards? 

LV: We had a good group of imports, so we played cards. It made the year go by so fast.

GK: Who was the best card player on CSKA? 

LV: Well, everybody always thinks yourself! My partner was pretty good—I played with Lars Johansson. We played a Saskatchewan game called Kaiser. It's a tough game to explain, but yeah, we played it throughout the year.

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