A week ago in the final minutes of Traktor’s 2-1 win over Spartak, Caps prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov absorbed an awkward hit near the end boards and suffered what appeared to be a serious knee injury. Kuznetsov, who can be seen writhing on the ice in pain, was then taken to a local Cheylabinsk hospital where an MRI of his knee came back clean. Accordingly, Traktor Chelyabinsk’s official website announced that Kuznetsov had a bruised knee and would only miss a week of time, meaning he would be ready for the start of the KHL playoffs.
Well, not so fast! The next day, Kuznetsov flew to Germany to have European doctors take a closer look at his knee. On that flight over, Kuznetsov announced on Twitter that he’d be out three to five weeks because of the injury. After being examined, Kuznetsov gave no update on whether the diagnosis had changed.
The saga continued this past Thursday after Traktor defeated Yugra 3-1 in the first game of their KHL playoff series. Traktor’s head coach Valery Belousov told the Russian media that “Kuznetsov is on crutches for now. Don’t expect him to come back very soon.” Suffice to say, that must be one heck of a bruise to put a 19-year-old athlete on crutches.
Meanwhile, the normally chatty Kuznetsov has avoided the media altogether lately, but that wasn’t the case a few weeks ago when he went on Russia-2’s “Week of Sports” to accept the prestigious honor of being named “Russian Athlete of the Month” for January. During the fascinating ten-minute interview, host Alexey Popov asks Kuznetsov about a variety of things including the Outdoor Game he recently played in, his feelings about winning silver in the World Junior Championships, and his relationship with the Capitals. Below I offer a translation.
Alexey Popov: At least 50.4% of the people who participated in the poll for the best athlete of the month of January voted for Evgeny Kuznetsov, so of course he had to pay us a visit today. Thank you Zhenya, and welcome. Did you watch the voting process? Did you send text messages to vote for yourself?
Evgeny Kuznetsov: No, I just found out on the phone. When we returned to Novogorsk [Ed. Note: The Russian National Team’s Training Center], my mom called me on the phone with congratulations. So I asked her what she was talking about, and she said you are voted the best athlete of the month of January. Then my wife called too. That’s how I found out.
Alexey Popov: So Bilyaletdinov has such a strict regime, are you not even allowed to watch TV?
Evgeny Kuznetsov: Oh no, it was already late Chelyabinsk time, and we had a flight after the game, so we just went to bed a bit earlier.
Alexey Popov: So to be called up to Novogorsk – for a young player… or maybe since you already played three times in the World Junior championships, psychologically it was not that big of a deal – junior Sbornaya, or the main Sbornaya, Sbornaya is Sbornaya, no? [Ed. Note: Sbornaya means Russia's National Team.]
Evgeny Kuznetsov: No, there is a big difference. Starting with the personnel involved, and hockey itself – everything is at a higher level. So every call up to the Sbornaya is like a breath of air, I am always ready for it. Of course it’s a bit disappointing when things don’t work out, but, like I said – I am always ready for it.
Alexey Popov: Lets first recall the World Junior Championships, which was the main reason you were nominated for and won this athlete of the month in January. In the beginning, it seemed the fans were expecting more from you after the last year’s gold medal, but, as they say, the great cannon fires in a timely manner. That game against Canada – did you have a feeling you were going to tear them apart?
Evgeny Kuznetsov: Actually, the worst happened – when the score was 6-1, we could not afford to surrender a goal, and we did, and it was entirely my fault; so thank god we prevailed 6-5 in the end.
Alexey Popov: Interesting – someone else might have said “I scored three goals” but you talk about being responsible for a goal scored against?
Evgeny Kuznetsov: I always said, for me it doesn’t matter who scores. I knew it was going to be a very difficult tournament for me and for our team. The expectations were high, and that put a lot of pressure on us. So my goal was to play for the team. I realized I have to adjust my game to fit in with my teammates. It was quite different from the previous year, I was the youngest then, but now I had to play the role of the veteran. That was pretty hard.
Alexey Popov: So, which situation is easier for you?
Evgeny Kuznetsov: I think when you play with the older players – it’s not easier, but more interesting.
Alexey Popov: The reason I am asking – for the next few years you are likely to be in this role…
Evgeny Kuznetsov: Probably for about 7 years or so!
Alexey Popov: You had certain expectations after the WJC…
[rolls the video of Kuzya interview after the gold medal game]
“Kuznetsov: It’s disappointing, but life goes on. There will be a lot of s&*$ dumped on us. But we need to learn how to lose. It will make our character stronger. I want to wish the boys all the luck next year, so they would win.”
Alexey Popov: So, were you dumped on?
Evgeny Kuznetsov: I want to apologize for my language…
Alexey Popov: Oh, come on! I knew you were going to say that! And Bragin also started apologizing for his choice of words when he came here. Look, this is a late night program, so the language is not a problem. But essentially you were right. In Canada, no one said a single bad word about their team. Here – you didn’t win the gold – and there we go…
Evgeny Kuznetsov: Actually, everybody has been very positive here, nobody said even a bad word about us. So we are very grateful to all the people who stood up for us, and didn’t let anyone bad-mouth us.
Alexey Popov: So, now you were called up to the main Sbornaya – this round of the Eurotour didn’t turn out very well; would you still have good memories from this wonderful goal you scored, and from your Sbornaya debut? Or was the loss too important for that?
Evgeny Kuznetsov: Of course it was very important for us to win. I think for our country, for our National Team, we don’t have a right to lose. But it was a good lesson for us. I don’t want to judge anybody, I am not old enough for that. As far as me personally – I did not play well, not how I should play. We all didn’t play well – but I think it’s better to learn now, to be ready for the World Championship, to know what to work on.
Alexey Popov: So this game outdoors you just played – was it difficult to play in such cold weather?
Evgeny Kuznetsov: Actually, after the game, I didn’t even feel tired. Because outdoors, the air is fresh, I didn’t even drink during the game, and many other guys didn’t either. Of course, it was cold, some people were complaining, but I liked it. I wish the ice were a bit better, to make the game a bit more interesting though.
Alexey Popov: Sergey Gimaev can be pretty blunt in his analysis… what do you think?
Evgeny Kuznetsov: I have nothing but great respect for him, always read what he says and agree with his opinion.
Alexey Popov: So, I wrote down one number… 43% face off winning percentage. What do you have to say about that?
Evgeny Kuznetsov: I never argue with Gimaev. People like him, true hockey experts, they earned the right to criticize us. I don’t think I would ever argue with him – I just listen to his opinion. And work on face offs.
Alexey Popov: Last subject – lets see this video from the [development] camp in Washington. I understand, you are not going to talk about this – but here is the question: was it interesting to be there, and how different were their practices from what you do here?
Evgeny Kuznetsov: Oh, this video – that was after a practice, an assistant coach tells me: “Show me what you can do.” So I “drove” him around in the corner for about 20 minutes; the next day he didn’t show up at the practice – said he was too tired, had ice packs on himself. And overall – everything is different there, completely different.
Alexey Popov: Do they contact you regularly?
Evgeny Kuznetsov: What I really like about it – the Caps are not bothering me personally. They said “We don’t have the right to bother you during the season. After it ends – you’ll decide. For now – you have your team and your Sbornaya, work hard, and then you make your decision.” And I have decided already for myself. I know what I am going to do. And as for practices – they work for 45 – 50 minutes, and you manage to do everything during that time. Of course the game is totally different there, and I have to be honest, not everybody likes that style. But the most important for them – not to discard everything you know and teach you how to play hockey from scratch.
Note: This interview was aired on February 13th in Russia.
Additional reporting by Ian Oland.