Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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When it comes to foreign imports in the KHL, the reign of Nigel Dawes is uncontested.

Skeptics need only to watch highlights from the 2018 All-Star Game to fully comprehend the message. Taking the ice in a crown and velvet cape, a resplendent Dawes personified the nickname he earned during his tenure in Kazakhstan: the Hat-Trick King. Notching over 260 goals since 2011, he trails only Sergei Mozyakin for the title of top scorer in league history.

Dawes ran rings around Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin at the 2004 World Junior Championships. After a few uncertain seasons in and out of NHL lineups, the New York Rangers draft pick eventually headed to Astana (now Nur-Sultan) for a new lease on his professional career. I would say “the rest is history,” but we can hardly call it that—nine years later, Dawes, 34, leads Avtomobilist alongside the legendary Pavel Datsyuk, and was only two goals shy of topping the league last season.

In the inaugural edition of The Faceoff, I caught up with Nigel on a range of topics from Avto’s October slump to Pavel Datsyuk’s homecoming…

GILLIAN KEMMERER (GK): You’ve migrated from an import-heavy squad (Barys) to a majority-Russian squad (Avtomobilist). I was speaking with Lokomotiv head coach Mike Pelino the other day about marrying different playing cultures in the locker room—he mentioned that Russians speak less on the ice, for example. Have you experienced culture clash?

NIGEL DAWES (ND): I definitely agree with Mike - I think there is less communication on the ice, but I don’t think there’s anything that clashes. The difference with Barys is that we didn’t have a limit on imports. When you’re on a Russia-based team, you’re only allowed five imports. [At Barys] we had anywhere from seven to eleven imports for my first five or six years, so it definitely helped away from the rink, and even at the rink. You feel a little bit more comfortable having more English-speaking guys around.

Coming to Avtomobilist, I haven’t found it too different. At the end of the day, everybody is working toward the same goal. It doesn’t really matter your background or what country you’re from. There’s always a few guys that can speak some English and can help translate. There are some imports that can speak Russian—I, unfortunately, am not one of those! I know a little bit, but not enough to have in-depth conversations. Hockey’s pretty universal, and once you get on the ice, that’s the easiest part of understanding things.

GK: Do you find that the language barrier impacts chemistry?

ND: Not really. I’ve played mostly with imports—I played a little bit with Russian guys over the years, or some Kazakh guys as well. But whether it’s talking through a translator or, like I said, some of the Russian guys speak a little English—even if it’s broken English, you can get the point across. Or with the little bit of Russian I know, you get on the same page.

It’s so easy nowadays with video—you don’t really need to talk because you’re both watching the same thing. You’re going to see what’s going on out there and plays that you could make better…where guys were open, where guys were going, and read off of that. I haven’t found it too hard, and definitely being here nine years now.. I know the first couple years were a little bit tough, but again, I was able to come in and play with imports. We were all speaking English and able to communicate on the ice.

GK: You have Pavel Datsyuk in your locker room this season, who is obviously an icon. I know he’s not played every game, but how do you assess his impact so far?

ND: Well, it’s huge. Obviously he’s one of the best players to ever play—not just coming out of Russia, but in hockey in general. He’s going to be a Hall-of-Famer, and to be able to play with him and pick his brain and just have that kind of leadership on the team—I know every guy looks up to him—and for him to be able to come home and play in his hometown, it’s something that he’s always wanted to do.

He had surgery in the off-season, so he started a little bit late. He’s been playing well and every time he gets the puck on his stick—whether you’re home or away—the crowd is on their toes wondering what kind of move he might pull, or if it’s going to be something special like we’ve seen so many times before. It’s definitely fun to watch him, and he definitely makes your team a lot better.

Nigel Dawes and Pavel Datsyuk. Photo: Barys

GK: Is there anything special you’ve observed about him now as a teammate, as opposed to an opponent or onlooker?

ND: He’s always been a special player, and I think the biggest thing is how good he still is at 41! You can only imagine how good he was when he was a little bit younger.

You’re watching him on TV and I played against him a little in the NHL, but to still see the skillset and how he thinks about the game, how he plays—it’s pretty remarkable.

Not many players can play at that high of a level for that long. It’s really special to watch.

GK: Avtomobilist went undefeated in 18 games last season, and ultimately you topped the East. This October was a bit of a meltdown. What do you think went wrong, and how does your role change when the team’s going through a hard time?

ND: We started off 8-0 this year, but I think it was a little bit deceiving.

We won two or three games in overtime, and one in a shootout. Nowadays with 3-on-3 overtime, I’m not going to say it’s 50-50 or a coin-flip like a shootout, but it’s not the same as winning a game in regulation. We were able to bury some of the chances we had. It’s a lot easier to get those scoring chances and you see them go back and forth. If you don’t score on one end, you know you’re getting an odd-man rush coming back the other way.

We were happy with how we started; I think we still had a lot of improvement and ways we could go. We lost a couple, and then we lost two close ones back-to-back and couldn’t score. Our powerplay cooled off a little bit. We weren’t really generating much offensively, and it’s hard to win games when you’re not scoring. We weren’t always giving up a lot of goals, but our scoring dropped off. It was probably three or four weeks of not-great hockey from our team, so everybody started to doubt themselves and the team. You have all this stuff going on outside, people talking about “loss after loss.” It’s just about sticking together.

Even after playing one good game, you can’t stop something by talking. You have to work your way out of it. We’d play one good game or one good period, and then we couldn’t string those things together. But once you get out of that, and you score three or four goals, you get that feeling back: we can score, and we can have chances to win games. For a while, we were averaging one goal a game or maybe even less. As soon as other teams scored it was like, “Oh man, here we go again. We haven’t been able to score, now we’re behind the eight-ball. How are we going to get out of this?”

Once you get that feeling back—you have a solid game, a solid shift, or you start making some plays—I think that starts to bring the belief back to the players and the team. That’s happened in the last couple of weeks. We have a lot of work to do still because we fell off track for a bit, but there’s still a lot of hockey left to be played and I think we’re only a couple points out of the playoffs. We’re fortunate that we didn’t fall too far.

GK: So it’s more a question of rebuilding confidence and momentum at this point.

ND: Yeah, I think the team lost their confidence—even when we were close, we still felt like we weren’t that close. We had to take a step back and watch some video and reassess what we’re trying to accomplish, get everyone back on board playing the right way.

When there’s a lot of negativity going around,— when you go on those losing streaks, the easiest thing to do is turn on each other.

The only way to get out of it is with everybody in the room. It can be tough at times, but it’s like a little family—you have your arguments, you’re never always going to be on the same page, but you work together with everyone and you help each other out. That’s what we did.

GK: I suppose you step into a referee role sometimes.

ND: Sometimes, yeah. Sometimes you’re vocal, sometimes you sit back and see what other guys are saying and how they’re playing or thinking. With [Datsyuk] on the team too, there’s a ton of leadership with him. He’s been around hockey for a long time, and it’s nice to have him as well to help out and try and work with the younger guys, even the older guys who have been around a lot. It’s just nice to have another set of eyes and ears. That definitely helped as well.

GK: You’ve worked under a lot of coaches because Barys had a bit of a merry-go-round. Were you exposed to any of those old-school KHL training camps? I think they’ve evolved a bit since you first started, but the 20 kg vests….

ND: Yeah they have evolved a little bit, but there’s still some of that. There are still some coaches that are running the same training camps—it’s worked for them, they’ve had success with it.

In North America, you’d have 2-3 practices and start playing exhibition games. You come here, and you have 6-7 weeks of practices and training and workouts and 2-a-days. It’s something that you’re not used to physically, mentally. There is definitely an adjustment.

GK: What was the toughest one you endured?

ND: Probably my first year. We jumped hurdles or went for a run from 7:00 to 8:00 in the morning. Then we’d have breakfast, and then we’d have an on-ice and a workout from 10:00 to 12:00. Then we’d have a nap and another workout and an on-ice in the afternoon. It wasn’t even a 2-a-day, it was like 5-a-day for probably eight to ten days! When you’re not even expecting anything like that, it’s a mental and physical grind. Then with the different culture and the food, you’re really just in survival mode.

Once I got through that, I was like, “I probably should be able to get through anything!” My second year, we had Vladimir Krikunov, and he’s been around for a long time.

GK: He’s notorious!

ND: Yeah, he’s one of the winningest coaches in the league or in Russian history. He’s had a lot of success. I know he’s toned it down a little bit over the last two years, but I know for a long time, his training camps from 3-4 years ago versus 10-15 years ago were the same.

Talking with [Datsyuk] about how he grew up playing hockey in Russia, and what the kids went through then…it’s the same. It’s not wrong—it’s just how they do it. They’ve had success and have bred a lot of great hockey players, and it’s just a different culture and thought-process.

Now there are some newer, younger Russian coaches who are taking different philosophies. There’s definitely been more days off. I know even Red Army last year won the championship, but they were in three out of four finals and it took until the last time to finally win. They always ran out of gas because they were working [the players] everyday, all year—when it came down to it, they didn’t peak too early, but they just didn’t have [anything] left.

There’s still a lot of value in rest, and that’s why sometimes these breaks are good where you can get away from hockey and rest for a few days and spend time with the family, recharge…it can be a long year with the travel and time changes; that definitely takes its toll on your body.

GK: Speaking of time with family, your son has grown up in Nur-Sultan and Yekaterinburg. Is there anything he’s picked up or stuff he’s grown accustomed to that just makes you laugh?

ND: He is in a Russian-English school now. I was in an elevator the other day and this lady was speaking Russian to us, and he was saying hello in Russian and asking how she was. I was like, “Oh..I didn’t even know you could say that!” [Laughs] It’s kind of cool for him, and whether he’ll remember or not because he’s only three and a half, if any of it will stick, I don’t know.

People will ask where he’s from, and he’ll say, “I’m from Moscow!” And I’m like, “Well, you visited Moscow last week…” So then he says, “Oh, I’m from Russia!” And I’m like, “Well, you live in Russia…”

Even in the summer he’s like, “I want to go back to Russia!” It’s really cool. At times it’s hard because there’s not as many kids for him to play with, or it’s hard to meet people who can speak English. But he’s been able to have some friends and go to school here this year, which is a nice change for him.

GK: I don’t know if you could have ever imagined that you’d be raising a child between Kazakhstan and Russia and he’d be speaking the language.

ND: Maybe soon he’ll be teaching me how to speak Russian!

GK: Last week you played against Traktor, and New York Rangers prospect Vitaly Kravtsov is back on the squad. His departure from Hartford to the KHL really ushered in a big debate in the U.S. about where prospects develop better. In your experience across North America and the KHL, do you have a view on where an NHL prospect is better off?

ND: I think it’s hard to decide because North Americans don’t even get the option. I think he’s nineteen, isn’t he?

GK: Yes, he’s young.

ND: We don’t even get that option. It’s either the juniors or the NHL. You can’t play in the AHL until you’re 20 or 21 now. So that option doesn’t necessarily come across for North American players to make that choice. He’d still be playing juniors if he was a North American.

Because he’s from Europe, he gets the chance to play pro hockey in Russia or go to the AHL. He’s definitely, at this point in his life, more comfortable here. He went to New York for the first time this summer.

I was at the All-Star Game last year and talked to him a little bit, and we actually played Traktor right before the break and I talked to him about it quickly because it was the first or second game back. I think it’s definitely comfort level; he’s going to play a lot here, and he’s been here for a while—not sure if [Chelyabinsk] is his hometown or not (Kravtsov was born in Vladivostok). It’s tough, I mean—a lot of European players coming over, from what I’ve been seeing and hearing, are getting these clauses in their contract. You can’t blame him. He’s going to make probably ten times as much money here as he would be in the minors. It’s a comfort thing, but he’s also getting ahead financially at this point.

Vitaly Kravtsov and Nigel Dawes at 2019 KHL All-Star Game. Photo: Yury Kuzmin

In the long run, I don’t think it’s going to hurt him to play here or [hurt] the Rangers. Instead of him in Hartford and unhappy, not necessarily working on his game—guys are always playing better and getting further ahead when they’re happy. At some point, he’s going to have to get comfortable in the U.S. if he ever wants to play in the NHL, and I think he took those steps this summer by spending most of his time there and getting his feet wet. Who knows? Maybe next year he makes the [Rangers], or he’s a little bit more familiar with being in North America.

You’ve gotta remember: he’s nineteen years old. How hard it must be to come over, and I don’t know if his family was there or not. Even if they are with you, it’s a shock—going the other way, Russia to North America, having trouble with the language. I know Shestyorkin is there, so at least he’d have another Russian to go through the process with, but I mean...these kids are still so young. A year won’t make or break his career. I don’t think the Rangers are that mad, or else they wouldn’t have let him come.

I think he can [go back to New York] at any point this year. If he was lacking confidence, maybe this was a good way to get it back. Some of these first-rounders need another year or two to develop; other guys are ready to take over the [NHL] right away.

GK: The Gagarin Cup has eluded you thus far—is it an active goal for your career in the KHL? Or are there other things—like defeating Mozyakin’s career goals in the K—that are more pressing?

ND: I think I have a better chance of winning the championship than beating his record!

GK: What is it, over 300? His record is huge.

ND: Yeah, I think he has a 100 goal cushion at least. He’s an amazing player.

GK: Well if you play until you’re 41 like Datsyuk….

ND: [Laughs] I gotta get Pav’s secret! No, the Gagarin Cup is definitely a goal. Anytime you’re playing hockey or any sport, obviously the end goal is always to win a championship and it’s something you try to work toward. Unfortunately it’s not possible for everybody, as hard as you work. You can play on some good teams that don’t win, and you can play on some teams that are mediocre but it all comes together. Every year, you get a new shot and you have to work your best to try to achieve that…it’s not just personal, but as a team and a city, that’s what we’re striving for. You take that year-by-year. At the end of my career, if I wasn’t able to win, it would definitely suck—but I think I could still look back on my career and be pretty satisfied with the way it has gone.

GK: Of all the things you’ve experienced in the KHL, what has been the most memorable?

ND: Just the opportunity, really. I never dreamt as a kid to play in Russia, to play overseas. Your dream is always to play in the NHL. But the opportunity this league has given me, not just hockey-wise, [has been] to see a whole new part of the world. I’ve been able to travel on some breaks and after seasons, and to see places I didn’t even know existed until I was on this side of the world. I’ve been able to make a great career for my family and enjoy playing hockey. I’ve gotten to see how good all these Russian players are, visit these Russian cities…I really wouldn’t change anything.

GK: Do you have a favorite place?

ND: There are definitely some places I prefer going—the bigger cities like Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Kazan. Going back to Kazakhstan, I really enjoy that. You get some nice hotels and really good restaurants, and the fans are great. On the other side, there are some places that you want to just stay in your hotel, go to the rink, and get out of there…

GK: Care to name them?

ND: [Laughs] We don’t need to go into that! Guys in the NHL are going to say the same thing. There are cities that you prefer over others. I’m from Winnipeg and it just got voted the worst road city!

But no, it’s just been a really unique experience. I came here thinking that I’d play maybe one or two years, and now I am hoping I can play ten, eleven or twelve. I’ll try to stay here as long as I can play at a high level and continue to have fun doing it.

Everyday is a new challenge—the language, the game, the team you’re playing—there’s so many different little challenges, not just for myself but for my wife, son and family—even getting visas. It’s not like you can just jump on a plane and come for a weekend. So it has been a unique experience, but something that has become a huge part of my life and something I don’t regret at all. Looking back at it, I probably would make the same decision again.


Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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