There’s a clear top five of Canadian goalies in the KHL, regardless of which metric you use. And it’s clear that Michael Garnett leads the way, while many of his closest colleagues include time at Dinamo Minsk on their resumes.
Garnett quickly became an ardent advocate for the KHL and hockey in Russia. In a recent interview with KHL.ru he spoke of his pride at reaching 400 appearances in the league, adding that he doubted another North American goalie would get close to his numbers. But, long before that, he was talking up Russian hockey in comparison with the North American game. In a 2013 interview with R-Sport, he said: “Guys in the KHL have a really high skill level. They do tricky things with their stick and they have more time to make plays. In the North American style, if there’s a 2-on-1, one guy is going to line up for a slap shot. It’s more a meat-and-potatoes kind of game.”
The differences are not just about playing style. Where some perceive a lack of razzamatazz in the KHL, Garnett talked up a ‘pure’ form of the game. “I think [the KHL’s critics] are wrong, they don’t need to be so harsh,” the goalie added. “Maybe we don’t have the glitz and glamor but it’s a more pure game. It’s not ‘brought to you by’ someone, it’s not a business-based league, a revenue-based league. The owners are here to win, they’re here for the game and that’s kinda refreshing.”
Glass, second behind Garnett, gave some more detailed insight into the challenges of goaltending in a foreign country in an interview with In Goal Magazine in 2016.
“KHL players have grown up on the big ice,” said Glass. “They know how to manipulate and manage the quiet zones on the ice. I had to catch up to that, and figure out where the players like to hide, where they like to play the puck in the quiet areas and behind the net.
“Guys will be in a high-percentage scoring area with the puck, and I’ll be wondering, why isn’t this guy taking a shot? But they’re looking for a second passing option. Overseas, shooters can look for the passing angle rather than just ripping one from the hashmarks.”
Few goalies travelled as widely as Barry Brust, third on the list. The Manitoba native called four countries home during his KHL stint, signing contracts in Zagreb, Slovakia, China and Russia during a nomadic stint. Breathtaking at his best, but somewhat erratic, he was always a colorful character between the piping.
Brust’s numbers are similar to Kevin Lalande’s, but while the former racked up the miles as he moved from club to club, the latter established himself firmly in Minsk — and ended up taking Belarusian citizenship and played for the national team at four World Championships. The Kingston, Ontario, native was drafted by the Flames but never played in the NHL; instead he found his niche at Dinamo.
“Belarus kind of adopted me,” Lalande told calgaryflames. com in 2017. “I enjoy Minsk. It’s a great city. It’s safe. It’s clean. My family loves it when they come. It’s just been a nice experience. I’ve been comfortable. If you’d told me when I was younger that I would have left for Russia and Belarus for this long, I’d have told you were crazy.
“But living abroad, with different cultures, different languages, different foods, you just can’t help but grow as an individual. I’ve taken that experience and I’ve been fortunate to make a living out of something that I love to do. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
The fifth player on the list, Danny Taylor, is currently enjoying the charms of the Belarusian capital. He’s in his second spell with Dinamo and is due to return next season for a chance to climb up these rankings and potentially overtake both Brust and Lalande.
Kevin Dallman is the undoubted leader among Canadian defensemen, topping the charts in all categories by a big margin. A stalwart at Barys — he eventually took Kazakh citizenship and played for the national team — and a powerful presence during two years with SKA, this two-way defenseman found the KHL to be the perfect fit for him.
He was also keen to recommend it to others, telling his hometown newspaper the Guelph Mercury: “People always hear rumors about tough living conditions, worry about whether or not they’re going to get their money. But it keeps getting better over here every year.
“I don’t know what’s the negative with a lot of guys about coming over. I don’t want to knock the AHL, but this league is one step ahead of it.”
That was back in 2011; Dallman stayed until 2019, his only regret was failing to get to an Olympics with Kazakhstan and emulate his uncle, Marty, who suited up for Austria at Lillehammer in 1994.
Chris Lee, however, did get to the Games in 2018 on the back of his exploits with Metallurg Magnitogorsk. Lee joined Metallurg under Mike Keenan and won the Gagarin Cup in his first season. Two years on, he repeated that achievement and followed it by earning a rare call-up to represent Canada at a World Championship despite playing outside the NHL. That campaign landed a silver medal in Cologne and it was bronze a year later in PyeongChang before Lee retired in 2018 with a flurry of late honors to distinguish his career.
A great competitor on the ice, but one of the nicest guys in the sport off it, Lee hopes that his story can inspire more late developers to reach for the top. Back in 2017, he told KHL.ru: “Hopefully, guys can get some motivation from my story. Whether you’re big or small, it doesn’t matter where you play, there might always be an opportunity. You need to work hard and it takes some luck, but you can achieve. Players can come out of a Division 2 college or a tier two junior league and still have a successful pro hockey career.”
Since Lee’s retirement, Mat Robinson has moved up to second for games played with 425 appearances and counting. He’s due back at CSKA next season to add to that list and close on Lee’s 245-point haul. Despite his effective productivity, Robinson insists that he never dreamed of being a forward. “I always enjoyed playing defense,” he told KHL.ru in 2015 while he was with Dynamo Moscow. “I never played forward growing up and it was never an aspiration for me, but I do enjoy the offensive side of the game. It’s very different for a defenseman to look at the game offensively than for a forward. To be an offensive defenseman you have to be able to read when to go off in the play and when not to. You just see the game a lot differently.”
Like Lalande, Marc-Andre Gragnani is another player impressed with life in Minsk. The Quebecois defenseman first played in the KHL with Lev Prague back in the Czech team’s run to the 2014 Gagarin Cup Final. Later he returned, playing three seasons with Dinamo Minsk and one with Kunlun Red Star, while collecting Olympic bronze with Canada in 2018. In a much-travelled career, he reckons Belarusian fans are the best he’s seen.
“Every time we score, the arena just explodes,” he told TUT.by. “Sometimes it’s like we didn’t just score a goal, but we already won the game or even the championship — they just go crazy in the tribunes.
“Whenever I see that crowd, I get a boost from that incredible energy. People sometimes think that players don’t notice anything off the ice, but we can see when the fans are happy — and when people are leaving the arena before the end of the game.”
The remaining players to feature among Canada’s top D-men are Ray Giroux, once of SKA, Traktor and Metallurg Novokuznetsk but retired since 2014, and two currently active blue liners. Chay Genoway is another much-travelled figure on the KHL. He’s played for Riga, Spartak, Jokerit, Lada and Torpedo, he joined Canada’s Olympic roster in 2018 and is set to continue with Avtomobilist next season. And, in Nur-Sultan, Darren Dietz is filling Kevin Dallman’s skates for club and country. After three seasons with Barys, the 26-year-old has already established himself as a big star in Kazakhstan — and has time to set new records of his own in the years to come.
Geoff Platt, still involved in the league after 12 seasons, leads the way with 625 appearances. He’s on course to add to that tally next season with Avtomobilist. Platt, born in Ontario but now a naturalized Belarusian, first played KHL on a short-term contract with Dinamo Minsk in 2008-2009, before spending most of that season in Finland. But he returned to Belarus for five more seasons and has played at least some of every KHL campaign to date.
In that time, he’s seen plenty of things change — and if some of the cavalier, risk-taking flair of the early years has been tempered by a touch of tactical caution, there are big improvements in how the league presents and markets itself. “On the business front, the League was very young and had a few growing pains but now it’s turned into quite a spectacle,” he told KHL.ru in 2017. “You can see that just by looking at the league website. Apart from maybe NHL.com, is there a comparable sports site anywhere in two separate languages out there in the world? It speaks volumes for our League that they are willing to push the product so well with their marketing.”
Last season at Avtomobilist, Platt played alongside Nigel Dawes, the leading Canadian point and goalscorer in KHL history. Dawes is another long-serving import — the most prolific in the KHL — fondly remembered at Barys, where he was part of a hugely productive line that ultimately took Kazakh citizenship and represented the Central Asian country at the World Championships.
Once, Dawes outscored Sidney Crosby on World Junior duty with Canada; diverging paths saw him join Barys in 2011 with fellow Winnipeg native Dustin Boyd. The latter also found himself among the top-scoring Canadians in the KHL, playing for many years alongside Dawes. Those two, plus Brandon Bochenski, helped drive Barys forward, inspiring a new generation of players to fall in love with the game outside of the traditional heartland of Kazakh hockey in Ust-Kamenogorsk. “After a few years we started to notice that hockey was really taking off,” Dawes told Sportsnet Canada earlier this year. “We just got a new arena and there was a lot of hype — it was fun to be a part of.
“There was always hockey in Kazakhstan but the programs for younger kids in schools weren’t always there. It was really cool to help get that off the ground, to have kids coming up and being like ‘You’re the reason I started playing hockey, because I saw you guys on TV.’ It was definitely a cool feeling.”
Matt Ellison is second behind Dawes for points and leads the way with 265 assists in his 594 KHL games. Like many of his compatriots, he speaks fondly of his time at Dinamo Minsk, but also credit Medvescak Zagreb with helping him rediscover his love for the game. “My last two years [at Torpedo] were disappointing and I wasn’t enjoying it anymore, so I ended up in Switzerland,” Ellison recalled in a 2017 interview with KHL.ru. “Then going to Medvescak really helped me. That was a good year, a lot of fun. That year in Zagreb helped me to like hockey again. I didn’t have my best stats but the way we played and the guys on the team were great.”
Justin Azevedo, a Gagarin Cup winner with Ak Bars in 2018, is still playing in Kazan and could overtake Dustin Boyd to move fourth for games and goals in the coming season. He joined the league in time to help Lev Prague get to the 2014 Gagarin Cup final before moving to Tatarstan — and he still loves it there — especially the home locker room. “Playing hockey here has been awesome for me,” he told KHL.ru in February. “There’s a lot of history here, and they’re always building something new. When our locker room got a makeover, they had stars embedded in the ceiling, it’s top of the line, NHL-style. We are pretty lucky as players and coaches to have a locker room like that. There’s a sauna, cold tubs, even a hammam!”
There’s one more player on the list: Paul Szczechura, most recently of Torpedo. The 34-year-old grew up in Brantford, Ontario, hometown of one Wayne Gretzky. The Great One even used to drop in on Paul’s youth team every once in a while; Walter Gretzky was head coach. Szczehura came to the KHL with Lev Prague, but was frozen out when the Czechs acquired a bunch of locked-out NHL talent in 2012-2013. His career took him to Riga, Chelyabinsk and Nizhny Novgorod, compiling 258 points from 431 games along the way.