“I still think that the KHL is the best league in Europe, so it’s going to be great for hockey fans in Vienna to see that standard of hockey on their doorstep,” Lakos said. “It’s a long time since we’ve had high quality hockey in Vienna, the last World Championship here was 13 years ago and since then we’ve only had a few interesting games for the national team. It should be a full rink and I’m sure everybody will be excited. As for me, I’m still playing and unfortunately I have games scheduled on those dates.”
Lakos signed a contract with Traktor Chelyabinsk in time for the KHL’s inaugural season. In his time in the Urals, he played 79 games and scored 19 (3+16) points.
“It was very interesting, an amazing experience; looking back on it I could only say that I really enjoyed my time here. It was different from Europe, I needed to adapt, but the hockey was amazing. I had been in Russia before with the national team lots of time so I knew a little bit about the country. I still follow the KHL, but I don’t spend my days off watching hockey!”
In Chelyabinsk, Lakos played alongside veteran Andrei Nikolishin and two stars of the future – teenagers Evgeny Dadonov and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Canadian enforcer Martin Grenier protected those young prospects while a rookie Andrei Nazarov coached the group.
“There were a lot of good players on our team. I remember Kuznetsov as a 17-year-old; even then, you could see what a player he would become, just like Dadonov. Nikolishin was older; he was a good leader of our team. Grenier was a nice person, he was like teddy bear off the ice, but on the ice he did his job, he fought with Chris Simon and the other heavyweight players. He was glad to show us some fighting tricks. Martin was a humble person”.
“I had a really good relationship with Nazarov; everything was great. I am happy for him that he is still coaching; I wish him all the best. He was very confident, even when he was a young coach, he knew what the team and each player needed to succeed”.
That inaugural KHL season also saw the opening of Chelyabinsk’s brand new arena. The first game took place on January 17, 2009, and the great Ural rivalry between Traktor and Metallurg Magnitogorsk ushered in a new era for the city’s hockey lovers. Andre Lakos had the honor of scoring the first goal in this building, helping his team to a 3-2 win.
“That was a very emotional game,” he remember. “Our biggest rivalry. A new arena. That first goal was a happy accident. It’s not a big deal, it’s not a life-changing moment. But of course, I’m happy: the first goal in the new building, the first Austrian to play there and score there. I got a few ‘firsts’ next to my name. Maybe this January they’ll send me a small present for the tenth anniversary [smiles].”
The notorious Russian winter held few fears for Lakos – but there was another challenge awaiting.
“I didn’t think that winter was really cold, it wasn’t the biggest challenge for me,” he said. “The hard thing was all the traveling. It’s a tough schedule and it’s hard on your mind and your body. Even so, I really enjoyed my time in Russia. Now I’m 39, I’m still playing, and I’m absolutely satisfied with my whole career. From a hockey point of view, though, the KHL was one of the best leagues I ever played.”