FROM RUSSIA (AND NOW BELARUS) WITH LOVE
Former Flames prospect Kevin Lalande talks about his journey to the KHL and now tending net for Belarus at the world championshipby AARON VICKERS @aavickers / calgaryflames.com
PARIS - It's not the road Kevin Lalande envisioned his hockey career taking growing up.
You won't hear him complain, however.
The one-time Flames prospect has few regrets about carving a professional path through Russia's Kontinental Hockey League and into Belarus.
"If you had told me when I was younger when I would've left for Russia for this long of a period of time I would've told you were crazy," Lalande, currently tending twine for the Belarussian entry at the 2017 IIHF World Championship, told CalgaryFlames.com.
"Until the day I retire or even afterwards, I'll always think 'what if'.
"What if I stayed longer?
"What if I stayed a little more patient?
"What if I'd done this? What if I'd done that?
"I think that might always bother me a little bit.
"On the flipside, when it's all said and done I'll look back on what I did and what I experienced and what I saw…I keep coming back to what one of my old friends told me a long time ago. He said, 'You're going to be a person a lot longer than you'll be a hockey player.' You need to nurture that and find yourself.
"Living abroad with different cultures, different languages, different foods, you just can't help but grow as an individual. I've taken that experience and I've been fortunate to make a living out of something I love to do.
"I wouldn't trade it for anything."
Lalande, selected in the fifth round (No. 128) of the 2005 NHL Draft by the Flames, found some traction in pro hockey in North America following a three-year junior career with the Belleville Bulls of the Ontario Hockey League.
Splitting time between the Las Vegas Wranglers of the East Coast Hockey League and Quad City Flames of the American Hockey League, it appeared as though the Kingston, Ont., native was trending towards a fruitful career closer to home.
But he admittedly stumbled through his first few seasons as a pro.
"It was a bit of a rough go," said Lalande, who was acquired by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2009.
"On the ice, I felt things were going well. I was developing. But there were some off-ice stuff with maybe being a little homesick and I lost my dad when I was 21…just a lot of things combined.
"I don't know if I was ready.
"As a kid you dream of playing in the NHL. I was so close. Maybe that pressure kind of got to me.
"I tried to deflect it in ways that were probably not the way to go."
Columbus didn't qualify Lalande coming out of his entry-level contract.
It left a goaltender, in his early 20's, without a job.
"You just have to roll with the punches," he said. "At that point I had some talks with other teams, but not what I was looking for or not what I felt was up to my potential.
"When you're 23 and you get an offer from Russia and you see the zeros at the end of the contract…I didn't do it just for the money but at the same time if I wait around and don't take that offer and I'm still home in November…then I missed my opportunity.
"These teams in the KHL don't come calling two, three, four times.
"I knew it was a good opportunity."
He seized it.
Lalande signed with Vityaz Chekhov for the 2010-11 season and played 45 games in the KHL, amassing a 2.96 goals-against average and .903 save percentage.
He parlayed the performance into a contract with Dynamo Minsk, where he's spent five of the past six seasons.
"Belarus kind of adopted me," said Lalande, who owns citizenship and has represented the country at four consecutive world championships. "I enjoy Minsk. It's a great city. It's safe. It's clean. My family loves it when they come. It's just been a nice experience. I've been comfortable. I didn't expect to be there that long but you roll with the punches.
"I have no regrets of how my career's played out."
He still dreams of NHL ice, though.
As much of a longshot he understands it to be at this stage of the game.
And as winding a road it would be to finally make his way back to hockey in North America.
"Of course there's always that thought in the back of your mind," said Lalande, who is under contract with Minsk for 2017-18 and will be 31 when the deal expires. "I always figured growing up that I'd retire in the NHL, and especially close to home.
"But you just have to take it one day at a time.
"And there's been a lot of injuries that have slowed me down over the last couple of years. Things haven't gone exactly the way I've wanted them to. To get a chance to come back to North America you really need to dominate wherever you are. Injuries have held me back from that.
"There's so many good goalies that come to North America, young and old, and teams are very keen on developing their prospects.
"I won't say no because it's always been a childhood dream, but I think I'm kind of past that stage now and I've accepted where I'm at in my career and I'm starting a family now. Your priorities shift a little bit.
"But we'll take it one year at a time.
"We'll see what happens."