Michael Garnett arrived in Russia when he was 25. After several seasons in the AHL, and 24 games with Atlanta Thrashers in the NHL, the goalie decided to join Neftekhimik one year before the KHL started its operations.
“I played for Chicago Wolves with Fred Braithwaite, who had come from Kazan where he won the championship with Ak Bars. He talked about it, about what Russia was like, what the league was like. I think there were teams watching him and I was having a good year, so they got interested in me. In the end my Canadian agent called with an offer from a team in Russia — I couldn’t even pronounce the name! But I was still young, it was a good deal and it felt like there was no risk in trying. It was a new country, a new challenge.
“I joined up with Neftekhimik in 2007 at training camp in Finland and they got a Russian visa for me then. We rode a bus from Finland to St. Petersburg and it was the hottest bus ride ever. I couldn’t believe it could be so hot in Russian and Finland.
“In those first couple of years there were no smart phones. For two months I didn’t even have internet in my apartment I just had one English-language channel, BBC World, with the same news headlines every 10 minutes. I understood what isolation was all about back then. As soon as I got the internet, I went a little bit crazy and downloaded everything I could. And then the bill came ... I was a bit shocked, it turned out the tariff meant I had to pay for every megabyte I downloaded.
“That was the toughest part for me. I had to learn Russian because I was going crazy. But on the ice it was a very enjoyable season for me, I played almost every game. We finished 15th and lost to Magnitogorsk in five games in the first round of the playoffs. We did really well, and it was a disappointment when they didn’t come back to me.”
All the same, Garnett hadn’t gone unnoticed in Russia. The KHL started and Garnett moved to HC MVD for the following campaign. In total he played nine seasons in the league and reached two Gagarin Cup finals.
“I was fortunate to end up at MVD, even though we struggled in our first year. But we got a second chance and made the most of it. We were fortunate to keep our jobs and all the players were battling for they coaches, for the team. That second year at MVD was the most memorable of my career. If it hadn’t worked out, it might have been the end of my time in Russia ... But everything came off: we had an amazing regular season and ended up losing in game seven of the final. That was painful but it was an exciting time.
“Today Oleg Znarok is very famous but back then he was new to coaching. He was different from other coaches in Russia, he was a players’ coach. He stuck up for us, he was on our side. I think that was the most important year of my career, without that none of the rest could have happened.
“Then MVD merged with Dynamo and my first season there wasn’t bad, even though we didn’t go far in the playoffs. I wanted to stay, but Traktor made a good offer. They were promising to build a high-quality team that had a chance of winning it all. It felt like a perfect fit, very exciting for me.
“In my second season at Traktor we got the final and played against my old Dynamo team. They had won the cup the year before and it really hurt to lose to them. But, at the same time, although it was heartbreaking to lose, I was happy for my former team-mates, they’re great guys.
“Our coach in Chelyabinsk, Valery Belousov, was very different from Znarok. He was a steady, calming coach and everyone respected him. He didn’t say too much, but he was a real presence in the room. He was the perfect coach for a very talented team. When I had problems with my game, or in my personal life, he always knew what to say. He helped me out tremendously.
“After four seasons in Chelyabinsk I couldn’t understand why suddenly I couldn’t find work in the KHL. I was reading the Russian media and realized that something had happened in my final year with Traktor and after that my phone stopped ringing. I didn’t know what was going on and I wanted to go back so badly. Traktor invited me to stay but I said no. I was selfish, I thought I could get more money. Now I regret that I didn’t come back for a fifth season.
Я очень хочу остаться в России. Не знаю что случилось с вами. Жду приглашение. Готов хорошо играть.— Michael Garnett (@MichaelGarnett) June 28, 2015
“To try to get some attention, I posted on Twitter — in Russian, telling people I was available. I don’t think it was all that crazy; one way or another I got a job in the KHL with Bratislava. But then I had problems with my health and after the season I needed surgery. And it all went quiet again. I waited and ended up at Medvescak, where I played 17 games and got past 400 appearances in the KHL. I was pretty happy with that, 400 was important to me for some reason.
“I finished that season in Switzerland with Bern. I was the second goalie and we won the championship, so it was pretty fun. But I realized that I’d finished what I could do in my career. I had offers from the Czech Republic, Sweden or Finland but nothing really appealed. I heard about an opportunity to get an education scholarship in England, their league had a partnership with an MBA program, something I wanted to get into. It was a great opportunity, I got in touch and signed a two-year contract with Nottingham and went to study at Loughborough, one of the best business schools in the UK.”
Garnett ended his playing career in the summer of 2019. Right now, he ranks fourth among goalies in the KHL for games played (401) and wins (185). After hanging up his skates, Mike completed his studies, got married and is now planning his next steps.
“Surprisingly, it wasn’t really a hard decision to call it a day. I played 17 seasons at the top level, nine seasons in the KHL, I played in the NHL. The one thing that’s missing is winning the Gagarin Cup. I’m too old to play in the KHL now, but I could always become a coach! I just finished my degree a month ago and now I’m ready for something new. I’ve spoken with some coaches who are going to Russia and maybe I can help them out. That might be a good way to get back over there.
“There’s been a lot of interesting stuff lately. My wife is a pilot, so that has its advantages. We’ve visited about 50 different countries. We spent 12 days on a motorcycle adventure in Uganda, across the animal park — no security, no protection. You could see the elephants wandering around, lions living in the wild. I was at the back of a group of six guys and my bike stalled. Suddenly I was all on my own in the middle of nowhere, with five lions. It was so scary. Luckily the bike started up again and I could get away.
“I’ve got a little two-seater plane in Calgary, I can do flips and rolls and all that. It’s a hobby of mine but I don’t know if I’d want to make a career of it. The economy is changing, pilots are losing their jobs.
“I’m happy that I devoted so much of my career to Russia. It was a second chance for me to play at the top level. When I was in the NHL, I wasn’t ready for it, emotionally and mentally. But those years in Russia changed my life. I started to enjoy the game again and I got a chance to kinda rewrite who I was.
“I’m proud of what I’ve achieved, proud that I could adapt to a new culture and a new country. There aren’t many of us from North America who have done that. Guys like Deron Quint, Matt Ellison, Francis Pare, but not many others. I don’t think I’ll see another North American goalie get close to my numbers in the KHL.”
Born Nov. 25, 1982 in Saskatoon, Canada
Playing career: 2000: Red Deer (WHL, Canada); 2000-2002: Saskatoon (WHL, Canada); 2002-2007: Chicago (AHL); 2005/06: Atlanta (NHL); 2007/08: Neftekhimik (Russian Superleague); 2008-10: HC MVD, 2010/11: Dynamo Moscow; 2011-15: Traktor; 2015/16: Slovan; 2016/17: Medvescak, Bern (Switzerland); 2017-19: Nottingham Panthers (Great Britain)
Honors: WHL Champion (2001), KHL All-Star (2010, 2012, 2013)