Darren Dietz is one of the most dedicated ambassadors Kazakhstan could have ever asked for, whether he’s selling the country’s ecological diversity or leading a Cinderella start for the National Team at Worlds. The twenty-seven-year-old captain of Barys Nur-Sultan calls his second passport a gift for which he is extremely proud, and shared a snippet of his adventures across the world’s largest landlocked country.
“I'm really grateful that I've been accepted in Kazakhstan the way I have,” Dietz shared from Riga, where the Kazakh National Team had just defeated Finland for the first time in tournament history. “I just sincerely want to give my best to the country, and to do the best I can in representing Kazakhstan and representing Barys. The people there, they deserve it.”
Dietz scored the most goals of any defenseman in the KHL this season (17), and placed within the top three for overall point production. Under the leadership of KHL debutante head coach Yury Mikhailis, Barys Nur-Sultan qualified for the postseason, losing in the first round to Ilya Vorobyov’s Metallurg Magnitogorsk. A substantial portion of the team has gone on to represent Kazakhstan at the World Championships, where they defeated both host nation Latvia and reigning champion Finland before falling to the United States.
I caught up with Dietz in the Riga bubble to discuss it all—from Igor Larionov Jr.’s bold prediction that Kazakhstan would win Worlds, to the lessons he has received in the delicate art form of Russian swearing.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): Kazakhstan picked up its first-ever win over Finland at Worlds after defeating the host nation. What were your expectations going into the tournament?
Darren Dietz (DD): Well, you know what? For me, it was hard to place expectations because this is my first time playing in a tournament of this level. I didn't really know what the competition would be like. We were just trying to focus on representing Kazakhstan the best we can, showing the best possible game that we can, believing in each other and really trying to enjoy the tournament. It's a fun tournament. That was our attitude going into the start of the World Championships, and it has given us a nice little result so far.
GK: What was the scene in your locker room after both victories?
DD: It’s a hard thing to explain, actually. Especially the game with Finland. Winning that one, it was historical for us. I don't think anybody really expected us to do that. To beat the reigning world champions was pretty special, and we were going crazy in the room for sure.
GK: Your goaltender made his Worlds debut and won two shootouts in a row. What can you say about Nikita Boyakin’s performance so far?
DD: He’s been absolutely fantastic. We all know about the importance of goaltending in a short tournament like this one. It’s kind of a winner-takes-all format, so goaltending is definitely key. He's been dominant for us, and we hope he continues with that.
GK: He must be saying to you guys, "Can you not put me through another shootout?”
DD: I know, I know. I can't imagine the nerves he's under, but he's handling it like a pro.
GK: Igor Larionov, Jr. predicted a Kazakh victory at Worlds. How does that sound to you?
DD: I love it. And we say, “Why not?” In a tournament like this, anything can happen in a single game. And I think as we've seen already, there have been some shocking results. I think that's really encouraging from the standpoint of how all countries are developing in terms of hockey. And I mean, why not? Why can't it be us, right?
GK: A lot of Barys is represented on the Kazakh roster. I think that latent chemistry really helps in a tournament where teams are patched together and players are arriving at staggered intervals.
DD: I think that is definitely an advantage we could say for us, that we all played together. We know what to expect of each other. I think that's really important when you're in a high pressure situation in tournaments like this. We know how and what everyone's capable of on our team. You're not getting upset or frustrated with a teammate if he doesn't do something that you would want of him. We're pretty comfortable. We know how well we can play or what we're capable of, and also not capable of.
GK: That’s a good segue to discuss the KHL season. Barys had essentially no preseason, and I know it was a struggle to get imports over the border. What was going through your mind at that time? Was it stressful waiting for the team to come together?
DD: I wouldn't say stressful, but it was definitely a new challenge for us. As an organization, we never had such a quick turnaround like that. Everyone is used to long training camps in the KHL, where they all get together in July and practice for two months. I think from an organizational standpoint, it was something out of the ordinary. Fortunately for us as North Americans, that's kind of a typical season for us. We all train on our own and a traditional NHL training camp is two, two and a half weeks long. We were a little bit more comfortable with that. Having our large group of imports helped to calm the situation. We were like, "Hey guys, this is okay. This is not a problem. Let's stay focused on what we need to, and not let the circumstances that we're currently in distract us."
GK: What a time for your head coach to be making a KHL debut. How would you describe the way Yury Mikhailis handled the uncertainty?
DD: He did a fantastic job with that. He's a coach who knows our system really well at Barys. He's coached in the system for about ten years or more. He's familiar with a lot of the players in our system. That played a big role in us starting out fairly well, and being able to communicate well with all the guys. He gained experience as well at the KHL level, and it was a learning curve for us all amongst the untraditional season.
GK: How would you contrast his style to coaches you’ve had in the past?
DD: In terms of actual hockey and strategy, I wouldn't say there's a lot that differentiates him from other coaches. He's demanding, he's fair. He knows what he wants from us and is able to communicate that. But he does it in a more quiet, controlled way than what I've seen previously. His son being a member of the team, he grew up with a lot of us as friends. Many were childhood friends with Nikita, growing up in their house. That level of communication is hard to compare. I'm not sure that there's any other coach in the league who could say that his son grew up alongside all of the kids. That definitely helped out.
GK: You were one of the top-producing defensemen in the KHL and scored the most goals of your career in Nur-Sultan. What elicited such a performance from you in an unconventional season?
DD: As far as comparing seasons, it always comes down to the coach believing in you, playing you in certain situations, giving you that opportunity. That's all you can ask for as a player. When you're put in those situations, you try to make the most of it. As far as counting goals or points, I don't spend a lot of time or put a lot of weight into that. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't. The main goal in being a leader on a team is wins, and contributing to wins. Sometimes that means making a play or scoring a goal. Other times, that means eating the puck.
GK: With whom did you feel the most chemistry?
DD: This year, we had a lot of lineup changes. We had some injuries as always, as most teams do. For me, I played the majority of the season with Alexei Maklyukov. We’ve played together a majority of the time the last four seasons in Nur-Sultan. We have fantastic chemistry. That certainly helps my game a lot, having a calming presence like him. We just really know what to expect of each other, and read each other well.
GK: The last time we spoke, you had just recited Pushkin to a packed house in Moscow at the All Star Game. How are your Russian lessons progressing?
DD: You know what, I've continued to study. I'm really enjoying it. I would say my level is definitely improving to where I can express my own thoughts. I don't want to say with ease, because it's always a struggle. You have good days where you feel like you're speaking really well. And then the next day, you feel like you can't say anything. As time goes on, I feel more and more comfortable being able to express myself in the language.
GK: Do you have a favorite Russian word?
DD: [Laughs] What immediately comes to me is all the compound swears. We hear them all the time in the dressing room, because locker room talk is just next level. I always get a huge kick out of the compound swearing combinations. Guys just go on for what seems like five seconds. It's incredible.
GK: Not every import makes an effort language-wise. Bob Hartley would describe it as “buying the full membership.” As a foreigner who was offered citizenship, do you feel that you have a responsibility to give back to Kazakhstan in some way?
DD: It’s something I'm really proud of. I'm really grateful that I've been accepted in Kazakhstan the way I have, how people have treated me. I just sincerely want to give my best to the country, and to do the best I can in representing Kazakhstan and representing Barys. The people there, they deserve it. They've supported me and accepted me like their own. It's an interesting feeling that's really hard to describe when you join a new nation. When you play for their national team, you're not really sure how the everyday person in Kazakhstan will accept you. And the way they have accepted me is what, in turn, gives me so much pride to play for them and to represent their country.
GK: What would you say is the coolest thing you've done or place you've been in Kazakhstan?
DD: What's interesting is how similar it is to Canada in regards to landscape. Just this off-season, I got to visit a few other places that I had never been to, other than Nur-Sultan. When you go south, the next biggest city in the country is Almaty. There are mountains where you can ski within a half hour from the main city. The weather is extremely warm as well, so it’s a really strange thing! Then I went west toward the Caspian Sea to Aktau. It’s a desert city with literally camels walking around wild. I thought that was unbelievable. I had been a little towards the southeast, in a city called Shymkent. It was really green there and flat like Alberta, my home province.
GK: Let’s play a lightning round of three personal questions to finish. Ready?
GK: What is the food you dream of eating when you think about going home?
GK: Spoken like a good former Hab.
DD: Now that I think about it, that's just something I haven't had in years. Came to me right now—like lightning. But that's what I'd like.
GK: What is a goal you have set for yourself that no one else knows about?
DD: I would like to complete an Iron Man in my life. I've run a few five or ten kilometer races. That was many years ago when my mom was a runner, and she enjoyed doing that sort of thing. She has even run marathons, which gave me some inspiration. I really enjoy road biking as well, so that’s where I got the idea on the bucket list.
GK: Last question. What is a misconception that people have about you?
DD: Wow. That's a really good question. Gees, I don't know. People might think that I'm nicer or softer than I am. I think sometimes people might think I'm maybe easier or softer, or a bit of a pushover in areas, whereas people closer to me know that I'm not.
GK: I was going to say, I think you're very nice. Now I'm wondering if you're a secret villain. It's kind of intriguing.
DD: [Laughs] Of course, I don't think I could go that far with it