Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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One kilometer east of Moscow’s outermost ring, Balashikha is not exactly the place you would expect to host a reunion with your first NHL coach. A temporary home to the KHL’s Avangard Omsk, the unassuming suburb has brought together Bob Hartley and Corban Knight—nearly 8,000 kilometers from where they first met in Calgary.

A Panthers draft pick whose NHL rights were traded to the Flames in 2013, Knight made his NHL debut with Calgary under Bob Hartley’s watch. The University of North Dakota graduate spent six seasons between the AHL and the NHL before opting to take his career abroad last season, logging time with both the Florida Panthers and Philadelphia Flyers prior to departure. Despite nuanced differences Knight noticed in the European game, little adjustment was required upon his arrival to Barys Nur-Sultan. Knight quickly settled into top-line position with Andrei Skabelka’s high-octane Kazakh squad, notching forty-one points in sixty games played.

While Knight has only spent three weeks in an Avangard jersey, he has found early chemistry with Jiří Sekáč and a comfortingly familiar leader in Bob Hartley. We discussed training camp, redemption expectations and more from Balashikha, where the Hawks continue to prepare for the upcoming season.

Gillian Kemmerer (GK): What was your flight itinerary to training camp?

Corban Knight (CK): Well, I was pretty lucky—it wasn't too crazy for me. I live in Western Canada, so it was just a drive into Calgary. I went from Calgary to Vancouver, which is a quick one-hour flight, and then it was Vancouver to Frankfurt. I had a two-hour layover in Frankfurt, and then it was Frankfurt right into Moscow. I've heard some horror stories from some of the guys, but fortunately for me, it was pretty easy.

GK: Travel arrangements aside, do you think COVID-19 altered the usual training camp routine? 

CK: Especially in the KHL, training camps are pretty hard. You don't have much of a life outside of the rink during your training camp. We were asked to stay in the hotel and try to isolate as much as we could. At the end of the day, you're pretty tired after those skates and workouts, so you're not too eager to go sightseeing or do a whole lot of activities. It hasn't changed training camp activities very much, that's for sure.

GK: So you guys aren't lighting up the Balashikha McDonald’s after hours? That’s the main attraction I recall near the arena…

CK: The five-minute walk to McDonald’s is definitely a little bit too long after you're done a hard day at training camp! You get on your bed, and there's not much chance you're moving. I'd like to tell you that we have ping-pong tournaments and all this stuff, but to be honest, it's hard days at the rink and we were pretty short on numbers for a while there. At the end of the day, we are pretty tuckered out.

Corban Knight. Credits: Yury Kuzmin

GK: Avangard was unfortunately hit with COVID-19 cases early into camp. That must have been a difficult experience to navigate.

CK: It was definitely a little bit of a scary time. When you're talking about a global pandemic and it hits a group of guys—we’re all working out and training and skating together, so we're all in the same little bubble. It was a little bit nerve-wracking, but at the same time, our staff did a really good job of making sure that the guys who were sick were isolated right away. They did a great job of making sure that everything was sanitized, and they tested us all of the time. It was obviously not ideal, but I think they handled it very well. All of the guys are pretty confident moving forward here.

GK: This isn’t your first dance with Bob Hartley. How much experience did you have with him prior to your Avangard arrival? 

CK: Bob and I have quite a bit of history together. After my four years of college were finished, Bob was coaching with the Calgary Flames and they traded for my NHL rights. So my first two years of pro, I was with Calgary's organization—up and down for both of those years. Bob actually coached me for a chunk of that time.

GK: How would you compare KHL Bob versus NHL Bob? 

CK: Honestly, I was curious to see what it was going to be like. Knowing Bob from Calgary, he's a very passionate, very detailed person, especially when it comes to the game of hockey. Obviously there's the language barrier [in Russia] and the game's a little bit different over here, but I think he's adjusted very well. Just in the three weeks that I've been here, how he's run camp and stuff, it's very similar to how he ran NHL training camps—and I think that's really good. The experience he has is pretty incredible, and the fact that he's bringing that over here, from a development standpoint for these guys, is great. And then from a team aspect too, I think it's pretty incredible to have that kind of experience and pedigree here.

GK: Andrei Skabelka was your head coach at Barys, and he seems to have some coaching attributes in common with Hartley. What is your take?

CK: I had a good experience with Skabelka last year. We had a really good team and we found some success. Like you said, there are definitely a lot of similarities between him and Bob. They want to play the game fast. I think pace and hard work are two of the things that they build their game on. That's something that I've found is very similar between the two organizations. With any coach, you have little tendencies and things that they’ve found throughout their career that work, and that's certainly the case with Bob and Skabelka.

Last year was my first year in the KHL, and it was definitely an eye-opening experience. Skabelka was my first coach in the KHL, and Bob was my first coach in pro, so its been really interesting to see how they run things. But yeah, they're both really good coaches.

Corban Knight. Credits: Anton Basanayev

GK: After a Gagarin Cup Finals appearance in season one with Hartley, Avangard was eliminated shockingly early from the playoffs last season. Do you sense an added desire for retribution?

CK: I think this is where Bob’s experience comes into play. The expectations with Avangard hockey are always very high, and I don't think that needs to be said, but there's definitely a hunger and a drive that I've noticed—not just with Bob, but with all of the staff and players. Last year, they had so many injuries and so much stuff that was out of their control. It resulted in a tough-fought series [versus Ufa], and losing a little bit earlier than what they were expecting. I think that's lit a fire under the team, and I definitely noticed that guys are focused and hungry. The expectations are very high for this season.

GK: Is there anyone with whom you’ve developed early chemistry?

CK: It has been pretty hard because we were short with so many guys, and it has been a revolving door with lineups and stuff. We're still waiting on some guys to get here, but Jiří Sekáč has been on my line for the first couple of full days of camp, and I think we found some instant chemistry. Obviously he's an extremely good player and he's had so much success in this league. We've been able to find some natural chemistry right off the bat, and hopefully we can continue to build off that.

GK: Did you feel that you had to make material adjustments to your game upon arrival from North America?

CK: A little bit, to be honest with you. There was certainly an adjustment period for me last year. Playing in North America, and during the time I was in the NHL, my role was certainly a lot different than it was with Barys. I went from that mindset of being a role-player back home, to Barys where I was put in more of a top-line role, which was great. That was a big part of the reason that I decided to come over—to get back to that style. At the same time, this league is so competitive and it took me a while to click back into that role. There was certainly an adjustment period where I had to find that part of my game again. I think once that happened, I was able to become a lot more consistent and find my groove.

GK: Were those first twenty-four hours in Kazakhstan a blur?

CK: I was close with a couple of guys that had played in Barys before, and when I was making my decision to sign in the KHL and with which specific team, I did my due diligence. I spoke to a lot of those guys, and they all really enjoyed their time with the Barys organization and the city. We had a ton of English-speaking guys—imports and guys who took Kazakh passports, so it was an easy transition from that side. Things like speaking English in the dressing room and having your own group of buddies, that definitely made it easier. But yeah, I do remember getting off the plane and the time change—I think it was twelve or thirteen hours from where I was coming from. Next thing you know, you're going to do physicals, and it was just such a whirlwind for me. I took a couple of deep breaths, and I had to realize that it was going to be okay. It was such a drastic change, and it happened so quickly.

GK: As you mentioned, KHL training camps are a grind. Did limited resources in the off-season make your first practices extra tough?

CK: Fortunately for me, I have a gym in my garage back home. In regards to getting on the ice and stuff, where I'm from in Western Canada, things opened up pretty quickly. We were doing pretty good with [COVID-19] cases, so in end of May, early June, we were able to get some ice. I was actually able to skate a decent amount before I came over here.

GK: Who gifted your first pair of skates growing up?

CK: My dad. I grew up in a very small town and there wasn't a whole lot to do in the winter time, especially when it was cold. There was an outdoor rink. I have a brother who’s eighteen months younger than me, and like any kid growing up in Canada, we grew up on hockey. We have some pretty funny home videos of me and my brother. I don't even know if you can say we were skating—maybe walking on the ice! I definitely have some good memories of growing up on the outdoor rinks in Canada. That's where I first learned to skate and got the passion for hockey.

GK: Which hockey players did you seek to emulate at the time?

CK: I grew up a really diehard Vancouver Canucks fan. When I really started to watch and fall in love with hockey, it was in the mid-to-late 90s. Vancouver had some pretty great teams with Pavel Bure, and for me, Trevor Linden was always the guy. I just really liked the way he played, and he was one of my idols growing up. Those are two of the guys that I definitely looked up to a lot.

GK: Who are some of the most interesting players that you’ve faced in the KHL thus far?

CK: There are so many good players in this league, I think. We played CSKA a couple of times, and I think Kaprizov was a pretty elite player. I don't think a lot of people back home know much about him. I definitely think he's going to raise some eyebrows once he gets going with Minnesota and people see how skilled he is. That group of guys they have in Ufa with Hartikainen and Larsen—those guys are pretty hard to play against too. The way they control the puck is pretty fun to watch, unless you're on the ice against them!

GK: What are some of the cultural differences you’ve experienced since arriving in Kazakhstan and Russia?

CK: I grew up in a very small town in Alberta, so in regards to culture, there wasn't very much. Coming over here and seeing how different it is from where I'm from, it definitely gives you an appreciation. It has been really fun trying the different types of food. And I know borscht, it's kindof like the stereotype, but I'd never had that before and I love it now. I can't get enough of it. Obviously COVID has put a damper on this, but I always found it very interesting that first thing in the morning, when all of the guys get to the rink, they go around and shake everyone's hand. It's a cool way to bring the team together and a nice little tradition they have here.

I definitely noticed last year that guys were very specific about where they go in line and what time they leave, go out on the ice, stuff like that. They're very specific about that. It’s kind of funny to sit back and watch because guys can get really focused on it.

GK: Is the Russian bend toward superstition contagious, and have you caught it?

CK: I would say that I am more routine-oriented. I'm not one of those guys who, if I don't do something, it's going to ruin my game. I always like to get to the rink nice and early—that’s just something that I've always done since probably my junior days. I like to get to the rink early on a game day and soak it all in. I'm certainly not one of those guys that gets bent out of shape if I can't do one of the things in my routine. I try to make sure that I'm not too much of a mental midget, where I let that impact my performance.

GK: Lastly — what did you do on all of those road trips last season?

CK: Last year in Kazakhstan, we had definitely a lot of pretty long travel days on the plane. I'm a big reader, so that was something that definitely killed a lot of time. We had a great group of guys last year with Barys, so we spent a lot of time playing cards on the plane and visiting and enjoying each other's company.

GK: What was the best book you read?

CK: This is going to sound nerdy, but I went through all of the Harry Potters this past year. I watched all of the movies when they came out, but I read all of the books this past season and I definitely really enjoyed those.

Corban Knight. Credits: Marat Akimzhanov

Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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