The summer saw the KHL bid a fond farewell to three of its longest-serving imports. Matt Ellison, who came to Dinamo Riga when the league started in 2008 and played in each of the first 11 seasons, is currently without a club. Kevin Dallman, similarly, played in every KHL season until he retired over the summer; the Canadian-born defenseman settled so well he took Kazakh citizenship and represented his new country in IIHF play. Fellow Barys stalwart Brandon Bochenski also retired after eight seasons with the Kazakh team.
Suddenly there’s something of a void among the longest-serving active imports in the league. But there’s still Nigel Dawes to lead the way.
Like Dallman and Bochenski, Dawes came to the league to play for Barys. And like his two team-mates, he went on to represent the Kazakh national team. The Winnipeg native arrived in 2011, a year after Bochenski, and went on to play seven successive seasons in Astana (now renamed Nur-Sultan) before joining Avtomobilist a year ago. In that time, he’s piled up the points – 450 (247+203) in 483 games prior to this season – and played in five consecutive All-Star Games. For the last two seasons he’s been the top-scoring foreign-born player; for the first of those seasons he was no longer technically an import after taking Kazakh citizenship in time to represent the country at the 2016 Worlds in Moscow.
In Kazakhstan he earned fame as the ‘Hat-trick King’ and when Astana hosted the 2018 All-Star Game he arrived at the Skill Show in royal regalia, flanked by a retinue of youth team players charged with carrying the train of his cloak and ensuring the crown didn’t slip during the shoot-out stunts. Almost a decade after arriving here, the KHL clearly feels like home.
So how did it happen? In North America, Dawes showed great potential – at the 2004 World Juniors the 18-year-old Dawes outscored the likes of Sid Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin as Canada took silver. A year later he was back to help the Canadians win gold in a tournament widely remembered as the start of the rivalry between Crosby and Ovechkin for the right to be regarded as the best player in the world.
But while other top juniors from that era went on to mega-stardom, Dawes found it hard to settle in the NHL. In total he played 212 games in the big league but spent much of his time on the bubble. His size – he stands 173 cm and weighs in at 91 kg – may have counted against him in an era when the league was even more physical than today; his playing style, based on speed of skating and speed of thought, is arguably better suited to the larger European ice than the compact surfaces of North America. And then, of course, there’s the growing maturity of a player who stepped way out of his comfort zone as a tender 26-year-old and developed into a winger with enhanced hockey smarts to go with his undoubted natural talent.
That journey saw Dawes go from solid but unremarkable 30-something returns in his first couple of seasons at Barys to a man who has smashed through the point-a-game barrier in his last three regular seasons. Last time, at Avtomobilist, he was the catalyst for the Yekaterinburg club’s best ever KHL campaign as he put up 69 points in 60 regular season games.
It’s something of an unlikely story. As the man himself admitted in a 2016 interview Sport Express, if someone had approached him on the day he was drafted by the Rangers and told him he’d go on to be a cult figure in Kazakhstan, Dawes would have wondered what they were smoking! Later that year, when his appearance for his adopted country at the World Championship in Moscow was one of the talking points of the tournament, he told reporters that Astana had, against the odds, become a genuine home. Stability on and off the ice, a secure role as a team leader and none of the hassles of being assigned to the minors or used as a bargaining chip in a trade made the KHL the ideal place for Dawes to thrive.
Eventually, it was time to move on. His famed line with Brandon Bochenski and Nigel Dawes broke up and the opportunity to join a highly ambitious Avtomobilist organization tempted him away from Kazakhstan at last. That led to his most prolific season so far, cementing his status as one of the best in the league and proving that he was more than the beneficiary of a team built to his strengths at Barys. After eight seasons in the league, he’s the longest-serving and highest-scoring current import. In August, for the second year running, Sport Express ranked him the fifth best player in the KHL, the highest-rated player born outside of Russia.
If there’s any cause for criticism of Dawes’ contribution to the KHL, it might reflect on his playoff stats. So far, he’s never been on a team capable of going deep into post season. Last season at Avtomobilist it seemed that everything was in place; the Yekaterinburg team topped the Eastern Conference in regular season and eased past Traktor in the opening round, only to crash out in five against Salavat Yulaev in the Conference semis. Dawes, imperious in regular season, scored 5 (2+3) points in 8 games; decent, but hardly devastating.
At the age of 34, there’s still time for a run to the business end of the season. Avtomobilist’s ambitions remain as lofty as ever and capture of Pavel Datsyuk is the kind of signing that suggests the team is looking to go further this time around. With Triple Gold experience alongside him, could Dawes finally open a path to the grand final?