If you take your time to review the rosters for the KHL All Star Game that will be played this Sunday, you will likely notice the name which would be familiar to most San Jose Sharks fans. This name is Alexander Korolyuk. Korolyuk will be representing the KHL Team West the day before he turns 37. He won’t be remembered as one of the hockey greats, he is not considered a top player in his native Russia, and you won’t hear much about his playing days for the Sharks – his only NHL team. He spent 296 games playing for the Sharks having plenty of ups and downs along the way. Alexander Korolyuk was an entertaining player to watch, and his coast-to-coast goal against the Minnesota Wild is just one of the examples of his brief flashes of brilliance (although the only video available is really pixelated, you can get an understanding just how light on his feet Korolyuk really was).
He was a late draft pick in the year 1994 – a skilled player but with evident lack in size and physical presence. To compensate for his smaller – at least in hockey terms – stature, Korolyuk used his skating and hockey IQ to be in the right place at the right time. Before Kyle McLaren became a fan favourite for his thunderous hip checks, it was Korolyuk – standing at 5’9” – who was catching opponents off guard with such unexpected checks. Korolyuk was athletic and relatively physical for a player of his size, and was not shy to get dirty – not Mike Ricci, but some may argue he showed more intensity than Patrick Marleau. One of the examples of his vicious hip checks can be seen below:
Even for the fans that are used to seeing players jump teams (remember Mike “Suitcase” Sillinger), Korolyuk’s league hopping history looks full on. The ‘jumping’ started in 1996-97 when he played 42 games for the Manitoba Moose in the IHL and 17 games for team ‘Krylya Sovetov’ of Russia. For the next two seasons he tried to make his mark in the NHL – sharing his time between the Sharks and their then AHL affiliate Kentucky Thoroughblades. Season 1999-00 was one of his best seasons – he scored 35 points in 57 games played, but was relatively quiet during the playoffs. A grittier style of play during the playoffs was probably not best suited for Korolyuk who fared much better on larger surfaces in Russia.
The next season proved to be quite shaky for Alexander Korolyuk – he became Darryl Sutter’s scapegoat. He was criticized for his lack of commitment to playing defence, and his work ethics in general. Altercations with Darryl Sutter – the then head coach of the San Jose Sharks – created an atmosphere of distrust and resulted in missed NHL games. His relationship with Sutter resulted in Korolyuk becoming a contract holdout in the beginning of the 2000-01 season. However, he managed to make his return to the Sharks roster, and played a combined 102 games over the next two seasons. After the 2001-02 season, Korolyuk’s contract was not renewed and he went back to play hockey in Russia where he signed with the Ak Bars Kazan.
However, changes came for the Sharks as the club stopped improving. The 2003-04 season started under the new head coach Ron Wilson and the new GM Doug Wilson. The latter had some interesting thoughts regarding Korolyuk, and managed to bring the winger back to the lineup. Doug Wilson was rewarded with Korolyuk’s best season where he scored 19 goals and 37 points during the season which happened to be his last in the NHL. He spent all the remaining seasons in Russia playing for half a dozen teams, and enjoying a relative success (376 points in 438 games after his last NHL stint).
One thing is certain – Alexander Korolyuk liked San Jose. When his rights were traded to the New Jersey Devils, he requested to be traded back to the Sharks. Soon after, the Devils GM traded Korolyuk back to San Jose, but the trade was voided by the league when Korolyuk did not report in time for his physical examination. He is not a player who symbolizes the popular saying ‘you could not step twice into the same river’ – he left the Sharks after the 2001-02 season, but returned a season after, and would have had his third return had the last transaction gone through; he briefly played for the Ak Bars Kazan in 2000, and played there once again after two years; he played for the Chekhov Vityaz until 2008 before returning there after playing for 4 different clubs (Mytishchi Atlant, St. Petersburg SKA, Yaroslavl Lokomotiv, and Nizhnekamsk Neftekhimik) in a period of 4 seasons. Who knows how his career would have unfolded had there been a different coach during his early years in the NHL.