When Kevin Dallman left California in 2008 for an adventure in Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital, he didn’t think that he would stay for long. But the Ontarian captains the country’s KHL team Barys Astana for the third straight year.
“I just came in to the locker room one day and the coach put the K on my jersey,” Dallman told IIHF.com after an exhibition game in Basel, Switzerland, in late August.
“I just wanted to come over to the KHL for a year to get away from North America and eventually go back, but I had a good year, and last year I had another great season.. It’s a good team, a well organized club, with a solid management. The city is great and my family likes it. So I prolonged the deal and now I have two more years on my contract. I had a few other offers, but it’s a lot of fun to play hockey here.”
Kevin Dallman, whose uncle Marty represented Austria in the 1994 Olympics, is what you can call an offensive-minded defenceman. He had impressive stats in junior hockey before he turned pro in 2002. In 2005, after the lockout, he spent three years in the NHL with Boston, St. Louis and Los Angeles, but he had limited ice time and became an NHL-AHL journeyman in the end.
Astana isn’t the most traditional of hockey places. The city carried several old names until it was named the country’s capital in 1997 and renamed to Astana, which means “capital” in the Kazakh language.
Since then, the city’s population and area has multiplied, and modern, astonishing buildings were built like the recently opened Khan Shantyr, a tent-shaped entertainment complex with the size of ten football stadiums and an artificial beach. A new landmark Dallman quickly noticed when coming back for the new season.
“We’re living in the new part of the city, which is really modern. It’s just 12 years old. They did a really good job and they opened several new places that weren’t open in my first year,” Dallman said about the city. “It makes it easier for our families to do stuff in Astana.”
The city also boasts several sports teams including the Barys Astana hockey team. It was founded in 1999 and its 5,332-seat Ice Palace, which will also be used for the upcoming Asian Winter Games, opened two years later.
Traditionally, Barys has played a marginal role in Kazakh hockey, being in the shadow of Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk, a club from the Soviet era close to the border with Russia, China and Mongolia. But that changed in 2008, when the Russian Superliga was replaced by the Kontinental Hockey League that opened its borders to foreign teams.
Barys immediately jumped on the KHL train. Literally.
While every KHL club is heavily supported by either local industry, local governments, oligarchs or close-state companies, Barys Astana, lists the national railway company as their “general sponsor”.
The sponsor’s president is Askar Mamin, a former Minister of Transport and Communication and former Mayor of Astana, who also became President of the Kazakh Ice Hockey Federation in 2008.
The club immediately signed several Kazakh top players. Sixteen players from the 2010 World Championship squad played for the club. Most of them hail from more traditional hockey towns in Kazakhstan like Ust-Kamenogorsk or Karaganda, but the club also has the first Astana-born player on its roster with 1991-born Nursultan Belgibayev, who played in the World U20 Championship Division I last winter.
The team is coached by Andrei Khomutov, the long-time line-mate of Russia’s national coach Vyacheslav Bykov on the Soviet and Russian national teams.
The six-foreigner contingent is made up of three Czechs (Lukas Kaspar, Tomas Kloucek, Jiri Novotny), two Canadians (Dallman and netminder Jeff Glass) and an American, Brandon Bochenski, who transferred from Tampa Bay this summer.
“All imports and their families are in the same apartment complex, so the families have fun and it makes it a lot easier for us. They can do something together. There are lots of malls around. The club also has translators,” Dallman said. “It was definitely different first with the language, the city, but the management made a really good job so that we could adapt.”
Dallman adapted well – not only off the ice. In his first year he set a new scoring record for defencemen with 58 points in 53 games, surpassing Vyacheslav Fetisov’s 49 points (in 44 games) the legendary player collected with CSKA Moscow in the 1983-1984 season.
“The big ice rinks help me a lot to play more offensively, also because the guys have a lot of skills and they’re fast over here,” Dallman said about the Russian style. “It’s a different game, but it’s a lot of fun and that’s why I stayed here.”
The normally so grueling travel schedule in the KHL hasn’t been that bad for Dallman. “It’s well organized. We have our charter plane and usually have three or four games at home and then three or four on the road,” the defenceman explained. “Our favourite city on the road is probably Moscow. There’s so much to do and so much of history there. We stay right downtown next to the Red Square. That makes it a lot of fun.”
The only area where there’s still some potential for adaption is the Kazakh cuisine.
“In my first year I got horse meat. I ate it four or five times and I thought it was normal beef until they finally told me it was horse. That’s their specialty. I haven’t eaten it since,” he said.
While the Barys captain is preparing for the new season that opens with a home game against Severstal Cherepovets on September 11, the Dallmans even found a U.S. school for their daughter.
“She even learns Russian there. She’s lots better than I am. I understand more than I can speak,” he said.
Maybe to that extent that he won’t need the club’s translators anymore.