Friday, 24 September 2010

KHL Olympic Hero

This image to the left probably won't be a memorable moment from the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, but the man making the stop has himself a place in hockey lore. Andrei Mezin, the Belarussian goaltender, is best known for his 2002 Olympic performance against Sweden in the quarterfinals, but he has carved out a pretty good career over in Russia playing in the Russian Super League and the KHL. Today, I want to take a look at the highlights of Mr. Mezin's career after he was named as one of the KHL's Players of the Week for the last week.

Born in Chelyabinsk on July 8, 1974, Andrei Mezin bounced around North America from 1993 until 1998, playing in the ECHL, the Colonial Hockey League, the IHL, and the UHL in those six seasons.

In 1995-96, he starred with the Flint Generals of the Colonial Hockey League where he played 40 games with the team. He finished with a stellar 27-9-2 record despite having a 3.49 GAA and a .883 save percentage. He helped the team finish first in the East Division, and the Generals tore through the playoffs to win the Colonial Cup!

The following season saw Mezin star with the team again as he led them to first in the East Division again, this time with a 19-4-1 record, a 2.46 GAA, and a .902 save percentage. The Generals ploughed through the playoffs once more, but ran into an upstart Quad City Mallards team that had finished second overall in the CoHL. The Mallards downed the Generals in six games, but Mezin shone all season long.

The Generals finished second overall in the inaugural season of the UHL in 1997-98 on the strength of Mezin's 21-5-0 record. He regressed in his stats, posting a 3.47 GAA and a .885 save percentage, but the Generals marches their way to the UHL Final to face the Quad City Mallards once again. This series was much closer than the previous year as the series went back and forth. Quad City won all of the odd-numbered games, while Flint took all the even-numbered games. In Game Seven, it took overtime, but the Mallards finally prevailed by a 3-2 score. Bryan McMullen logged the majority of games in the playoffs, but the Generals had finished strong once again.

The 1998-99 season saw Mezin jump to a new locale as he began a career in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga with the Nürnberg Ice Tigers. He backstopped the Ice Tigers to first overall in the DEL, and carried them into the playoffs where they were stopped in the final by Adler Mannheim. The 1998-99 Ice Tigers still hold the best record for a Nürnberg DEL team.

After playing one season with Nürnberg, Mezin moved to the Berlin Capitals for three seasons. While he never experienced the same success as he did with Nürnberg, Mezin played no less than 54 games in each of his three seasons with the Capitals. However, with the Capitals experiencing financial problems in 2002, the team dropped to a lower-tiered German league as they worked to re-establish itself. With that, Mezin moved closer to home.

Of course, 2002 was Mezin's shining moment as he led the the winless Belarus team into the quarterfinals against the 3-0 Swedish team at the Salt Lake City Olympic Games. Mezin was brilliant in the game, stopping 44 shots, and he provided the Belarussians with a chance to win. And that's exactly what they did when a Vladimir Kopat shot from 70-feet away was misplayed by Sweden's Tommy Salo, landing in the back of the net for a 4-3 Belarus lead with 2:24 to play.

"For sure, it is a miracle for us," Belarus goalie Andrei Mezin said to at the time. "But sometimes a gun without bullets can shoot, and that was us. We've made our place in history."

Belarus would lose their next game to Canada, but Mezin's heroics made him the darling of the 2002 Winter Olympic men's hockey tournament.

Mezin's next stop after the Berlin season ended was for Russian superpower Ak Bars Kazan. Kazan, however, used him as a backup only, and he appeared in only one game with Kazan. Kazan finished fourth in the RSL, meaning they had no chance of winning the championship as the top team through the season was awarded the trophy. After spending one year watching from the bench, Mezin was on the move again.

HC České Budějovice in the Czech Extraliga was where Mezin landed for the 2003-04 season, but his record suffered. Some of this may be attributed to his lack of playing time in Russia, but a 4-9-2 record didn't reflect his 2.98 GAA and .904 save percentage. Mezin didn't find many opportunities to play in the Czech Republic, and he was on the move again for the next season.

The Russian Super League would be where Mezin established his career over the next few seasons. He started with SKA St. Petersburg in 2004-05, but the team finished in the bottom half of the standings. Salavat Yulaev Ufa would be Mezin's next stop in 2005-06, and he would stick around Ufa for two seasons. Ufa increased its standing between the two seasons, but Mezin would play a smaller role in the second season than in his first season. Once again, Mezin would be on the move in 2007-08.

2007 saw Mezin move to the northern reaches of the Russia as he joined Metallurg Magnitogorsk. Through this season, Magnitogorsk would battle with Mezin's former team in Ufa for top spot in the RSL. At the end of the season, though, Metallurg Magnitogorsk would fall six points short of Ufa as they finished in second-place in the RSL. Mezin's record wasn't kept, but he did finish with a 1.84 GAA through 35 games - a clear indication that he wasn't done being an elite goaltender.

The 2008-09 season saw a major transformation as the Russian Super League transformed into the Kontinental Hockey League. Mezin stuck with Metallurg Magnitogorsk, and faced the NHL's New York Rangers in the inaugural Victoria Cup on October 1, 2008. Mezin showed he was certainly a very capable goaltender as he stopped 44 shots in a 4-3 loss to the Rangers. However, he would only play 26 games for Metallurg Magnitogorsk that season, posting a 2.82 GAA. He would appear in six games in the KHL Playoffs as well.

In 2009-10, Mezin jumped to Minsk Dynamo, but he joined a fairly weak KHL team. Mezin appeared in 41 games, posting a record of 10-20-5, but his 2.67 GAA and .902 save percentage are evidence that the Belarussian goalie hasn't lost his moxie. Minsk Dynamo finished seventeenth in the 24-team league, though.

Thus far, Minsk Dynamo has seen a major push to start the 2010-11 season. Mezin has posted a respectable 5-2-0 record with a 2.21 GAA and a .922 save percentage. Last week, Mezin was named as the KHL's best goaltender for the week. In three games, Mezin posted three wins, a .917 save percentage, and allowed an average of two goals per game.

Congratulations go out to Andrei Mezin for his work this past week! He's still one of the biggest stories I've witnessed in my time thanks to his heroics at the 2002 Olympics, and he is the only reason I own a Belarus hockey jersey. Thanks to Mezin, hockey in Belarus saw a huge spike, and we could see more Belarussians in the NHL in the upcoming years!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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