From Antigonish to Kazakhstan — the nomadic hockey life of Alex Grant

Antigonish's Alex Grant recently scored four goals in a game for his KHL team, which is based in Kazakhstan. (Barys Astana - image credit)
Antigonish's Alex Grant recently scored four goals in a game for his KHL team, which is based in Kazakhstan. (Barys Astana - image credit)

8,359 kilometres.

That's the distance from Alex Grant's hometown of Antigonish, N.S., to Astana, Kazakhstan.

That's where Grant is playing hockey this winter, his 15th year as a pro player.

He plays for Barys Astana in the Kontinental Hockey League. This is his fifth season playing in the league which has 19 teams in Russia and one each in Kazakhstan, China and Belarus.

"When you hear Kazakhstan you might not think of it as a hockey area but the team here has a great following," said Grant, who just turned 34. "Since I've been here the support has been nothing short of amazing."

Grant started this season playing in St. Petersburg, Russia but was traded to his new team in Kazakhstan's capital, which has a population of 1.1 million people.

Saint John Sea Dogs
Saint John Sea Dogs

Before this season, he played four years with Jokerit in Helsinki. That team withdrew from the league last April.

Feels safe

Despite war between Russia and Ukraine, Grant said he feels safe. There are three other Canadians on the team.

Grant, his wife and two young kids arrived in Kazakhstan at the end of November.

The children have now settled into a British international school. Grant says there are lots of expats living in the area.

Playing in Finland, Russia and now Kazakhstan is just part of a nomadic hockey career the Antigonish native has taken.

After playing four seasons in Saint John and Shawinigan in the QMJHL, he had hopes of cracking the lineup of the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins drafted him in the fourth round in 2007.

Getty images
Getty images

But Grant never played a game for the Penguins. He spent 10 seasons in the American Hockey League playing for teams in Wilkes-Barre, Norfolk, Binghamton, Springfield, Providence and Des Moines.

"The AHL was a grind with a lot of games where you would play on back-to-back nights and the travel was always by bus," said Grant. "But it was always a lot of fun, too, with great teams and good guys."

Two NHL stints

Grant did get called up to the NHL twice.

He played two games with Anaheim and another five games with Arizona two years later. His stints in the league were brief, but the defenceman will always remember scoring on his first two NHL shots.

"After that happened I thought I might be there for a few more games but I was gone the next day, and that's the nature of the business."

Grant said he can't imagine how many hours he spent on buses travelling from city to city during his AHL days.

The decision to play in Finland with a team playing in Russia's top league wasn't an easy one, especially because Grant and his wife — his high school sweetheart — had a very young child at the time.

The couple's second child was born in Finland.

Oldest player on the team

Grant is the oldest player on his team. In a game earlier this month, he set a KHL record for goals in a game by a defenceman with four.

Barys Astana
Barys Astana

"A lot of times you don't get the bounces and the puck doesn't go in, but I just kept shooting and the pucks were going in that night," Grant said with a laugh.

Grant said he has no regrets about his decisions. Playing internationally allowed him to play for Canada in two Spengler Cup hockey tournaments in Switzerland, including the 2020 championship team.

He also became a Canadian Olympian at the 2022 Winter Olympics in China when Canada sent a team of minor pro players because NHL players were not available for the tournament.