November 05, 2009
He was a serviceable spare-part defenseman, on the road to becoming a journeyman shuttled between the NHL and the minor leagues. That was until he made the bold career decision last year to sign with Barys Astana of the newly formed Kontinental Hockey League, where he scored 58 points in 53 games, including 28 goals. He was an all-star, a team captain and recipient of the first-ever best defenseman award from the League.
Dallman's stats were treated by some as evidence that the KHL isn't exactly the highest level of competition, and at one point the plan for Dallman was to post killer numbers in the Russian league and then return to North America.
But the KHL experience exceeded his expectations, as did living in Kazakhstan with his wife and two children. Dallman signed a contract extension that he doesn't intend to break.
We spoke with this NHL ex-pat about the still-mysterious Russian league and how a North American handles playing in it; about his decision to leave for the KHL as a free agent; about the perceptions of his peers about the KHL and its bad PR; as well as fast food, puck bunnies, music and why Kazak fans are better than NHL fans.
Q. You're in Kazakhstan. What percentage of "Borat" was accurate?
DALLMAN: You know, where we are in the capital of Astana, it's really nice. Really modern. Building a lot of new apartments, a lot of great hotels. It's really Americanized. All the restaurants have English menus, English food. There are KFCs and in Russia there's a McDonalds and Burger Kings.
On the outskirts, there are still some places that are pretty [undeveloped], but that's like any other city, even in North America.
So to answer your question: It's nothing like the movie.
In "Pulp Fiction," they talked about what a Big Mac was called in France. Does a Big Mac taste the same in a McDonalds in Kazakhstan as it does in America?
(Laughs) There isn't a McDonalds in Kazakhstan but there's a McDonalds in Russia. I had a Big Mac two days ago, and it tastes exactly the same.
Take us back to your decision to leave for the KHL. You were a free agent in the Kings system, right?
I finished off the year in LA, and finished off kind of strong. We shopped around a little bit and there were a few teams interested. San Jose and Chicago wanted two-year deals like I had in LA; the first year a two-way [contract] and the second year one-way.
Then an offer came from Riga in Latvia, and an offer came from [a few Russian teams]. It was a lot of money, and I knew some other guys were coming over to the KHL. It was a chance for me to come over and get away from American hockey and the NHL, where I wasn't playing as much and getting lost in the shuffle. I'd come over, prove myself, be a go-to guy and then come back after one year.
Then I had a great year last year, everything took care of itself, and I'm here from a few more years.
How do you end up being headhunted by the KHL? Were they scouting you?
They obviously did some scouting because they put out a contract, but my agent has a Russian agent and he shopped around for me. They did background, and the rest is history.
What were the most difficult aspects of the transition to playing in Kazakhstan?
The time change is 11 hours, which was hard at first. And not so difficult for me in the hockey world, but for my wife -- the language barrier is tough. Not so much in Kazakhstan, but here in Russia there's no English.
What was it like breaking the news to your family that they'd be moving overseas?
My wife just wanted me to do whatever I wanted. I was here for two and a half months before she came over. I told her it was really nice. She still didn't believe me until she got here.
So having played in the KHL for a bit, what are the major differences in styles with the NHL?
Because the ice surface is so much bigger, you have a lot of time [to make play]. You don't get hit as much. The players over here are really skilled and fast. In the NHL, you get hit a lot. There are a lot of big players, the ice surface is smaller, and there's no time or space.
There are a few North American coaches over here that bring a North American style.
When you started to get a feel for the level of talent over there, were you like 'Oh sure, I could lead the League in scoring as a defenseman here'?
I knew there were skill players here, but I thought it was a more of a defensive league than an offensive league when I was first coming over. But then when I started off really hot, things just kept going. I never thought I was going to lead the league in points or set league records. It just kept going and going.
It would be hard to repeat that season.
One of the interesting things about you is that you're the captain of the team. You've got a few other North American guys on the roster, but what's it like being the captain of a mostly Eastern European team?
It was really weird how it happened. We were maybe 15 games into the season, and they started healthy scratching our captain last year. One day I came in for the game, and I had a 'K' on my jersey. I was like, "What the heck?" The coach came over to me and said "cap-tain," and everyone started clapping. And that was it.
It's definitely difficult because of the language, but I have guys like Maxim Spiridonov who played in Hamilton with the Bulldogs, and he speaks both. It's easy with those guys around.
Oh, definitely. When they see what we do in practice, they try to copy it. They always ask us questions, especially with a guy like Stumpel who played 16 or 17 years in the NHL; he gets a ton of respect, not only from guys on our team but from guys on the other teams.
What was it like playing the KHL All-Star Game outdoors in Red Square?
It was cold. Minus-20 or something.
I had come in early with the team president and owner and coach, and we walked around Red Square when it was all lit up. It was a great site. I came in the next day for the skills competition, and the fans were crazy. I'm sure they were all drunk.
What are the differences between KHL and NHL fans?
Some of the teams in the smaller cities in Russia don't get as many fans, but the top teams in the brand new rinks get tons of fans. And our fans are great; they're so loud. Our rink holds 6,000 people, it's sold out every night and they're just bonkers. I find them a lot louder than when there's 17,000 people in an NHL rink back home.
Now, you're a married dude, so you're exempt from the details on this question, but are there KHL puck bunnies?
There are a lot of KHL puck bunnies. (Laughs.) Lots of girls who wait for us after the game. I wouldn't say in greater numbers than the NHL.
When you talk to guys back in North America about the KHL, what is it they don't get about the League? What are their misconceptions?
Most of them get it. A lot of them have played international hockey. But when I go home, there's a lot of "how's Borat do'in?" (laughs).
Did you get a ton of questions after Alexei Cherepanov died after a KHL game?
No, honestly I didn't. I'm sure a lot of guys on the Omsk team did. But I never got asked anything about that, no.
(Laughs) I liked Aves, he's a good guy. He's got his guys that he picks on, but I wasn't one of them. I hung out with him quite a bit; he's a good guy.
Your favorite and least favorite NHL jerseys?
Your most favorite and least favorite KHL jerseys, sir?
My least favorite would have to be Atlant, because they're bright yellow. My favorite would be Dynamo Moscow. They're kind of like the Leafs jerseys.
What's on your iPod these days?
Your adult beverage of choice, sir?
Water. (Laughs). Vodka water.
It seems like you're a guy whose mind was changed about the KHL after competing there, huh?
I was going to come here for one year and prove I could put up numbers if I got the ice time. But I changed halfway through the year, when I got the captaincy. My agent heard there were a few teams interested if I wanted to come back and break my contract. And I said, "No, I'm having too much fun over here."
I could see it, but I don't know when. We're getting guys now, but it's the older guys. Maybe if they keep coming over, the younger guys will follow suit.