Q&A: Nigel Dawes on his unique run as a Canadian superstar in the KHL

Nigel Dawes suiting up for Team Kazakhstan during the world championships. (Ivan Sekretarev/AP)

TORONTO — The story of Nigel Dawes’ career is one of hockey’s greatest reversals.

This side of the Atlantic, the game’s no stranger to Russian phenoms authoring history on North American soil. The long line of all-timers who’ve made their way over and found superstardom in the NHL is so well-established it’s mundane at this point. There’s little novelty to Alex Ovechkin cementing himself as perhaps the most potent goal-scorer in the game’s history, or Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk becoming fixtures on some of the most dominant squads we’ve seen in the past few decades.

Dawes represents the rare flip-side of that coin.

After five seasons that saw him suit up for five different NHL clubs, he went east in 2011, inking a deal with the KHL’s Astana Barys. And in the Russian league, the once-promising prospect-turned-journeyman found much more than simply stability. Nearly a decade on, the Winnipeg native ranks as the highest non-Russian scorer in KHL history. His 449 career points are the fifth-most ever amassed in the league, his 242 goals sitting as the second-highest all-time posted by any KHLer.

But the path that led Dawes to overseas stardom was anything but clear or simple to navigate. It wound through the ’04 and ’05 world juniors alongside Sidney Crosby, the first of those two tourneys led in scoring by Dawes. It took a turn through Madison Square Garden during Jaromir Jagr’s tenure in New York, through Phoenix when Wayne Gretzky was still manning the bench, through brief stints in Atlanta and Montreal, and spins with three different AHL clubs.

Sandwiched in between those was a brief run of success in Calgary, during the twilight of the Jarome Iginla era, where it all seemed to line up for him, Dawes putting up a respectable 14 goals and a career-high 32 points through 66 tilts as a Flame.

“That was definitely a fun experience,” he says, reflecting on his Calgary days, “getting to know Jarome and playing with him, and how good Kipper [Miikka Kiprusoff] was.”

It was all the more meaningful given where exactly Dawes was when Iginla and Kiprusoff were marching through the most important couple months of their careers — the Flames’ run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2004. Still with the WHL’s Kootenay Ice at the time, Dawes made the trek down to Calgary to sit in the stands with the Saddledome faithful, watching the Flames take on Tampa Bay for a shot at the silver prize.

“It was one of the first games I’d seen in the NHL in a long time, because I lived in Winnipeg and we had lost the Jets, and I never was really travelling to see any games when I was younger,” Dawes says. “I was seven or eight (when the Jets left), so it probably would’ve been 10 years since I had been to an NHL game live. And just the atmosphere and the energy of the city — watching the game, I was absolutely blown away.”

Five years later, he was back in the same rink sharing a locker room with Iginla and Co.

“I was just so happy to be able to come and play in a Canadian city, to be part of the Flames. That city, it just brought back memories for me right away, to watching them in the Cup Final,” he says. “…Not having success that season as a team, missing the playoffs, it definitely hurt. I wish it would’ve gone differently there.”

Fifteen NHL games and one AHL campaign later, Dawes moved on from the North American scene. The veteran winger caught up with Sportsnet to discuss his successful move east, the difference between KHL and NHL hockey, and what it’s like to be a Canadian phenom in Russia.

Note: This article has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Sportsnet: Looking back to 2011 when you first moved on from the NHL and signed with the KHL, tell us about what went into the decision and how you were feeling about your career at the time.

Nigel Dawes: At the time I’d spent most of the year up and down in between the NHL and AHL, and got traded, was up and down again. I played on four different teams in one year, and I was just kind of looking for a little bit of a change and some stability, where you weren’t worried about bouncing up and down all year or the stuff that comes with that.

I was lucky to get a pretty good offer to go overseas, and knew a couple players on that team already. I was also playing with Dustin Boyd at the time — we’re both from Winnipeg and have known each other for a while. We got offers from the same team and were both playing in Hamilton at the time, so we decided to jump over there together and see what it had to offer.

SN: What do you remember about your first couple days over there — the first time you put on the jersey, saw the arena, met your teammates. What were you expecting going into that first week?

Dawes: I wasn’t really sure what to expect. You talk to a lot of guys who’ve played over there before, you try to gather as much information as you can going in, but the biggest advice I’d gotten that helped me was to just come in open-minded. It took a little while to get used to. It was definitely not only a culture shock, but just the way they were training and getting ready for the season was different as well.

Probably the first full year, maybe even longer, there were always little things testing your patience and what you’ve been taught your whole life — obviously it’s a different country and a different culture, and they have a different mentality on how they train and play. So, it took a little bit of getting used to, but as we got more and more comfortable there, it was easier to adjust and get ready for their kind of hockey.

SN: What stood out most to you that was different from what you’d done over here? How did the style of play over there differ from the AHL or NHL?

Dawes: The main thing at first was the training camps — my first year here I had five workouts. There were two ice-times a day and three workouts, so it was definitely something that I wasn’t used to, not only physically but mentally as well. It’s a huge grind, and when you’re not used to that whatsoever the mental aspect of it comes into play pretty big. You’re battling your body physically, and how tired you are, but also trying to just grind through it and survive. It was for sure full-on survival mode for the first three weeks. But once you start playing games and the season’s starting, once you’re out there, it’s hockey. For the first few months, that’s definitely where I felt the most comfortable.

The hockey was good — it was very skilled. Getting used to playing on the bigger ice took a little bit of time. I thought I would have more space and more time, that I’d be open more to get opportunities to score, but it was actually the opposite. You see all this open ice on the outside and you’re just skating and skating, like, ‘Why isn’t this defenceman playing me?’ And then before you know it, you’ve pretty much skated yourself into the corner, and not anywhere closer to the net than when you started. So, it definitely took some getting used to. It’s not necessarily saving your energy but because the ice is so much bigger, you can’t really run and chase as much — sometimes really less is more. You have to sit back and be more patient and pick your spots. It took at least half a year, or three quarters of the year, to really get the hang of it.

SN: In your third year you took the next step and broke into the top tier of scorers in the league — what was it that allowed you to make that jump and start taking over offensively?

Dawes: I think my first year was an adjustment year, just trying to get used to the hockey and the league. The second year, we played well but there were older guys playing there who were imports and Russians so power-play ice-time wasn’t really allotted to us — it was kind of a grind to find ways to be able to score five-on-five so that you were still getting noticed and playing your role.

I think that playoffs things kind of started to click — we lost in the first round in seven games, but I had a really good playoffs. I had four goals in one game and I had seven over the whole series, so I think going into the next year, I kind of carried over that momentum I built for myself in the playoffs and had a little bit more confidence.

That was probably the first full year that I was playing with Dustin and Brandon Bochenski, and when we got together full-time, we just clicked really well. Three imports playing together, three North Americans playing together, we all kind of complemented each other. I think that’s where it all started.

SN: From that season on, you’ve been one of the most dominant goal-scorers in the KHL. I imagine the attention must’ve changed and the experience must’ve changed because of that — what was that transition like for you?

Dawes: Yeah, it was probably after the fourth year I was there. We were really trying to build the game of hockey in Kazakhstan and we started to notice that hockey was really taking off. We had made a little noise in the playoffs, we were an up-and-coming team. We were playing pretty well and there was a lot of fans following, getting involved in the game, coming out to games. We just got a new arena, and there was a lot of hype — it was fun to be a part of, and to help the younger kids get involved in hockey and just enjoy it. There was always hockey in Kazakhstan, but the younger programs in schools for kids growing up wasn’t always there.

So to help get that off the ground, and to help the national-team program and all the hockey schools for kids growing up — it was really cool to see kids coming up to me and being like, “You’re the reason I started playing hockey, because I saw you guys playing on TV,” or “I saw you scoring goals and winning hockey games.” It was definitely a cool feeling.

SN: A couple years ago you got eligibility to play for the Kazakhstan national team — how did that come about, and what has the experience been like representing them internationally?

Dawes: A lot of the imports were around the same age and played a little bit internationally before, but we weren’t going to be playing for Team Canada or Team USA any time soon. We had the opportunity to get our passports after four years and play on the Kazakh national team, which gave us an opportunity to play at the world championships and to try and qualify for the Olympics.

It’s definitely a different experience. I played world juniors with Canada, and going from being a favourite to kind of an underdog, just trying to stay in the main level of the tournament and not get relegated, the mentality is a little bit different. But it was still a great experience, a lot of fun to be able to play — the Kazakh fans were great, even when we’re on the road in different tournaments, there’s a lot of fans travelling and supporting the team. They have a lot of pride in their country and their hockey.

SN: Looking at everything you’ve done over there, the historic numbers you’ve put up, what does it mean to you to have established that kind of legacy in the KHL?

Dawes: I guess it’s cool, I haven’t really sat back and thought too much about it. The guys I’ve been playing against and the Russian players that are all up among those names are amazing players, and it’s been fun to play against them, to see how dominant they are in Russian hockey over here, to compete with them. I definitely never dreamt of coming over here and having this type of success. I was coming over to play for maybe a year or two over here and kind of see what happened — now it’s turned into almost a decade.

So, it’s been a lot of fun climbing the ranks. I’ve been fortunate enough to play on some good teams and with some really good players. These are by no means individual stats because you need to have success with the guys you’re playing with and the teams you’re on to be at that level. Hopefully I can get some playoff success and win a championship here before I’m done. Catching the other guys in points here is going to be pretty tough because they’re quite far ahead — I might be able to get to fourth before I’m done, but the goals won’t be getting touched with (Sergei) Mozyakin about 150 goals ahead of me.

SN: It’s pretty routine to have Russian superstars over here playing for Canadian or American teams, but the reverse seems more rare — what has that experience been like, being celebrated over there as a Canadian superstar in the KHL?

Dawes: It’s actually been pretty cool — the first couple years, you’re new to the league and no one really knows you, knows what you’re about or how you play. You might have a good year here and a good year there, but there’s not a lot of players coming over and really consistently being in the top scorers. Around my fourth or fifth year, I definitely got a lot more respect from the Russian players, whether it being at all-star games or playing against them.

The league’s treated me very well — they definitely welcome the import players as well. It’s not just a Russian-focused league, they really like having different internationals here, and having teams in seven different countries. It’s a very unique league. You get to see a lot of the world.

SN: You switched teams a couple years ago, and you’re playing with Pavel Datsyuk now, which must be a unique experience as well. How has the transition gone?

Dawes: I was fortunate enough to spend seven years in one city, which was exactly what I was looking for when I came over to play in the KHL, so I was really happy to not have to move every year. It was good for my family. But sometimes you just need a change. It’s been good so far — we had a good run last year, fell a little bit short in the playoffs but we’ve made progress as an organization.

Playing with Datsyuk’s been a really, really great experience — he’s such a smart player. The skill level he shows in practice, in games, sometimes you’ve kind of just got to remember there’s other things going on out there because you just get so focused on watching him. (laughs)

SN: What do you think is the biggest misconception people over here have about the KHL or hockey in Russia in general?

Dawes: They’re just as passionate as North American hockey fans — hockey is such a big part of their culture as well. Whether it’s small clubs or top-end teams, their fans are traveling all over the place to watch their teams play, and they really, really embrace it. So it’s a lot of fun to play here — the numbers for the fans aren’t high, but the passion level is still just as big as playing back in North America. It’s a really good league. It’s very skilled, it’s good hockey.

SN: You’ve been there for almost a decade now. In terms of life experience off the ice, aside from hockey, what have the past nine years been like for you and your family?

Dawes: It’s always something different. You’re not really living the same day all the time. Now we have a little bit more structure — our son’s almost four now, so he’s in school and we have a little bit more of a schedule with him. My ear for English now is pretty good. I could probably hear it a few blocks away — you hear other people speaking English in a foreign country, and you’re not afraid to go up and just say, ‘Hi! What brings you here?’ and everyone has such a unique story.

There was a big expat community when we were in Astana, with oil and gas and international schools and the university and embassies and diplomats. You meet a lot of cool people who have been stationed in different parts of the world. And it’s something that I don’t think I would’ve had living in North America.

SN: You had a pretty long career in the professional ranks over here too, more than 200 games in the NHL — when you look back now after accomplishing all you have in the KHL, how do you feel about how things went for you in North America?

Dawes: I think the biggest thing was that when I left, I wasn’t coming over here trying to get back to the NHL. I hadn’t ruled it out, but I kind of told myself, ‘If you never play a game in the NHL again, that’s okay.’ I was never supposed to make it as a smaller player at that time in the game, with how the game was being played in that era. I was able to make it, but I think (the timing) hurt me as well — if I was a few years younger, the game started to change and now there’s more offensive players and opportunities, where you now have three scoring lines on each team instead of only two.

But looking back on it, I don’t have any regrets. I got to live out a childhood dream of playing in the NHL — of course, I would’ve loved for it to be a longer career in the NHL but, you know, hockey has given me other opportunities as well. Being able to see the world and play in different places.

SN: When you do think back to those NHL and AHL days, what are some of the greatest memories that stand out to you?

Dawes: I’ll never forget my first game, playing in Madison Square Garden. I found out maybe two days before that I had made the team out of camp, and it was just enough time to get my parents on a flight so they were able to be in New York for my first NHL game, which was pretty special. For a lot of guys, if you get called up last minute or the day before, there just isn’t that time to get friends or family to the game, so I was fortunate I was able to have them in the stands to take that all in and experience that with me.

I was able to play with Jaromir Jagr and Brendan Shanahan. It’s cool to be able to say I lived my dream, and was able to make it and play with some of those guys. But on the other side, I wish I lived that dream longer and I could’ve played a little bit more consistently, and done more of what I think I’m capable of, what I’ve been doing over here and in every other league that I’ve played in.

Nigel Dawes celebrates with Rangers teammates Brandon Dubinsky, Martin Straka and Jaromir Jagr in 2007. (H. Rumph, Jr./AP)

SN: There’s been an important shift in the game here over the past few months in terms of opening the door for inclusion and diversity. Akim Aliu was on Hockey Night in Canada recently to share his story and his journey to help ensure that door opens wider for players of colour, too. Have you been watching what’s been happening in the game from over there? What are your thoughts on the change that’s taking place?

Dawes: I don’t see all the live stuff because of the time change, but I definitely see headlines and I’ll read stories and watch clips. I played with Akim in my last year in North America before I came over to Russia, and what he’s been doing is great. I’m sure it’s not easy for anyone to take that first step, or to start talking, but the domino effect it’s had in the game has been great. And I think that it’s going to keep opening more and more conversations and (inspiring) more inclusion.

I was working with Willie O’Ree a little bit when I was in New York, and I was working with Jarome Iginla in Calgary with some charities for underprivileged kids to try and get them into the game. You know, we don’t want doors slammed in our face, or to be treated any differently than anyone else. So, I think it’s great. And I think it’s such a great game that the more people we can have involved in it, no matter your background or where you come from, it doesn’t hurt anyone.

SN: Part of the importance of this moment has been different players of colour sharing their stories, educating people on what the experience can be like at times. Looking back at your time in the game, what was your experience in terms of this conversation — do you feel like you were treated fairly throughout your career?

Dawes: Not really, no. It sucks to say, but I feel like everybody’s kind of faced some sort of racism at some point in their career. It wasn’t anything in the professional ranks, but when I was playing minor hockey it happened a few times. … But hopefully kids don’t have to experience anything like that anymore as we get more and more awareness throughout the game.

SN: You’ve had such a unique career in the sport and I’m sure for many young players an inspirational one, as a person of colour who put together an historic run, and also as someone who chose a different path from the NHL and found success. With that in mind, what would your message be for young players going through a difficult time as they come up in the game?

Dawes: It’s such a big game, and I think as North Americans we don’t really know about European hockey as much. Obviously everyone knows the NHL, but there’s all these European leagues that are striving to get players, and players there playing to try to get to the NHL. There’s a lot of European leagues that still have good hockey — you’re able to make a good living and travel and see the world.

Obviously, if it was a perfect world, everyone would get to follow their dream and play in the NHL, and be a superstar there. But the reality is it’s not going to happen for very many of us. So hockey can take you a lot of places, and you’ll still be able to enjoy the game and play the game you love. I’ve been able to experience that first-hand.

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