The Old Year is almost done, so it’s time to recap. Here’s an informal, highly subjective, decidedly non-official rundown of some of the people, places, tournaments and teams that made 2018 another memorable year in KHL hockey.
Happy New Year! S Novym Godom! Hyvää uutta vuotta! šťastný nový rok! Laimīgu Jauno gadu!
新年快樂! Jaña jıl quttı bolsın! Z Novym Hodom!
The start of our A-Z is dominated by Ak Bars. Forward Justin Azevedo was instrumental in the team’s third Gagarin Cup success, producing 24 points in the playoffs and going on an 11-game productive streak. The experienced Canadian finally got his hands on the cup at the third attempt: in 2014 he was part of Lev Prague’s beaten Grand Finalists, then one year later he was on the Ak Bars roster that fell to SKA. All that was forgotten this time around, with Azevedo earning the MVP award to fire his team to glory.
Ak Bars head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov had a memorable 2018 – he won his third Gagarin Cup and took charge of his 1,000th game behind the bench for the Kazan team in top-flight Russian hockey.
And of course we can’t overlook the achievement of Ak Bars. In 10 seasons of KHL hockey, Kazan is the only city to celebrate three Gagarin Cup triumphs. Notably, it’s been a triumph of continuity: while others have chopped and changed coaches almost at will, Ak Bars has stayed with Bilyaletdinov, releasing him only to lead Russia to the 2014 Olympics. Right now, Bilyaletdinov and his team are out in front on the KHL honors board – who can catch them?
Moving from Barys to Avtomobilist has suited Nigel Dawes. The forward, Canadian born, Kazakh naturalized, is out in front in this season scoring chart with 55 (22+33) points for the season as his team leads the way in the Eastern Conference.
Alexei Emelin is one of the most popular – and effective – Russian defensemen of recent years. At the start of the KHL era, he was a key component in the all-conquering Ak Bars teams; subsequently he crossed the Atlantic and made more than 400 NHL appearances for Montreal and Nashville while also finding time to help Russia win the 2012 World Championship. So his homecoming in the summer, as part of a new-look Avangard, was one of the big trades of the close season. The 32-year-old has been predictably solid: 42 appearances, at an average of 21:20 per game and 16 (5+11) points. Welcome home ...
Only one player managed to score four in a game in 2018 – take a bow, Nikolai Prokhorkin. The SKA hot-shot was in sizzling form back in January as he helped his team thump Admiral 7-2. He even threw in an assist for good measure. That kind of form earned the 25-year-old an Olympic call-up from SKA’s then head coach Oleg Znarok; Prokhorkin scored two goals in the Russian gold rush in Korea.
St. Petersburg’s soccer stadium was taken over by hockey in December – and set a European record for attendance at a club hockey game. 67,700 fans saw SKA play CSKA in our Winter Classic fixture on Dec. 22, but most of them were disappointed by a 4-1 win for the visitor.
When Bob Hartley took over as head coach of Avangard, he came with a good reputation from his efforts with Team Latvia. He also knew he faced a big job: the Omsk team had recently restructured its management under Maxim Sushinsky and was eager to get back to the top table after a few underpowered seasons. The task got tougher when the team’s home arena was declared unfit for use and the Siberian club decamped to Balashikha, 3,000 km away on the outskirts of Moscow. But the 2001 Stanley Cup winner has fashioned a team that tops its division and looks capable of going deep into this year’s playoffs.
Kevin Dallman became the first import to reach 600 KHL appearances. The defenseman joined Barys in the league’s first season and has stayed in the KHL ever since to play all but two seasons in Kazakhstan. At the time of writing he has 612 appearances and 427 (140+287) points.
The on-going World Junior Championship in Canada once again features a healthy crop of KHL talent. As usual, Russia has most representatives from our league including Lokomotiv prospects Kirill Slepets, Nikolai Kovalenko and Grigory Denisenko. Other names to watch in Sochi’s Stepan Starkov, Salavat Yulaev’s Pavel Shen and CSKA defenseman Alexander Romanov. Away from Team Russia, there are also youngsters from Kazakhstan (Valery Orekhov, Barys) and Slovakia (Adam Liska, Slovan) who are developing into the stars of the future in the KHL.
One of those juniors, Vitaly Kravtsov, enjoyed a real breakthrough in 2018. The Traktor youngster set a playoff scoring record for an 18-year-old as the Chelyabinsk team got through to the Eastern Conference final. Then he was the #9 pick in the NHL draft. Once his international duties are done next week, his next challenge is to help Traktor secure a playoff place in a tight battle in the East.
Yaroslavl has always been renowned for nurturing talented young players – but this season Lokomotiv’s roster is unusually fresh-faced. With an average age of just 24, it’s the youngest in the league and yet it sits fourth in the Western Conference. The eye-catching contribution of 20-year-old goalie Ilya Konovalov has led the way, but there have been solid performances from many emerging stars, while the likes of Alexander Yelesin and Danil Yurtaikin are among those who have built on last season’s progress to secure their places in Dmitry Kvartalnov’s plans.
Sergei Mozyakin, the master marksman of Magnitogorsk, is no stranger to setting new milestones. 2018 saw the forward hit several new highs. There was a successful Olympic debut and a gold medal on the international stage. Then, in the KHL, there were two new landmarks – his 700th game and his 800th point. At the end of the year, Mozyakin had 831 (379+452) points from 707 games. It’s a scoring record, but Metallurg team-mate Evgeny Biryukov is one game ahead on the appearance count.
This year saw the end of one development and the start of another. In Moscow, Dynamo’s long-awaited new home was completed at last and the team is due to play its first KHL game there on January 4 in front of a capacity crowd against Avtomobilist. In Novosibirsk, meanwhile, work started on Sibir’s new arena, which is due to host the 2023 World Juniors.
The 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang was a wonderful showpiece for the KHL. The league had more representatives than ever at the games with 90 of our players representing nine of the 12 competing nations. Meanwhile, Russia was seeking its first gold since 1992. The tournament, as ever, was compelling; the final was unforgettable. The Russians, red hot favorites against Germany, trailed 2-3 going into the final minute. Could the unthinkable happen? Nikita Gusev said ‘nyet!’, grabbing the tying goal on 59:04; Kirill Kaprizov scored the overtime winner off a Gusev feed.
Imagine you’re 17 years old. You’re watching a hockey game, and suddenly the coach tells you to get on the ice with Pavel Datsyuk and Nikita Gusev. That’s exactly what happened to SKA prospect Vasily Podkolzin when he made his KHL debut against Avtomobilist. It was a little moment of history – Podkolzin became the first player born in the 21st century to play in the league (players born in 2000, of course, were from the last year of the 20th century).
The Triple Gold Club, an elite band of players who have won the Olympics, the IIHF World Championship and the Stanley Cup got a new member in February when Pavel Datsyuk collected his Olympic gold in Korea. But the SKA forward holds a unique distinction: with a Gagarin Cup to his name, he’s the only man to win the game’s top international prizes and hoist the biggest trophies in Europe and North America. Welcome to the Quadruple Gold Club!
In a year of innovative new ventures, the open-air game between Dinamo Riga and Dinamo Minsk on Jan. 20 was the first eye-catching spectacle of 2018. The temporary seating installed around the outdoor rink at the Riga City Hall Sports Complex held 8,500 fans; demand was so great that 10,500 came to the complex with an extra 2,000 watching the action on big screens next to the arena. They saw an exciting game, with Minsk coming from 0-2 down to win it 3-2 on a late goal, and the game was such a success that there are plans to make it an annual event.
The 2018-19 season did not keep us waiting long for the first coaching casualty. Sibir’s Vladimir Yurzinov got the sack after just six games with his team still waiting for its first point. Replacement Andrei Andrievsky also began with six losses before the Novosibirsk outfit finally got off the mark; subsequently the team has improved to get itself into playoff contention in the Eastern Conference.
2018 marked the centenary of Anatoly Tarasov’s birth. The legendary hockey coach was one of the pioneers of Soviet hockey, helping to establish the country’s trademark tic-tac-toe game style. As head coach or assistant, he won nine World Championships, three Olympics and 19 Soviet championships with CSKA, the club he helped to establish back in 1946. To mark his centenary, a statue in his honor was unveiled at CSKA’s arena on Leningradsky Prospekt, Moscow, on Dec. 10.
The KHL World Games project has seen more and more countries taking an interest in the league – and Britain is next on the list. Ice Hockey UK confirmed three warm-up games involving Team GB and KHL opposition in the build-up to the country’s first top-level IIHF World Championship appearance in 25 years. First up, Dinamo Riga will play the Brits on Feb. 6 in Coventry. Then, in April, Torpedo heads to England for back-to-back games in Nottingham and Sheffield.
The current season saw the birth of the KHL World Games, the latest step in promoting the league and helping to support the growth of hockey – and especially our league – around the world. The first instalment was played in Vienna, with Slovan hosting CSKA and SKA over a bumper weekend of hockey. Most observers left impressed with the quality of the players on view; the only people disappointed came from Bratislava; Slovan endured two heavy defeats in these showcase games.
The KHL’s annual showcase headed to Kazakhstan for the first time, visiting the impressive new arena in Astana. Once again, fans were treated to an exhibition of top-class hockey from the Junior Hockey League, Women’s Hockey League and finally the KHL. The accent was firmly on entertainment, with four leading female hockey broadcasters invited along as assistant coaches for the All-Star games. The Kharlamov Division took the honors in the mini-tournament between the KHL’s four divisions.
Stepan Zakharchuk’s hit on Artyom Penkovsky during Admiral’s 2-7 loss against Traktor on Oct. 7 earned the defenseman a 15-game ban – the biggest of the season so far. It was the 32-year-old’s first game after joining the Sailors from Torpedo and both his rough play and angry reaction afterwards received widespread condemnation. Lokomotiv forward Artur Kayumov also got a big ban in early December. He was told to sit out 13 games after striking an official. The strict penalties indicate that the KHL is willing to get tough on dangerous and violent play.
The Ural city has always been a part of the KHL, but up to now its Avtomobilist teams have failed to make much of dent in the playoffs. All that could be about to change. A summer of ambitious signings – including Nigel Dawes – has transformed the team into genuine contenders at the top of the table. A club record 18-game winning streak at the start of the season put the team out in front in the Eastern Conference and Andrei Martemyanov’s men have stayed there ever since. As the year comes to an end, they are just one point behind overall leader CSKA.
After the success of Austria, neighboring Switzerland was the next destination for the KHL World Games. Dinamo Riga was the ‘host’ at the Hallenstadion and once again CSKA and SKA were the visitors. In Switzerland, a country with one of the best-supported hockey leagues in Europe, the technical expertise with which the KHL stages its games was highly regarded; the games themselves were closer than in Vienna, but once again the Western Conference high-flyers took the points.