With his NHL career stalled, Chris Wideman faced nothing but uncertainty as the league’s coronavirus pause approached its third month.
After spending this season with the San Diego Gulls of the American Hockey League, his one-year, two-way contract with the Anaheim Ducks expired.
So why not go to Russia?
Wideman, a St. Louisan who played high school hockey at Chaminade College Prep, agreed to terms on a one-year deal this month with the Nizhny Novgorod Torpedo of the Kontinental Hockey League.
“The KHL’s the second-best league in the world, so for me, it’s a great challenge and a new opportunity,” Wideman told the Post-Dispatch. “Something that just made sense for me right now.”
A fourth-round pick by the Ottawa Senators in 2009, Wideman spent the next four seasons playing college hockey at Miami (Ohio), helping the RedHawks to a pair of Frozen Four appearances. Three seasons with Ottawa’s AHL affiliate in Binghamton (N.Y.) followed — he was AHL defenseman of the year for the 2014-15 season. Then came the move up to the NHL in 2015-16.
A good-skating defenseman, Wideman appeared to have a home in Ottawa, playing a combined 140 games over the ’15-16 and ’16-17 seasons, with 11 goals, 19 assists and a plus-11. The 2016-17 Senators reached the Eastern Conference finals, losing to eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh in seven games.
In between those Ottawa seasons he played for Team USA in the 2016 World Championship, the fourth-leading scorer on a team that included the likes of Auston Matthews, Kyle Connor, Dylan Larkin and St. Louisan Pat Maroon.
But things took a turn for the worse when Wideman sustained a season-ending hamstring injury in a Nov. 16, 2017 contest against Pittsburgh. He needed surgery, and his career hasn’t been the same since.
“It’s a devastating injury and probably a potential career-ender,” Wideman said. “The staff was awesome, getting me back in shape and ready for the next season. When training camp started in September, I was probably at 75-percent capacity and I just didn’t know it.
“I didn’t really feel like I was ready to go until about December. ... I can’t even believe I was playing before that. So it took a little while longer than I thought it would, and you don’t have your legs under you.
“It’s the best league in the world. You gotta be able to skate and I believe that’s one of my assets. So it was tough. The hamstring feels good now. I’ve just been working my (butt) off for another opportunity.”
During a tumultuous 2018-19 season, Wideman was traded three times: from Ottawa to Edmonton, Edmonton to Florida, and then to Pittsburgh. He also had two AHL stints in there, for Springfield (Mass.) and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (Pa.)
“You bounce around to a few teams,” Wideman said. “You see it happen to guys and you wonder what it’s like. And when it happens to you, it just feels like you’re on a ‘double black diamond’ and you don’t know how to ski. Things are happening so quick and you just can’t get your footing.”
(“Double black diamond” is an extremely steep and difficult ski run.)
“For me, I’ve always been a guy that fits in in the dressing room,” Wideman continued. “And to be on a bunch of different teams and to not have that family-type feel was obviously difficult.”
Wideman, 30, obviously will be in another new locker room this season, one where a lot of Russian is spoken
“I’ve talked to a bunch of people (about the KHL),” Wideman said. “The biggest thing is, you’re gonna be in a different country. I played in Canada for a few years, and obviously it’s still North America but it’s always different.
“I think that there’s gonna be a few other imports on the team. I’m not sure who they are or where they’re from. But it’ll be interesting. I love the challenge and it’ll definitely be that.”
Wideman has been to Russia once before, with Team USA for that World Championship in 2016. Those games were played in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
“So I have some familiarity,” he said. “You don’t really know what to expect until you get over there. But I know how to play hockey for sure. I think if I can do the things I’m capable of, it’ll be a good fit.”
Nizhny Novgorod (population, 1.25 million) is 260 miles east of Moscow.
The KHL season starts a month earlier than a non-pandemic NHL season, so Wideman doesn’t have much time to get ready.
“I think my first regular-season game is Sept. 2,” he said. “We’re gonna start on time, which is exciting. ... I have a lot of (NHL) friends that are in limbo. They’re not sure what’s gonna happen with next year, or how this season’s gonna end — the NHL playoffs. I wish all of them well. But my focus is on getting ready to play in Russia.”
Well, it’s not his entire focus. He’s getting married Aug. 1. His fiancée, Caroline Morehead, is co-owner (with Wideman) and runs the DryBar styling salon near Plaza Frontenac.
“I think I’m arriving a little bit late (to Russia), just ‘cause of the wedding, but I’ll be ready to go.”