There’s little to choose between the two leading Kazakh goalies of the KHL era. Vitaly Kolesnik played a few more games, Vitaly Yeremeyev had a few more wins. Kolesnik, meanwhile, spent more time riding the pine than any other goalie by the time of his retirement. He suited up for 494 games, but spent 276 of them on the sidelines. Life as an understudy still brought a Gagarin Cup with Salavat Yulaev in 2011 — but it also brought an unwanted role in one of the most scandalous moments of KHL history.
It happened during a playoff game at Avtomobilist in 2010 when a home fan, angrily convinced that Kolesnik was interfering with the Yekaterinburg players as they tried to change lines, started an argument with the visiting goalie. Kolesnik protested his innocence, only for the fan to hop onto the Ufa bench and attack the player. Vitaly later said he had little recollection of the incident and couldn’t understand how it had happened; Ufa assistant coach Igor Zakharkin described it as the most frightening game of his career. The fan, Sergei Shafikov, was arrested and later sentenced to community service. In court, he insisted he was merely defending himself.
Yeremeyev ended his career with Barys and was a regular on international duty for Kazakhstan when the national team was at its strongest, but he is more closely associated with Dynamo Moscow. In total he played 422 games for the Blue-and-Whites, mostly in the Russian Superleague, and won two championships. The second of those, in 2005, was in the company of Datsyuk and Ovechkin. Yeremeyev was also credited with a KHL goal, enjoying a moment of good fortune when Barys defended a delayed penalty situation against Sibir and a shot crashed off the boards and rebounded all the way to the opposition net.
Today, Vitaly is back at his beloved Dynamo as goalie coach — a role that he found both familiar and different on his return to Moscow in 2016. “I felt at home back on the team, because I already knew a lot of the coaching staff and several guys who were starting their careers when I was still playing for the team,” he told Sports.ru. “Even so, I had to think about my relationship with lots of people, because the relationship between teammates is always different than the relationship between players and coaches.”
Third on the list, Alexei Kuznetsov challenged for the starting role at Barys in the first two seasons of KHL action. Subsequently he moved on to play as a back-up at Avangard before finishing in the league with spells at Amur and Ugra. Later he was goalie coach at Barys before becoming GM at VHL team Saryarka Karaganda.
Roman Savchenko leads the way for scoring among Kazakh defensemen — and had he not been competing with Kevin Dallman for a role on the Barys power play for much of his KHL career, he might have even more than the 154 points he has compiled up to now. After 10 years with Barys, Savchenko moved on, first to Sibir and then Lokomotiv. But his roots still matter: when Loko visited Nur-Sultan last season, the defenseman wore the ‘A’ for the day and had a special treat lined up for his team-mates. “It was nice to get a traditional Kazakh dinner — lamb — from Roman,” said the team’s coach Mike Pelino. “The whole team enjoyed it. That’s not the reason we made him captain, but it was a nice thing for him to do.”
Savchenko is set to continue in Yaroslavl next season and should, therefore, overtake Maxim Semyonov’s record of 613 appearances in the KHL. For several years the pair were team-mates at Barys, with Semyonov arriving from Lokomotiv in 2013 and remaining at the club until he was reassigned to farm-club Nomad during the 2019-20 campaign. With Semyonov leaving Barys in the summer, it’s not clear if he will add to his record. In addition to his long service in Kazakhstan, Semyonov is also fondly remembered at Atlant. Back in 2011, when he returned from injury and partnered Janne Niskala on the blue line, he was credited with resolving the Finn’s defensive lapses and allowing his team-mate to concentrate on firing in his devastating slapshot — a combination of stay-at-home defenseman and two-way blue liner that ranked among the best in the league.
While Semyonov and Savchenko can claim their long service awards, there’s a big drop to the next blue liner from Kazakhstan. Vitaly Novopashin was an experienced defenseman when the KHL began, and he played seven seasons altogether, making 376 appearances for three clubs. The other Kazakh defenseman to make the list is Evgeny Blokhin, whose 24 goals place him second overall in the KHL era. Blokhin served a long apprenticeship in Russia’s lower leagues, representing the likes of Motor Barnaul and Izhstal Izhevsk, before finding a place for himself in the KHL for six seasons towards the end of his career.
According to Kazakh legend Nik Antropov, Roman Starchenko could have made it in the NHL. The former Barys man is back on the staff at the Maple Leafs, where he spent much of his own career in North America, and firmly believes that Starchenko would have been a success if he’d tried crossing the Atlantic.
“He’s a great skater, he’s got the skills, a terrific shot,” Antropov said in an interview with Shaiba.kz. “It’s all there. I don’t think he’d be out of place in the NHL, but everything depends on the individual player. Why he never went over to try is a question for him.”
Instead, Starchenko, 34, is embarking on his 13th season with Barys, one of the dwindling band of players to contest every KHL season with one club.
Vadim Krasnoslobodtsev is another player who was part of Barys from the start of the KHL. He went on to play more than 500 games in Astana, Nizhny Novgorod and Vladivostok, while representing Kazakhstan on the international stage. Today, though, his new role sees him promoting the game across Russia as part of the ‘Krasnaya Mashina’ (Red Machine) initiative operated by the Russian Hockey Federation since 2016.
“It’s hard to turn down an offer from an organization like the Russian Hockey Federation,” he admitted in conversation with Shaiba.kz. “With my colleagues, I travel from city to city, staging seminars for coaches and masterclasses for children. Before the pandemic, we were always on trips somewhere: Nizhny Novgorod, Kurgan, Tyumen, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk.
“As a pro, I can assure you that this program promotes the latest techniques and innovations. In my childhood, we never had such versatile coaching. The next generation is lucky.”
Dmitry Upper was very much a player of the previous generation. His pro career began back in 1994-95 with Dynamo Moscow II, and he played for all three of the big Moscow teams. At Spartak, his 274 appearances set a record for post-Soviet championship action and it was there that he began his KHL career. He also had spell with Atlant before returning home to captain Barys in 2012. Injury ended his playing career in 2015.
Playmaker Konstantin Rudenko had a profitable career in creating chances for others. His 121 assists in the KHL put him onto this list and saw him help Lokomotiv to the inaugural Gagarin Cup final. Earlier, he helped the Railwaymen win two Russian Superleague championships. Oddly, though, his only appearance for Team Kazakhstan came late in his career: he captained his country to promotion in 2015 but played only 13 more competitive games before retirement.
Meanwhile, Talgat Zhailauov is a regular on the national team, and has a special place in Kazakh affections. In a game dominated by ethnic Russians, Talgat is notable in that he regards Russian as he second language. Sometimes, though, a close relationship with the fans can go a little too far: in 2014, after Zhailauov got an assist on the goal that settled a playoff series against Avtomobilist and gave Barys its first ever post-season progress, a group of supporters greeted the team at the airport. Intending to celebrate by tossing the forward in the air, they misjudged his weight and dropped him on the tarmac. As a result, he sustained a concussion that ended his playoff campaign and only returned at the World Championship two months later.
Vitaly Koval adopted his Belarusian citizenship in time to represent the country at the 2008 World Championship, just before the start of the KHL. He qualified after playing for Neman Grodno, but was soon elevated to a leading role with Dinamo Minsk. From there he moved to Atlant in time to reach a Gagarin Cup final and continued to tour the KHL until he left Neftekhimik when the Tatar team was left with six imports on the books. That took him to Sweden for the final days of his playing career in 2016 — and an admission that his last season ‘was tossed in the trashcan’ from a hockey perspective. Later, he dabbled in politics before joining the coaching staff at Dinamo Minsk.
Like Koval, Andrei Mezin was born in Russia before adopting Belarusian citizenship. He went on to star in the biggest game in the country’s history — the shock Olympic quarter-final win over Sweden in 2002. However, despite his long service to Belarus, he never forgot his roots in Chelyabinsk, where he was born in 1974 before moving to Novopoltsk, Belarus, as a teenager and starting his pro career there. Towards the end of his career he played 11 games for Traktor, and later admitted that games against Chelyabinsk were always a bit special for him.
The others on the list were bit-part players. Dmitry Milchakov played the bulk of his career in the Belarusian league, with occasional call-ups to Dinamo Minsk. Today, aged 34, he’s still playing and is set to return to Metallurg Zhlobin next season after a year in Kazakhstan. Stepan Goryachevskikh, set to join with HK Brest in the Belarusian second tier next season, is unusual in that he never played KHL hockey with Dinamo. Instead, he picked up his experience elsewhere and played most of his games for Ugra.
Nikolai Stasenko, an archetypal stay-at-home D-man, has got through plenty of travel in his career. A youth player with Amur, he made his breakthrough as a pro in Belarus. However, despite playing for Yunost Minsk, part of the Dinamo system, his KHL debut came back at Amur. Spells at Severstal and Vityaz followed before he ended last season at Avtomobilist.
Vladimir Denisov may be second in terms of games played, but his uncompromising style has seen him suit up for Ak Bars under Zinetula Bilyaletdinov — a real vote of confidence for any defenseman. Denisov responded that season by enacting more hits than any other player in the league as Kazan got to the Gagarin Cup final — the most successful season of Denisov’s KHL career. He later had one last season as captain at Dinamo Minsk before concluding his playing career in Finland with SaiPa.
Two years with Dinamo Minsk were enough to earn Dmitry Korobov a call to Tampa Bay, where he made his NHL debut in 2013-2014. Opportunities with the Lightning were limited, so Korobov was soon back in the KHL. Next season he joins Salavat Yulaev.
In Ufa, Korobov will line up alongside Evgeny Lisovets. At 25, he’s the youngest player on this list and he enjoyed something of a breakout season with Dinamo in 2018-2019. That saw him get a move to Salavat Yulaev where he did enough to remain for the coming campaign despite being limited to 35 appearances. Lisovets is poised to overtake Denisov’s scoring record; at present the two have an identical haul of 62 (22+40).
You’ll look long and hard to find to Andrei Stas on a list of top scorers: despite his 621 games across 12 seasons in the KHL — and signed up for #13 with Avangard — he’s never been prolific. Last season he had just 3 (1+2) points as a center for the Hawks. But it’s the workrate and willingness to do the ugly bits of the game that keep Stas employed for club and country — and that’s something that links the Belarusian forwards with the most games in the KHL.
Alexander Kitarov, third on the list with 450 games, also rarely troubles the scorers. He has just 82 points in that time but continues to get game time as an honest grinder. In between those two comes Alexei Ugarov, part of Oleg Znarok’s MVD team that reached the 2010 Gagarin Cup final. He three seasons under Znarok provided the bulk of his scoring in this league; later spells saw him on progressively weaker teams, with fewer opportunities to make his mark.
If longevity leads the way, the three most prolific men on this list needed rather less time to make an impact. Alexei Kalyuzhny, the leading Belarusian scorer in the KHL, was already well-established when the league began after winning Superleague titles with Dynamo and Metallurg at the turn of the century. He almost added a Gagarin Cup in 2012, but was on the Avangard team denied by Dynamo. His final seasons brought him back to Minsk as Dinamo’s captain and he continued to score consistently until his retirement in 2016. Today, he’s on the coaching staff at Yunost Minsk.
Then come the Kostitsyn brothers. Andrei, the elder by two years, leads the way following his return from a long spell in the NHL, mostly with Montreal. His first season brought a Gagarin Cup final run with Traktor, later he had an injury-hit stay at Kunlun Red Star. Next season, he’s set to join Neftekhimik. Sergei, meanwhile, was forced to retire due to injury and ended his contract with Dinamo Minsk last November. Prior to that he and his brother played together in Montreal and, on occasion in Minsk, but followed different paths around the KHL.
Sun Zehao (2018-19; Kunlun Red Star) 2 games, 0 wins
Harbin, in China’s snowy Heilongjiang province, is famous for its annual ice lantern festival. It’s also part of the Chinese hockey heartland, and the hometown of the first Chinese goalie to play in the KHL. Sun Zehao, 24, announced himself in the 2018 pre-season, when he lined up against a powerful Avtomobilist offense in an exhibition game and was only beaten by a last-minute goal. Later in that campaign, he came off the bench twice for a taste of KHL action as Curt Fraser finished the season by assessing the depth on his roster. Earlier in his career, Sun was in training with the Vancouver Canucks and was even named as the Canadian team’s third goalie during the 2017 NHL China Games. But he believes the KHL’s support for Kunlun Red Star will make a bigger difference to his country’s hockey program in the future. “We need more opportunities for our players,” he told KHL.ru. “Many young players have to stop playing because they cannot earn a living at the game. They change professions, or maybe they leave to play in North America. It’s very difficult to start a career in hockey in China.
“That’s why it’s so cool that Kunlun Red Star and the KHL came to China. I’m sure this will start a new stage in our hockey development.”
Rudi Ying (2016-2019; Kunlun Red Star) 27 games, 1 goal
21-year-old forward Rudi Ying helped to get hockey on prime-time TV in China, belying the game’s status as a minority sport in the People’s Republic. Ying, whose father Ying Da is a renowned actor and director, was a star of the sport-based reality show ‘Ice Hockey Hero’ — something akin to ‘Dancing on Ice’, but with fewer sequins and more sticks. And he’s no show pony: in February 2019 he potted the gamewinner in home game against Admiral, becoming the first Chinese-born player to score a KHL goal. Still some way from the finished the product, Ying has the potential to be a trailblazer for Chinese hockey. And it all started on a boring shopping afternoon at the mall. “When I was three, I went shopping with my mom in Guomao, and then there happened to be an ice rink,” he told Pandaily. “I started to learn skating, because it’s so boring to shop with my mom. As figure skating didn’t really appeal to me, I began to pursue ice hockey instead.
“I really love this sport. It brings loads of joy and excitement, for both the audiences and the players. The main attraction for me is the speed.”
Borna Rendulic (2017-2019; Vityaz Moscow Region) 95 games, 43 points, 22 goals, 21 assists
Croatia had its own team in the KHL for four seasons when Medvescak Zagreb competed in the Western Conference. But the country’s best player never had a chance to play for his hometown team in this league. Instead, he had a spell at Vityaz, clocking up almost 100 games. As a representative of one of hockey’s smaller nations, Rendulic, 28, was well aware of how much it meant for Croatia to bring KHL hockey to Zagreb and hopes to see more investment in country’s program to develop a competitive championship. “It’s a big problem that in Croatia we don’t have at least two or three big clubs where we can develop our players,” he told Sportnet.hr in May. “It was good when Medvescak got to play in the KHL but unfortunately that ended. Someone needs to invest a lot of money to strengthen our clubs, and only then can we talk about having a serious national team. We are far from the top right now, but I hope that one day we can be more competitive.”