The 2016-17 season was full of excitement from start to finish. It was the year when the KHL expanded into China, when Sergei Mozyakin smashed records on a regular basis, and when Team Russia opened its doors to a new generation of talented youngsters. In a three-part reflection of some of the highs of the ninth KHL campaign, we start with the opening months of the regular season:
The season began in Magnitogorsk, where the Opening Cup was contested in traditional style between last year’s Gagarin Cup finalists. CSKA’s Dmitry Kugryshev got the first goal of the campaign, and finished with two on the night, but Metallurg skated to a 3-2 victory with Sergei Mozyakin getting the first goal of what would prove to be a record-breaking season.
Prior to the opening game, excitement ahead of the new season was growing all over the KHL. The return of Pavel Datsyuk after 14 seasons with the Detroit Red Wings was a thrill for SKA fans … and the Magic Man didn’t forget his roots in Yekaterinburg. On the eve of the new season he opened a new rink – described as a ‘temple of hockey’ – in his home town; the facility is already helping to develop future generations of Urals stars. On the ice, he wasted little time making an impact, with a goal just 30 seconds into his home debut in Petersburg as SKA crushed Salavat Yulaev 7-1.
August also saw the first coaching change of the season – and in record time. Avangard Omsk surprised everyone by replacing head coach Evgeny Kornoukhov before the action was even underway. Happiness at seeing the popular Fyodor Kanareikin back in the game after recovering from serious illness was tempered by concern that coaching was an ever-more precarious position – something that many other clubs would demonstrate as the season unfolded.
The KHL explored a new frontier when Beijing’s Kunlun Red Star took to the ice for the first time. The Chinese capital, due to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, had never seen pro hockey prior to this season, but league newcomer Kunlun made an instant impact. The dress rehearsal, away to Amur, went well: Sean Collins got the first ever goal for the franchise; Tuukka Mantyla grabbed a last-minute winner. Then came the grand opening at Beijing’s LeSports Center, and a 6-3 win over Admiral. For the 8,000 or so fans, it was a game with a bit of everything – goals, drama, new heroes and, best of all, a home win. The big experiment of the season was off to a promising start.
From new faces to old favorites, Sergei Mozyakin scored the tying goal against Dinamo Minsk, helping Metallurg Magnitogorsk to a 5-4 victory on September 13. Nothing so unusual in that, but it was Mozyakin’s 429th career goal in Russian hockey, setting a new All-Time record. The previous record-holder, Boris Mikhailov, got his 428th goal in October 1980, five months before Mozyakin was born, and in a much-changed hockey environment his total had looked unbeatable in the modern era … until Metallurg’s captain emerged to claim the crown of Russia’s greatest goal machine.
September also saw international action. There was Olympic qualification in Minsk and Riga, but there was disappointment for the KHL countries involved. Belarus lost out to Slovenia – with the Balkan nation helped by Robert Sabolic, Ziga Jeglic and Jan Mursak on its path to a second successive games; Latvia was denied by Germany. Kazakhstan also came up short, missing out in Norway. In the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto, Oleg Znarok selected SKA’s Evgeny Dadonov, Pavel Datsyuk and Vadim Shipachyov, as well as CSKA’s Ivan Telegin. Other KHLers in the competition included Tomas Kundratek and Vladimir Sobotka (Czech Republic) and Mikko Koskinen (Finland). Russia lost out to Canada in the semi-final.
There was more good news from Kunlun, where Zach Yuen became the first Chinese player to get among the scorers in the KHL. Red Star had used four Chinese-eligible players in the early stages of the season, giving priceless experience to young, local talent, and Yuen repaid that faith. The 23-year-old, a versatile player who can operate as a center or a D-man, got his first point of the season when he assisted on Max Warn’s game-winner at Spartak Moscow. Then he went one better, grabbing the only goal of the game against Amur on October 28 in Shanghai.
Sergei Mozyakin’s scoring feats were destined to be a recurring theme this season, and October saw him overtake Evgeny Korshkov as Metallurg’s record scorer. Korshkov spent 10 seasons in Magnitogorsk, and reached his tally of 421 in 2004; Mozyakin topped it in his fourth full season with Magnitka.
In St. Petersburg, there was another club record to celebrate when young goalie Igor Shestyorkin went 272 minutes and eight seconds without allowing a goal. Nikita Ustinenko of Dinamo Minsk ended the shut-out streak in the second period of SKA’s 6-2 home win on October 10; Shestyorkin, just 20, was barely half-an-hour away from breaking Alexei Murygin’s KHL record from last season.
The focus switched to the international arena at the start of the month as Team Russia triumphed in the Karjala Cup. Oleg Znarok selected a young, experimental roster, allowing proven stars like Kovalchuk and Datsyuk to rest at home, and was rewarded with wins over Finland, Sweden and the Czech Republic. Valery Nichushkin, recently returned to Russia after a spell with the Dallas Stars, was a key part of the offense, forging an effective partnership with his one-time schoolmate Anatoly Golyshev. On defense, Magnitogorsk’s Alexei Bereglazov translated his solid start to the domestic season into the international arena, while the young goaltending talents of Ilya Sorokin (CSKA) and Igor Shestyorkin (SKA) were solid between the piping.
Back in league action, SKA was in imperious form at the top of the table, and a 9-0 victory over Barys made it 15 wins on the spin. Ilya Kovalchuk chipped in with four points to reach 250 for the club. Elsewhere in the Western Conference, a lively battle for the playoff places was developing. Jokerit and Dynamo Moscow, two teams expected to be confidently plotting post-season campaigns, were struggling for consistency and got caught in a mid-table morass. Emerging from the pack, Vityaz, under the guidance of Valery Belov, was showing signs of making a serious bid for the top eight and reaching its first ever KHL playoff.
And that Mozyakin milestone for the month? November 19, and a hat-trick away to Spartak saw the master marksman become Magnitogorsk’s all-time record goalscorer.