KHL player poll: All-Stars on the next city to get a team, misconceptions about the league and more

ESPN has done player polls in the past — here’s a recent edition, in which we asked players about dreaded road trips, worst dressing rooms and Gritty — but we’ve never done them in Russia.

While covering the 2020 Kontinental Hockey League All-Star Game in Moscow — plenty more content coming soon! — we polled a variety of players on topics such as North America’s misconceptions of their league, to the next big star to cross over from the KHL to NHL, to what the guys have been splurging on lately. But we start it off with the question that produced perhaps the widest variety of responses: Where should the next KHL team be located?

Editor’s note: Interviews with Vyacheslav Gretsky, Kirill Kaprizov, Alexander Semin and Ilya Sorokin were conducted through interpreters. Some answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

If you could put a KHL expansion team anywhere in the world, where would it be?

Vyacheslav Gretsky, Dinamo-Molodechno (Belarusian): I would pick Stockholm, or Bern. Because the national teams are quite strong, and it would be interesting to have teams from those countries in the KHL.

Stephane Da Costa, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl (French): Paris, of course. I don’t think it’s a big hockey country, but there is some hockey. The infrastructure and the money is not there for hockey, and that’s a problem. But if you get an existing league to put a team there, that would be perfect.

Alexander Semin, HC Vityaz (Russian): Krasnoyarsk, my home city. The most important thing is to have a good team; if you have a good team, we will make sure the Siberian fans are there to cheer. I know the players in Krasnoyarsk are really big deals there.

Nigel Dawes, Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg (Canadian): Dubai is nice, just to get away a little bit. Get some sun and heat in the body, relax a little bit before you play the game. It would be like playing in Florida or Arizona when you’re in the NHL. A lot of the cities in this league have direct flights there, so a lot of the guys have been there a few times over the years to celebrate breaks or days off. There have been a couple rumblings that they were thinking about expanding to Dubai, but I don’t know if that’s anywhere close to happening.

Chay Genoway, Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod (Canadian): Dubai. I’m sure some guys have said that. We’ve always joked about having a KHL team in Dubai. We’d get a little more sunshine in the winter time. Something warm would be good, something like California, Florida or Texas teams in the NHL. It’s just nice when you’re up in Canada in the middle of winter to go get some sunshine, Vitamin D is a real thing. So, same thing here.

Ilya Sorokin, CSKA Moscow (Russian): My hometown of Mezhdurechensk.

Kirill Kaprizov, CSKA Moscow (Russian): I’m not one to complain. I’m in Moscow now and I’m very grateful for that. I wouldn’t pick anywhere else.


What’s a common western misconception about the KHL?

Dawes: That we get paid in plastic bags at the rink, or straight cash in the dressing room. I’m not saying that it never happened, but before the KHL came in, I’m sure there were a lot of stories that westerners heard [about European leagues]. And some of them are probably true, but a lot of them are kind of far-fetched and exaggerated. It’s like back home, you get a direct deposit in your bank account; there is nothing too exciting about it. I mean, before I came to the league, I heard stories about how you get paid before practice in cash and you have to run home because they’re going to try to take it back. But those things are long gone. It’s a great league, and it’s pretty smooth.

And not only that, it keeps improving. The KHL is only 12 years old. There’s things we’ve worked out. They’ve done a really good job, even in the nine years I’ve been here, of improving on things every year, whether it’s the All-Star Game, payroll, salaries, travel, hotels, sponsorships or TV deals.

Genoway: There’s always been so many rumors about all kinds of stuff. I think the misconception is how far away everything is to NHL standards. The way we travel, the way we eat and stay in hotels … it’s a pretty amazing bunch of cities all over the league. So I think that’s probably a misconception here. We get treated well here, for sure.

Sorokin: I’m not really sure what westerners say about the KHL, but I grew up here, so everything feels normal.

Da Costa: I’ve heard many things. Like, the KHL is not that good; the AHL is better. I don’t believe that. It’s a really good league, it’s just a different league with different kinds of players. I’ve heard that all the players are boozing every night, which is not true. I’m sure they actually drink more in the NHL. Russians party all the time, they drink all the time? Again, not true. They’re just professional. Maybe a long time ago, but now the younger guys are so professional. And if anything, they’re spending their times playing video games — playing like six, seven hours a day. That’s actually what’s not healthy.

Gretsky: I feel the biggest misconception is that it’s hard to live here in Russia, that it’s a crazy country. But when [new players from abroad] come here, they understand it’s quite a good place to live and play hockey.

Semin: I’m just playing here, and I’m happy to be here. And the conditions are exactly the same.

Kaprizov: What does the West think about the KHL? [ESPN lists a few of the stereotypes, such as players not getting paid, the competition not being as good, players partying too much.] It depends on the club. Obviously there are some richer clubs in Russia, some poorer clubs, while in the NHL it’s more stable, and more leveled out. Regarding the partying, you can have a great time anywhere.


Who is the best player in the world right now?

Da Costa: Connor McDavid, offensively. Sidney Crosby overall.

Gretsky: I believe the two best players in the world are currently playing for the Edmonton Oilers: Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. They’re the two best right now.

Kaprizov: I can’t pin down one person. [Nikita] Kucherov, McDavid, Crosby — a lot of guys. There’s that many talented players, and they are each talented in different ways, with different qualities.

Semin: [Alex] Ovechkin.

Sorokin: I’d say Ovechkin. Statistics say so.

Dawes: To be honest, I don’t watch much NHL because of the time change; I’ll catch highlights that show up on social media, so I’ll see a lot of the highlight-reel goals. I mean, Connor McDavid is a pretty safe answer.

Genoway: It’s hard to argue with Connor McDavid. I still think Sidney Crosby is pretty darn good. I still follow the NHL a lot actually. I have a way of getting TSN back home. There’s a way to get some of the programs; I love my TSN. In the afternoon after practice, I can pick up the feed from the night before.


Which KHL player will be the next big star in North America?

Gretsky: Kirill Kaprizov.

Semin: Kaprizov.

Da Costa: Kaprizov, I would say. Most people probably say that. Who else is there? [Thinks for a bit] No, I’d probably just say Kaprizov right now, he’s a really big star. He’s really good with the puck, he protects the puck well, he has good vision. He’s overall a really great player.

Dawes: Kaprizov. I think everyone sees it. It’s kind of a no-brainer. He’s a great player, he’s done a lot already in his young career. I’m sure he’ll face some challenges going over to North America, but the way he plays the game and the type of guy he is, and his character, I think he’ll have a lot of success in the NHL.

Sorokin: Kaprizov. His hockey intellect is very high. He has a good shot, as well as good vision.

Genoway: Kirill Kaprizov, obviously, I think has a really good chance. Sorokin, if he ever decides to go. There’s a lot of good goalies in this league. Another guy who might fly under the radar a little bit is Denis Zernov from Avangard Omsk. That guy has a chance; he can play at both ends of the rink.

Kaprizov: [laughs] I don’t know, I don’t know. [After learning that the other players named him.] Thank you, we’ll see.


What’s the last thing you’ve splurged on?

Da Costa: I bought a house in Florida. Just a vacation house.

Gretsky: I bought a pair of shoes to wear to the KHL All-Star Game. They’re black dress shoes — I’m wearing them right now.

Sorokin: An iPhone.

Dawes: A wine purchase. I got a good deal on some wine back home. I don’t buy wine here, I buy it at home. Cam Ward and Tim Gleason started up a wine company, Vineyard 36. I bought a bottle to drink here and I drank it with my wife, and I was like, “Oh, this is really good.” I asked them, they had some they were trying to clear out, and it was perfect timing.

Semin: I had a really nice breakfast this morning.

Genoway: I’m a pretty cheap guy, so this is hard. I did get my daughter a teddy bear. And a jersey. Actually, here’s a fun thing for you: A Russian tradition is if you make the All-Star team, you have to buy a hat for all players on your team, along with the staff. Luckily, I had a teammate make the team, too, so we could split the bill. We had to bring back 50 hats. That was a splurge.

Kaprizov: A trip to a good restaurant.


Who is the most talented player you’ve gone up against in your career?

Sorokin: McDavid. I went up against him in the final in the World Junior Championships. His speed, his mental game — the way he sees the game — and his shot were all very impressive. And he’s gotten even better since.

Semin: There’s not one person to me; everyone is equal to me when I come on the ice. But … Ovi.

Dawes: I’m trying to think to when I was back in the NHL, it’s been so long now. I came over here in 2011. I never really had any big battles with anyone because I moved around a lot and played on different teams, but I was playing when Crosby was just starting, Ovechkin was just starting. They were great. Some older players too, I played against [Nicklas] Lidstrom a little bit. [Zdeno] Chara — playing against Boston when I was in New York was not easy being a smaller player.

Da Costa: Against? Crosby, I would say. I’ve never played against McDavid. So Crosby, [Jaromir] Jagr, Ovechkin.

Gretsky: I feel that the CSKA Moscow guys are the most talented players against whom I’ve played, because they have a lot of national team players. So it’s hard to even name one player from that team.

Genoway: In college [at North Dakota] I got to play with Jonathan Toews and T.J. Oshie. Those two guys were pretty special. Since I’ve been in the KHL, the most talented player I’ve seen here is Alexander Radulov when he was here; he was so dominant.


What’s the grossest thing you’ve ever seen on the ice?

Genoway: Gross, or disturbing? If you see a guy, and he gets knocked out or something like that, and if you get close to him and see his eyes go back, those ones to hard to swallow.

Semin: Many things happened. I don’t really want to remember.

Da Costa: In juniors, I was in the NAHL. It was my first year in the U.S., I had no idea what the leagues were. One guy on my team — I wasn’t playing, I was in the stands — he got cut with his skate, it cut two veins here [on his forearm] and the blood comes out really quickly. It went on the glass and everything. There was a pool of blood on the ice. Everything was fine with him, but that was scary. I was honestly shaken for a while; I was scared.

Dawes: In one of the last games we played, someone got hit with a skate on the way down. I didn’t see his actual face, but his visor was just full of blood. Those are always scary to see.

Gretsky: Blood, of course. But let me think … hmm … there was one time when the coach threw the water bottle to the ref on the ice [to clean up]. That was pretty gross.

Kaprizov: I’ve been very lucky. When I’ve been on the ice, I haven’t seen any horrific injuries. Of course I’ve seen some videos, but nothing like a player getting his throat slit by an ice skate. So no, nothing.

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