Nigel Dawes is having the sort of season in Russia that would have landed him a spot on the 2018 Canadian men’s Olympic team roster.
In his seventh season with Astana Barys of the Kontinental Hockey League, the 32-year-old from Winnipeg has checked in with an eye-catching 18 goals in his first 18 games.
But there is one big problem: Dawes became a Kazakhstan citizen two years ago in order to play for its national team and therefore he can no longer perform for Canada.
Dawes made the decision because Astana felt like home and he figured his days playing for Canada were behind him. The left wing, like many others, didn’t foresee NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s disappointing decision to halt the league’s participation for the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics in February.
There are no hard feelings between Dawes and Hockey Canada. But what makes his ineligibility even more difficult to deal with is the fact that his new Barys Astana linemates — Linden Vey of Wakaw, Sask., and Matt Frattin of Edmonton — also have become strong candidates to make the Canadian Olympic team.
The on-ice familiarity the three have with each other would have been a big advantage for Canada.
- Nigel Dawes scores a shootout winner for Kazakhstan at 2016 world championship:
Dawes had plenty of good times in Canada and playing for Canada as a teenager. He won a WHL championship and Memorial Cup in his rookie season with the 2001-02 Kootenay Ice, was drafted in 2003 in the fifth round by the New York Rangers and concluded his junior career with seasons of 47 goals, 47 again and 50 goals.
He also led Canada with six goals in six games when he settled for a silver medal in the 2004 world junior tournament and followed that up with world junior gold the following year.
Dawes decided to depart his up-and-down, back-and-forth world between the NHL and AHL after the 2010-11 season. That year saw him play nine games with the Atlanta Thrashers, four with the Montreal Canadiens and a combined 86 regular season and playoff outings in the AHL with the Chicago Wolves and Hamilton Bulldogs.
He finished the season with 14 goals in 19 games for the Bulldogs, but Dawes was looking for more stability and an increased role.
That search brought him to Kazakhstan. What turned out to be a year-or-two-long experiment has turned into goal-scoring totals that swelled from 16 in his first season to 20, 26, 32, 31 and 36 last year.
Dawes’ most recent goal was his 200th in 387 KHL regular-season and playoff games.
Even though Dawes, the Barys Astana captain, has proven to be a consistent goal scorer in his first six seasons in the KHL, his fast start has been a bit of a surprise because of the departure of his longtime Barys Astana linemates, Dustin Boyd and Brandon Bochenski.
The 35-year-old Bochenski, of Blaine, Minn. decided to retire after last season. Boyd accepted an offer to play for Moscow Dynamo.
But in have come Vey and Frattin, who played together for the AHL Stockton Heat last season, and Dawes has enjoyed a rocket start.
Boyd, also from Winnipeg, and Dawes decided to give the KHL a try together. They were teammates with the 2009-10 Calgary Flames and with the Canadiens and Bulldogs the following season.
Then Dawes, Boyd and Bochenski, along with defenceman Kevin Dallman of Niagara Falls, Ont., decided to play for Kazakhstan at the 2016 world championship. The 36-year-old Dallman also would have been a strong candidate for the Canadian Olympic team.
Dawes and Kazakhstan, ranked 17th in the world, failed to qualify for the Olympics last fall.