In this instalment of our reflections on the League's 10-year history and those who have helped to shape it, we focus on some great players who found fame and renown, either before or after their arrival, but whose KHL days were so short that they may have passed under the radar of fans and experts alike.
The D-man from Kiev, who played his post-USSR international hockey for Russia (winning Olympic silver in 1998, having won gold with the Unified Team in '92), left CSKA Moscow in 1992 and embarked on a glittering NHL career, donning the colors of the Los Angeles Kings, Buffalo Sabres, New York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers and Atlanta Thrashers, clocking up over 1,000 appearances in all. He briefly returned to Russia for a spell with Ak Bars Kazan during the lockout of 2004-05, and in 2008, when the fledgling Kontinental Hockey League began its maiden season, he departed North America and joined Dynamo Moscow, spending two years with the Blue-and-Whites and earning a call-up to the very first All-star Game in Red Square.
Another defenseman from that Olympic gold-winning Unified Team of 1992, Dmitry Yushkevich has enjoyed regular employment as a coach in the KHL for the past eight years, and many fans will recall his North American exploits for the Flyers, Maple Leafs (with whom he merited a call-up to the NHL All-Star Game), Panthers and Kings. He returned to Russia in 2003, to spend the latter part of his career in his homeland, and his years as a player stretched into the KHL era. After tours of duty with Lokomotiv, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, SKA, and Severstal (twice), he spent the 2008-09 season playing for Sibir. After spending the following season with Karpat in Finland, he finally retired and returned to Novosibirsk, starting his coaching career as an assistant to Andrei Tarasenko.
The story of Alexander Gulyavtsev's hockey career has three main locations: Cherepovets, where he played for and now coaches Severstal; his home city of Perm, where he spent the first decade of his career with Molot-Prikamie, earning a call-up to Russia's U20 team in 1993; and Yekaterinburg and Avtomobilist, which was a lowly second-tier side when he arrived, and whom he captained in the first two years of the KHL. Gulyavtsev was the driving force behind the Motor Men's rise, the top scorer whose goals helped Avto break into the playoffs, and the Yekaterinburgers will fondly remember his swashbuckling shootout goals.
The 26-year-old Buffalo Sabres center and alternate captain has won World Cup and World Championship gold with the Canadian national team, but Ryan O'Reilly spent a curious spell in the KHL during the 2012 lockout. His older brother, Cal, had signed a two-year deal with Metallurg Magnitogorsk, so for Ryan, who was playing for the Colorado Avalanche when the lockout began, Magnitka was the obvious club to choose for the duration of the dispute. Ryan arrived a little later than most of the locked-out NHL men, but scored 10 (5+5) points in his 12 appearances, but did not, strangely enough, line up alongside big brother – Cal had sustained a severe injury, so the pair never played together during Ryan's brief stay in the Southern Urals.
Before the start of the current season, this goaltending great announced he was hanging up his skates at the age of 42, signalling the end of a glittering career that included Stanley Cup victory with the Carolina Hurricans, Olympic silver in Turin with Team Switzerland, and even a season in the KHL. He arrived in 2009 and stood between the pipes for Atlant of Mytishchi, in the same team as Sergei Mozyakin, Nikolai Zherdev and Jiri Novotny, playing 30 games in all. It is interesting to speculate on what might have been had Gerber been at Atlant the following season, when the outsider fought its way to the Gagarin Cup final, but injury cut short his stay in Russia and he moved on to the Oilers.
The Toronto Maple Leafs winger has had a rough time of late, and is expected to miss the entire season while he recovers from a groin injury, but hopefully he will return to add to his tally of 747 NHL appearances over the last 14 years. In 2012 he was an NHL All-Star, but in a matter of months found himself playing for Avtomobilist in the lockout. If hockey fans are unaware of his short tour of duty in the KHL, it is likely that some Russian train passengers remember him. While traveling by rail from Yekaterinburg to Omsk, the Canadian forward chatted to fellow passengers, shared some vodka, and serenaded the wagon with some North American hip-hop. His exploits on the ice were not so loud – nine appearances and just a solitary goal.
It is rare for a foreign import to captai a side, and usually occurs when the player has spent a number of years at the club and has gradually acquired the necessary authority, yet the captain's patch was stitched onto Ville Peltonen's uniform in his very first season at Dinamo Minsk. The Finn arrived in 2009 from the Florida Panthers with more than enough authority – he boasted what must be the largest silverware collection of any man to play for the Belarusians. Four Olympic medals, eight more from World Championships, a hoard of player-of-the-week, month, or year awards and the captaincy of the Finland national team. He spent just the one season with Dinamo, but scored 26 (6+20) points and was selected for the KHL All-Star Game.
The phrase, “a star of world hockey,” may be a little over-used, and few players could earn the title without incurring many dissenting voices, but Jakub Voracek is surely one of this elite brigade. The 28-year-old winger has been a favorite at the Philadelphia Flyers since 2011, a World Champion gold medalist with the Czech Republic, an NHL All-Star, and the Czech Player of the Year. He landed in North America at the tender age of 17, since when only once has he moved back to the Old World, and that was in the 2012 NHL lockout when he donned the colors of Lev Praha. His spell was by far the most striking of the four locked-out NHL players who moved to the Czech capital: Cervenka and Hudler had already spent considerable time in the KHL, while Zdeno Chara's sojourn was plagued by errors on the ice. Voracek, in contrast, was like a breath of fresh air, and his final account showed 20 (7+13) points in 23 games for the Lions of Prague.
The 28-year-old defenseman from Minnesota is now in his fourth season captaining the New York Rangers, whom he joined in 2010 from the University of Wisconsin (where he had also earned the captaincy), but his life story also includes a spell in Astana, Kazakhstan, with Barys during the 2012 lockout. He was in good company – also patrolling the Barys blue line was Swedish World Champion and NHL All-Star Victor Hedman, whose 6' 6” 223lbs frame is enough to put anyone in the shade. In all, McDonagh played 10 games for the Kazakhs and assisted on three goals before heading back to Madison Square Garden.
Under any other circumstances, the arrival in the KHL of a United States international, and one whose trophy cabinet had a silver medal from the previous Olympics, would have aroused considerable interest, but like McDonagh, Joe Pavelski of the San Jose Sharks arrived as part of the 2012 lockout, and at Dinamo Minsk the main glare of publicitiy was understandably directed at his fellow locked-out arrivals, Pekka Rinne and Evander Kane. Nevertheless, Pavelski scored a highly respectable 15 points in just 17 games for the Belarusians, and his fleeting spell in the KHL certainly did him no harm. Three years later, as captain of the Sharks, Joe was the top goal-scorer in the Stanley Cup playoffs.