The Faceoff: Tyler Graovac
Brampton, Ontario native Tyler Graovac arrived to Minsk by his own description “like a kid in a candy shop.” But make no mistake—Dinamo head coach Craig Woodcroft’s approach is far from sugarcoated. The all-business bench boss does not conceal his desire to dominate, a quality that Graovac admires in his new leader.
The Faceoff: Brandon Yip
Four seasons ago, I met a team called Kunlun Red Star in the basement of Balashikha Arena. It was my first-ever assignment in hockey, and my memory of that night is more vivid than of hundreds more that followed. Among the names on my agenda was Brandon Yip, a 2004 Colorado Avalanche draft pick who found himself at the helm of a fledgling hockey club in Shanghai. Years of being pushed around by traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange could never have prepared me for this confrontation with my childhood dream of hockey reporting.
The Faceoff: Daniel Audette
Vityaz Podolsk forward Daniel Audette was told that his game was well-suited to Europe. A top-five producer on the Western Conference’s last place team, he has lived up to expectations in spite of the headwinds facing his squad. A second-generation professional hockey player, Audette admits that he once dreamt of being a goaltender, a position he now terrorizes as one of the KHL’s top point snipers. During his father’s tenure with the Montreal Canadiens, he spent time in close proximity to one of the best netminders in hockey history.
The Faceoff: Kenny Agostino
Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod winger Kenny Agostino is one of the KHL’s leading goal scorers, but he admits that it is not an achievement secured alone. Aside from high-octane linemates Damir Zhafyarov and Andy Miele—two impressive flanks for a debut season—there is one other contributor that deserves honorable mention, and that is Agostino’s sister.
The Faceoff: Marko Anttila
Helsinki and Saint Petersburg have more in common than their fanbases would like to admit—blustery coastlines on the Baltic, historic connections with Peter the Great, and at one time, even club ownership. In the old adage, “keep your friends close but your enemies closer,” Jokerit and SKA have succeeded on geographic and managerial grounds—but now they share one more legacy, perhaps to Helsinki fans’ chagrin. It is none other than Mikko Lehtonen, a lethal two-way defenseman who will soon suit-up for the Army Men.
The Faceoff: Markus Granlund
Averaging over a point per game, Salavat Yulaev forward Markus Granlund has maintained momentum after a breakout debut season. Tasked with filling the shoes of Linus Omark—a longtime leader and staple on Ufa’s top line—Granlund entered the turbulent 2020-21 KHL season with a heavy set of expectations. Rising to past glories without Omark aside, the team would be forced to deal with extended departures, curtailed preseason preparations and much more.
The Faceoff: Philippe Maillet
There is making an entrance, and then there is Philippe Maillet—a contender for the league scoring race behind perennial powerhouse Vadim Shipachyov just one month into his KHL debut. Metallurg’s new Canadian center has a track record of impressive production that spans twelve time zones, averaging well over a point per game in his first twelve Russian starts.
The Faceoff: Magnus Hellberg
Sochi newcomer Magnus Hellberg is among the toughest KHL goaltenders to score on, but snipers have an extra incentive to beware. If you happen to catch the Swede’s neck, you will have more than just a 6’6 World Champion to contend with later. You may also need to answer to his mother—a force who used to reprimand the street hockey rascals that made her five-year-old future NHLer cry.
The Faceoff: David Nemirovsky
Torpedo bench boss Dave Nemirovsky had over 200 international games on VHS and beta growing up, a masterclass in Red Machine style and predominance. While his parents and brother were born in the USSR, the 1994 Florida Panthers draft pick had never stepped foot on Russian soil until he moved his career to the Russian Superleague in 2001. It was a heritage that always fascinated the future KHL coach, and one that comes alive each time his roster touches the ice.
The Faceoff: Anton Burdasov
It’s one thing to meet your childhood idol—the player whose jerseys and cards filled the drawers of your room, and whose inspired actions you memorized, perhaps even repeated in your dreams. But to cover for your idol in the defensive zone is something else entirely, an opportunity that left SKA veteran forward Anton Burdasov in shock when it arrived.
The Faceoff: Ilya Vorobyov
For some members of the hockey community, coaching is an inevitable destiny—a calling that runs through their veins perhaps even before a playing career has concluded. Metal-lurg Magnitogorsk bench boss Ilya Vorobyov is one such example, the son of a longtime KHL and National Team coach who absorbed his father’s training principles long before he ruled a bench of his own.
The Faceoff: Dr. Craig Slaunwhite
Bobsled’s loss was hockey’s gain.
Dr. Craig Slaunwhite contemplated a unique career prior to his emergence in the field of peak athletic performance—competitive bobsledding, a seamless fit for the former college decathlete. His fast track to Cool Runnings came to a halt when a coaching offer from the Florida Panthers arrived. It is now the tease of a path not taken—one that crosses the NHL and NBA performance guru’s mind from time to time
The Faceoff: Vladislav Yeryomenko
Dinamo Minsk experienced a cultural overhaul in the 2020-2021 season, and not even a pandemic would derail the club’s efforts toward expansion. Under head coach Craig Woodcroft, a spotlight was shone on young Belarusian talents brought home from abroad, ballasted by imports with some serious KHL mileage. Defenseman Vladislav Yeryomenko, 22, was one such local youngster who witnessed the drastic change in fortune, which catapulted Minsk from one of their worst showings to playoff position in a matter of one season.
The Faceoff: Nicklas Jensen
In late May, Denmark delivered its first-ever victory over Sweden at the IIHF World Championship. It was a milestone almost exclusively achieved by Jokerit forward Nicklas Jensen, who registered a hat trick and an assist to seal the upset. His breathtaking performance impressed even the toughest of coaches, a Toronto-born import to Herning in the 1990s. His name is Dan Jensen, but he’s better known as dad.
The Faceoff: Curtis Valk
The city of Medicine Hat, Alberta has a population of 63,000, and a Kazakh-Canadian export list of 2. First teamed up at the age of five, Curtis Valk and Darren Dietz reunited on the ice in the most unlikely of destinations: Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan—nearly 9,000 kilometers from their childhood home.
The Faceoff: Sergei Zubov
Sergei Zubov is my favorite variety of Russian star, forged in the white heat of CSKA training camps and tested under the fierce gaze of hockey’s toughest coaches, from Viktor Tikhonov to “Iron Mike” Keenan. Despite back-breaking pressure and unbending leadership, the Hall of Fame defenseman’s creativity was irrepressible, an innate brilliance that always found an outlet—even in the hottest of furnaces.
The Faceoff: Dmitry Ovchinnikov
While the “Siberian Snipers” stands among the best team names in professional hockey, Dmitry Ovchinnikov could own the title himself. The eighteen-year-old forward from Chita, Zabaykalsky Krai—a city nestled between Russia’s Mongolian and Chinese borders—averaged over a point per game this season, his arresting speed and inch-perfect shot just two weapons in a well-rounded arsenal. With production numbers that put him in the realm of Nikita Gusev, Alexander Barabanov and Nikita Kucherov in their junior years, the youngster would have every right to brag—but he did not take the opportunity. Novosibirsk narrowly missed a shot at postseason play, a disappointment that Ovchinnikov puts on his own shoulders.
The Faceoff: Darren Dietz
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.
The Faceoff: Kirill Marchenko
Kirill Marchenko is an artist, but he refuses a likening to Picasso. He’s the mastermind behind the KHL’s best goal of the Western Conference Finals, but his own stores of creativity took the youngster by surprise. The only place SKA Saint Petersburg’s talented winger seems to accept comparisons is on the pitch—and although he claims to lack soccer talent, he selects the Bun-desliga’s leading hat trick scorer as his closest player comparable.
The Faceoff: Sergei Kalinin
Sergey Kalinin won World Juniors, Worlds, the Gagarin Cup and Olympic Gold before the age of 30. He has gone to the KHL Finals with both teams participating in this year’s clash, a tidbit he claims to have forgotten until our catchup over the weekend. The seasoned veteran and NHL alum walked into the Traktor Chelyabinsk locker room this summer as captain, and posted one of his best-ever performances on the Eastern Conference Cinderella squad. Traktor climbed from bottom-feeder to playoff contender, a metamorphosis Kalinin described as “perestroika” before the 2020-2021 campaign even began.
The Faceoff: Lauri Marjamaki
Jokerit Helsinki and Lokomotiv Yaroslavl have met 20 times in the past two seasons. In spring of last year, the Jokers reigned supreme over Mike Pelino’s squad—but COVID-19 derailed their playoff hopes. The Railway Men exacted their revenge this March with a decisive first-round victory, including two shutouts for chart-topping netminder Eddie Pasquale. According to Jokerit head coach Lauri Marjamäki, the results yielded no room for interpretation.
The Faceoff: Craig Woodcroft
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Though written over one hundred years ago, Charles Dickens’ immortal words accurately summarize the about-face that Dinamo Minsk has recently sustained—from their worst-ever performance in franchise history to their first playoff appearance in years. Against the backdrop of sizable personnel changes and a global pandemic, head coach Craig Woodcroft oversaw Dinamo’s transformation from bottom-feeder to playoff contender. With the assistance of Mikhail Grabovski and Pavel Perepekhin, the troika lured a sizable contingent of promising Belarusian youngsters away from North America, rounding out the locker room with battle-tested KHL imports including Rob Klinkhammer and Brandon Kozun. The team finished the regular season seventh in the West, falling to powerhouse SKA Saint Petersburg in the first round of the playoffs. Their upgrade in the standings was predicated on a seismic overhaul of team culture.
The Faceoff: Lars Johansson
Red Army goaltender Lars Johansson is a regular at the top of the leaderboard. His consistency was often overshadowed by high-profile prospect Ilya Sorokin, but with the latter’s departure for North America, Johansson has continued to backstop CSKA to success. If Red Army should repeat this season without Sorokin between the pipes, the Swedish netminder will receive a spotlight he has long deserved—although humbly never sought.
The Faceoff: Alexei Kovalev
In February of 2019, I took a walk with Alexei Kovalev in the Forbidden City of Beijing. We wound through throngs of visitors—an experience hard to reimagine in the throes of a pandemic—low fog shrouding the roofs of imperial palaces that stood for six centuries. Kunlun Red Star had just relocated to the Chinese capital after several seasons in Shang-hai, a long-awaited homecoming that would be astoundingly short-lived. A future venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics, Shougang Arena had finally opened its doors to the displaced Dragons, a modern complex on the site of an old steel plant experiencing a renaissance ahead of the Games. We could never have imagined then—finally able to explore a home the team scarcely knew—that Kunlun would be exiled from Beijing three more times.
The Faceoff: Oleg Li
Oleg Li began his athletic career on the antithesis of ice—the padded floors of a dojo. Li’s father, a judo champion-turned-coach, trained his son for a time in their hometown of Volgograd. It was not until the age of eight that the Sibir winger found his way to the ice, a relatively late start in a country where many children are born in skates.
The Faceoff: Philip Holm
In life, real estate and hockey, timing is everything. A team that peaks at the right moment can swiftly dethrone a steady contender. Metallurg Magnitogorsk found its stride with about twenty-five games left in the regular season, quickly ascending the Eastern Conference and recently blanking league leaders Ak Bars Kazan. Defenseman Philip Holm has equally timed the perfect entrance, joining Ilya Vorobyov’s defensive core in December as the team prepared to launch.
The Faceoff: Viktor Tikhonov
I have only spoken once with Viktor Tikhonov, Jr., but here is something of which I’m sure: his courage is off the charts. If you know anything about his grandfather’s coaching legacy, then perhaps you will recall footage of the Soviet National Team pooling sweat in the gym of an army barracks, alternating Olympic lifts with calisthenics and sprints for hours on end. Superior athletic conditioning underpinned the ferocious Red Machine, a team that won thirteen-straight Soviet titles, eight World Championships and three Olympic Gold Medals under his watch. So when renowned coach of the USSR Viktor Tikhonov invited his grandson to the gym, perhaps anyone else in their right mind would have passed.
The Faceoff: Mike Pelino
Mike Pelino knows what it takes to lead a powerhouse, whether we consider his two Gagarin Cup championships at Metallurg, or the 100,000 honey bees he has wrangled all summer in the backyard. While the Ontario native was certain that he would not return to Russia at the end of last season—the glimmer of glory, and a reunion with head coach Ilya Vorobyov, caused the KHL mainstay to change his tune. Not literally, of course, as the karaoke clubs in Magnitogorsk will soon discover—both Vorobyov and Pelino are regulars, a tradition begun with “Iron Mike” Keenan seven years ago.
The Faceoff: Semyon Der-Arguchintsev
“It was an honor to get killed by you.”
No, this is not a line from Braveheart that you’ve simply forgotten, nor the last uttered words of a slain samurai. Odysseus did not make this remark, and Napoleon had no such sentiment for General Kutuzov upon his retreat. These are the words Semyon Der-Arguchintsev shared with Pavel Datsyuk after having the wind knocked out of him in the third period of Torpedo’s clash with Avtomobilist.
The Faceoff: Eddie Pasquale
Eddie Pasquale was sidelined for the first month of the season, but you would not know it from his performance. Lokomotiv’s goaltender leads the league in shutouts (4) and goals against average (1.33), trailing only Traktor’s Ivan Fedotov in save percentage (94.4 to Fedotov’s 94.8). Despite COVID-19 roster changes and a recent dry stretch against tough opponents, Lokomotiv sits third in the competitive Western Conference. Andrei Skabelka’s roster is within striking distance of SKA, and has one of the league’s best netminders to anchor their playoff push.
The Faceoff: Steph Klein
Steph Klein has been obsessed with hockey equipment since childhood. Her main motivation for playing in net was the influx of gear she’d get to admire, from color-coordinated pads to custom masks that double as works of art. One object of obsession growing up was Alexei Kovalev’s AK-27 Warrior stick. The irony is that Steph Klein debuted as the KHL’s first female equipment manager on Thursday night, for none other than Alexei Kovalev’s Kunlun Red Star.
The Faceoff: Pontus Aberg
Traktor Chelyabinsk newcomer Pontus Åberg is not used to this much free time. A quintessential “girl dad” who has been separated from his daughter Molly since the summer, the Swedish forward finds himself playing more Fortnite these days as he awaits the arrival of his number one fan. As COVID-19 travel restrictions ease to allow family members across the border, the Åberg duo will soon be reunited.
The Faceoff: Hunter Shinkaruk
Hunter Shinkaruk’s father took a job as the dentist of the Calgary Hitmen, a local junior team, to bring his son closer to the game he loved. Proximity proved a powerful motivator—the Kunlun Red Star forward and Vancouver Canucks draft pick launched a career that has spanned fourteen time zones and over 5,000 miles. Despite a tumultuous start to the season for the Dragons, Shinkaruk has found an individual rhythm, logging five points in ten games despite a fourteen-day quarantine and late arrival.