Azevedo. After more than seven seasons in the KHL, Justin Azevedo left the league in December. The Canadian forward started by helping Lev Prague to the 2014 Gagarin Cup final and 12 months later he was back in the final showdown with Ak Bars. He had to wait until 2018 to get his hands on the trophy at last and by that time he was firmly established as one of the KHL’s most successful imports of all time. In total the 32-year-old compiled 361 (134+227) points in 490 KHL appearances.
Bison. A horrendous campaign in 2019-2020 saw Dinamo Minsk rock bottom of the KHL standings, but the Bison did not panic. Keeping faith with head coach Craig Woodcroft and assistant Mikhail Grabovsky, the club backed the team to improve. That faith has been rewarded: the Belarusians are currently sixth in the Western Conference and look more than capable of making a first playoff since 2017.
Channel 1 Cup. December saw Moscow stage the annual Channel 1 Cup — and fans got a first look at Russia’s national team under new head coach Valery Bragin. The Red Machine did not disappoint, winning all three games against Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic to lift the trophy and extend its overall lead in the Euro Hockey Tour. The 2020 edition may also be a key part of preparations for next year’s IIHF World Championship, especially if NHL players are unlikely to available to compete for their countries in May or June.
Drive-in. When Avtomobilist’s Uralets Arena was closed to fans, the club found an innovative solution. Setting up giant screens in the carpark, they invited supporters to bring their cars to the game. With cheerleaders and mascots doing the rounds at the intermissions, it was a neat attempt to recreate the gameday atmosphere in unlikely circumstances.
Equipment manager. Often the unsung heroes on the bench, equipment managers hit the headlines in November when Stephanie Klein became the first woman to do the job in a KHL game. She stepped in when Kunlun Red Star’s regular kitman, Dmitry Safonov, was taken ill. The 28-year-old Ontario native, who usually carries out this role for the KRS Vanke Rays in the Women’s Hockey League, did the job for the first time in the KHL when the Dragons played at Torpedo.
Four. This year saw four KHL players chosen in the first round of the NHL draft. SKA goalie Yaroslav Askarov was the first to be taken, going at #11 to the Predators. Next came Toronto-bound Rodion Amirov, the first of two Salavat Yulaev youngsters in the mix. Team-mate Shakhir Mukhamadullin was selected at #20 by New Jersey and the next name on the list was Avangard’s Yegor Chinakhov, picked by Columbus.
Granlund. Attempting to fill the gap left by Linus Omark was no easy task, but Markus Granlund made an immediate impact on joining Salavat Yulaev. The Finn had three points on his debut and has kept on scoring; he’s currently the most productive new face in the league with 38 (17+21) points from 33 games. Vityaz forward Justin Danforth, another new import, also has 38 points, but has played five more games than Granlund.
Hard salary cap. The 2020-2021 season is the first to be played under a hard salary cap. As a result, all clubs are obliged to stick to strict spending limits when recruiting players. The impact is already apparent, with clubs unable to continue stockpiling the top players. That means big-name arrivals on more rosters, and a steady reduction in the gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.
Initiative. Everyone in the world of sport needed to show plenty of initiative to find ways of bringing the game back to life during the pandemic. For the KHL, that meant taking the tough but necessary decision to curtail the 2020 playoffs and start the hard work to prepare for the current season. It was a task that involved liaising with government bodies in Russia and beyond and keeping up to date with fast-changing health recommendations in order to recommence the action on Sep. 2 as scheduled and to do it safely for everyone involved.
Johansson. CSKA’s Swedish goalie Lars Johansson topped the KHL stats for GAA with 1.40 in 23 games in the 2019-2020 regular season. It’s the second time in his career that the 33-year-old has posted the league’s best GAA figures — no other netminder can match that.
Kovalchuk. The end of this season’s transfer window was dominated by news of Ilya Kovalchuk’s return to Russia. The storied forward, a World and Olympic champion, is looking to add to the pair of Gagarin Cups he won with SKA in 2015 and 2017 and offered an early statement of intent with a goal on his debut. The move also reunites the 37-year-old with Bob Hartley, who previously coached him in Atlanta in his early days in the NHL. Hartley quickly appointed Kovi as team captain and hopes that he can be the final piece in a cup-winning jigsaw after losing in the 2019 final.
Loans. With so much uncertainty about if and when pro hockey would resume in North America, KHL teams were quick to take advantage with some loan signings. Returning to Europe was a popular option for players eager to gain game time. From the likes of Mikko Lehtonen and Eeli Tolvanen and Jokerit — both now back across the Atlantic — to Traktor’s prodigal son Vitaly Kravtsov — set to play out the KHL season in his home town — many of these moves have been a big hit for the players and the clubs involved.
Mytishchi. KHL action returned to this Moscow Region town, five years after Atlant left the league. Arena Mytishchi became the temporary home of Kunlun Red Star after coronavirus restrictions made it impossible for the Beijing-based club to play its games in China.
New leadership. On Feb. 14, 2020, the KHL appointed a new president. Alexei Morozov, part of the Ak Bars team that won the first two Gagarin Cups, took over in the hot seat after Dmitry Chernyshenko became Deputy Prime Minister of Russia. Morozov, 42, stepped up from a similar role with the Junior Hockey League and becomes the first former player to hold the presidency.
Omsk Arena. This year brought concrete progress towards a return home for Avangard as construction work started on a new arena in Omsk. Builders moved onto the site, next to the Irtysh River, in June and the foundation stone was officially laid on Sep. 18. The Hawks’ new home has a projected capacity of 12,000 and is expected to ready in time to stage games in the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship.
Peters. Of all the new arrivals in the summer, Avtomobilist’s appointment of Bill Peters was the most eye-catching. The Canadian, who left the Calgary Flames in November 2019, was vastly experienced in the NHL but this would be his first job outside of North America. It wasn’t his first time in Russia, though: in 2016 he coached Canada to World Championship gold in Moscow. Assisted by KHL veteran German Titov, Peters quickly learned what life in Russia was all about. Avto made a flying start to the season before hitting an alarming skid and losing 10 straight. The end of the year brought an improvement ... who knows what 2021 will offer?
Quarantine. One of many new words to enter hockey’s lexicon this year as COVID-19 profoundly impacted all areas of life. Happily, despite several teams having to quarantine players in the current campaign, the KHL has succeeded in completing two-thirds of the regular season and remains on course to play out the full competition.
Red Square. The heart of Moscow, the heart of Russia ... and a place that resonates in the KHL. This was the venue for the first All-Star Game and this season it hosted the Priceless Game, in association with KHL partner MasterCard. The event was staged to mark the anniversary of the first games in the Soviet Championship on Dec. 22, 1946, and featured a Women’s Hockey League All-Star team against a roster of male veterans. The men got the win, but the big talking point was the duel between goalie Nadezhda Morozova and KHL president Alexei Morozov. Nadya got the better of the two-time Gagarin Cup winner, who failed to score, and the whole affair had added spice since it was the first time these two cousins had played against once another.
Shipachyov. With 65 (17+48) points last term, Vadim Shipachyov topped the scoring in the regular season. And Dynamo Moscow’s captain is on his way to a repeat: he currently leads the way again with 48 (15+33) points in 2020-2021. And amid all that scoring, Shipachyov became the second player to break the 700-point barrier in the KHL, with only Sergei Mozyakin ahead of him.
Thirty-eight. That’s the number of plastic bottles needed to make a hockey jersey. Ak Bars took to the ice for its Tatarstan derby against Neftekhimik wearing uniforms fashioned from a fabric derived from recycled plastic. On the day, the jerseys were black, but this was definitely a green initiative, highlighting how hockey can promote sustainability.
Under strength. But not necessarily underpowered. Both Avangard and Traktor are showing impressive stats on their PK this season. The Hawks have a mighty 90.3% success rate on their penalty kill this season. In the entire KHL era, only two teams have topped 90% in the regular season — can Bob Hartley’s men beat Lokomotiv’s record of 91% from 2018-2019? Traktor, meanwhile, proves that a wounded beast can be dangerous with 11 short-handed goals in 41 games to date. The all-time record is 18, set by Salavat Yulaev in 2008-2009 — and it looks to be under threat this time around.
Vanke Rays. The KRS Vanke Rays became the first foreign team to join Russia’s Women’s Hockey League last season — and won the trophy at the first attempt. Despite playing the entire playoffs away from home, the potency of Alex Carpenter and Rachel Llanes plus the defensive power of Megan Bozek and Zhixin Liu delivered the prize for Brian Idalski’s team.
Weekend. Of course, every year has lots of weekends, but the big one for us is the All-Star Weekend. Where else could you see a Kazakh-Canadian reciting Pushkin, a Swedish scoring star take a turn as a goalie and the new Gretsky, young Vyacheslav from Dinamo Minsk? Moscow was this year’s host city and, amid all the fun and games, there was a serious competition before Team Bobrov won the inter-divisional tournament. And there was also some serious fundraising, with goalie Ilya Sorokin auctioning off a specially designed set of pads in support of young Kazakh netminder Vilen Prokofiev, who was seriously ill with Ewing’s Sarkoma.
eXcitement. One of the big reasons for introducing the hard salary cap was to make the KHL more competitive from top to bottom. And the evidence is that it’s working. We are seeing one of the most exciting hockey seasons we can remember. Teams are scoring more, the league standings are tighter than ever (check out the Eastern Conference, where just six points separate Metallurg in third and Barys in eighth) and individual games are more unpredictable than ever. Don’t believe us? Look at the latest results: a 6-5 barn-burner at Torpedo, two goals in the last 90 seconds as Neftekhimik snapped a losing streak at Dinamo Minsk in another high-scoring encounter, last-minute goals forcing overtime at Avangard and Barys. The current season is full of thrills and spills, and that’s before we even reach the playoffs!
Youngsters. It might be a side-effect of the salary cap, or it might be influenced by players needing to quarantine, but this season is definitely the most youthful in the KHL’s history. More U20 players have played more games so far, and they’ve contributed more points in the process. Perhaps the most graphic illustration of the talents currently nurtured in the KHL came in November when team Russia sent its juniors to the Karjala Cup in Finland. Playing against men’s teams, Igor Larionov’s Young Eagles won all three games to scoop an international trophy — perfect preparation for the World Junior Championship currently underway in Edmonton.
Zhafyarov. Torpedo forward Damir Zhafyarov is a rising star in the KHL. He’s been on the radar since making his debut for Metallurg Novokuznetsk back in 2012 but now the 26-year-old is enjoying the best season of his career. His 43 points from 40 games are impressive enough, but Zhafyarov also compiled an 11-game hot streak from Nov. 12 to Dec. 8. That’s the longest productive streak recorded so far this season.