Young Canadian hockey players aren't on their driveway pretending to score the game-winning goal for the Gagarin Cup — the trophy presented to the winner of the Kontinental Hockey League. The Stanley Cup is, and always will be, the trophy of choice around these parts.

But take a look at Nigel Dawes and you'll quickly learn that North Americans don't need the NHL to have a fulfilling career in the sport.

Dawes, a 35-year-old from Winnipeg, is in his 10th season in the KHL and is the league's all-time points leader for non-Russian players. He was drafted in the fifth round, 149th overall, in the 2003 NHL draft by the New York Rangers and played 212 games in the league between the Rangers, Phoenix Coyotes, Calgary Flames, Atlanta Thrashers and Montreal Canadiens.

Throw in three different AHL teams during his time playing in North America and it's safe to say Dawes collected quite a few jerseys.

Winnipegger Nigel Dawes signed in the off-season with Ak Bars Kazan, one of the top clubs in the Russian league. (Ak Bars Kazan photo)

Winnipegger Nigel Dawes signed in the off-season with Ak Bars Kazan, one of the top clubs in the Russian league. (Ak Bars Kazan photo)

But the winger, who had 39 goals and 49 assists in the NHL, grew tired of the lack of stability and decided to take his talents overseas to Astana Barys in Kazakhstan in 2011. He played there for seven seasons before playing two more for Yekaterinburg Automobilist.

This past off-season, Dawes inked a deal with one of the top clubs in the league — Ak Bars Kazan.

"They've given me not a second opportunity, but another opportunity to play at the highest level and make a career out of it and earn a great living," Dawes said recently in a phone interview.

"To be able to travel around Russia and some other countries, I've been to Beijing and Shanghai to play games, we had a team in Prague, been to Croatia, travelling around to play different teams and see this side of the world is something I never dreamt of. I've been very fortunate to see a lot of places over here, whether it's been after the season or just playing games on the road. It's still kind of living out a dream being able to play hockey for a living."

It goes without saying, but this KHL season has been like none other. Dawes' wife, Cassandra, is holding down the fort in Winnipeg and taking care of their four-year-old son Benson as they await the green light to travel to Russia.

Dawes has five goals and two assists while helping the team to a 9-4 record to start the season. (Ak Bars Kazan photo)

Dawes has five goals and two assists while helping the team to a 9-4 record to start the season. (Ak Bars Kazan photo)

As for the league itself, fans are allowed at games somewhere between 20 to 50 per cent capacity depending on the city and the size of the rink.

Players are also being tested every three days. While Dawes said Ak Bars Kazan hasn't had a positive case since an outbreak during training camp, the same can't be said for the other teams around the league. His former club, Barys Astana, had 12 positive cases and almost half of SKA St. Petersburg contracted the virus, which forced them to call up players from their junior team.

Dawes, who helped Canada to world junior silver (2004) and gold medals (2005), said you can't completely eliminate the risk and everyone is doing the best they can to make the league safe.

"It's going to happen. I mean, there's no way for us to lock it all down. It's impossible. We're not in a bubble. We're not able to do that," said Dawes, who has five goals and two assists while helping the team to a 9-4 record to start the season.

"You take all the precautions and stuff that is necessary. You're wearing your mask, you're washing your hands, you're doing things by yourself, but you can't control other people. You can't control what's going on in other cities. If you go through an airport or you go through a hotel, there's a lot of things out of your control. All you can do is the most that you can.

Nigel Dawes (left) with Mikael Backlund in 2010 when Dawes was a member of the Calgary Flames. (Colleen De Neve / Calgary Herald files)

Nigel Dawes (left) with Mikael Backlund in 2010 when Dawes was a member of the Calgary Flames. (Colleen De Neve / Calgary Herald files)

"With a team, if one person gets sick, there's a good chance other people are going to get sick because there's such a close contact. When our team had our cases, they were able to keep it to a few guys. I mean, a lot of guys got it, but it wasn't a big outbreak all at once."

His family may be on another continent, but Dawes does have some Winnipeg connections on his new team. Former Winnipeg Jet Alexander Burmistrov and longtime Manitoba Moose captain Patrice Cormier are on the squad and have helped Dawes fit in quickly.

"I actually played with both of them when I was in Atlanta my last year before I came over for my first year in Russia. I've known both of them for a bit before," Dawes said. "Corms played in Kazakhstan for his first year, so I talked to him before he went over and then Burmi has been back for a couple years, so I've been playing against him and crossing paths here and there. To play with them is nice, as they've been very welcoming and definitely made the adjustment easier."

In the last nine seasons, Dawes has only made it to the second round of the playoffs twice. This year might be his best chance yet at hoisting the Gagarin Cup as Ak Bars Kazan had the best record in their conference last season before the playoffs got shut down owing to the pandemic.

But with or without a championship ring, Dawes has proven a hockey career doesn't have to be over after leaving the NHL. In fact, it might mean it's just getting started.

Dawes (scoring) played for Kazakhstan in the 2016 World Championships. (Ivan Sekretarev / The Associated Press files)

Dawes (scoring) played for Kazakhstan in the 2016 World Championships. (Ivan Sekretarev / The Associated Press files)

"There's so many leagues in the world. Even growing up, I was never really sure if I was going to make the NHL or not but I knew I wanted to play hockey as long as I could and try and make a living out of it. If it wasn't Russia, it could've been Switzerland or Germany, I was really willing to go anywhere... Anyone that's thinking about it or at that crossroad in their career, I would tell everybody 'Yes' one hundred times. There's nothing I would change with the decision to come over here and how long I've stayed," he said.

taylor.allen@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @TaylorAllen31

Taylor Allen

Taylor Allen
Reporter

Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.

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