Nikolishin and Evgeny Kuznetsov at a child hospital in Chelyabinsk during the 2009-10 season.
Andrei Nikolishin spent parts of six seasons with the Washington Capitals from 1996-2002. Nikolishin played a crucial role for the only Caps team to make the Stanley Cup Finals in 1997-98. He’s also played with some of the franchise’s biggest (and most controversial) stars including Peter Bondra, Olie Kolzig, and Jaromir Jagr.
When he spoke with Denis Romantsev of the Sports.ru blog Soul Kitchen, Niko touched on a few topics Capitals fans should take interest in. Nikolshin dished on Jagr’s trying years in Washington, saying that the future hall of famer clashed with then-captain Adam Oates. He also talks about his relationship with former Capital defenseman Mikhail Tatarinov, who struggled with alcoholism and spent time in jail for murder after his career ended.
RMNB’s Igor Kleyner has your translation.
What was your first reaction when you found out about the return of Kovalchuk?
I was in shock. To me it is bizarre. I don’t see a sporting component in what he did. Why break a contract and go to the KHL when you are a leading player on a NHL team, when you haven’t won the Stanley Cup yet? Why abandon a team that is being built around you? I don’t see any motivation aside from money. Yes, New Jersey has financial problems, but they are not bankrupt, and no one except Kovalchuk is leaving the team.
In an interview in 1998 you said when you were making your first steps with Dinamo, Mikhail Tatarinov was helping you a lot.
When I came to Dinamo, Misha was already a star, but he took me under his wing, helped me with advice a lot. Later he left for Washington, and then returned before the ’94 Olympics. Once we sat down for a talk at our training base: [he said] “Starting tomorrow, we are going to work hard, prepare for the Olympics – you are going to fight your way to the NHL, and I will return there as well”. And then he disappeared again – problems with alcohol… A complicated person. He was playing cards, killed a man, did his time in prison. When he got out, he was calling me every week, asking for hockey uniform, sticks, but now I haven’t heard from him in a year. A very talented man – from God. Smallish, pudgy, but the shot he had – I haven’t seen a harder shot.
CSN’s Alan May, who played with Tatarinov in Washington, shared a few stories about him on Twitter.
— Alan May (@MayHockeyCSN) July 16, 2013
@JapersRink he once faked a “broken hamstring”
— Alan May (@MayHockeyCSN) July 16, 2013
You had to take on a second job to make ends meet in the early nineties, right?
It was around 1994, we weren’t paid at all – so I had to start freelancing as an [unofficial cab] driver. I knew Moscow very well by then. Made enough money to pay for gas. I was driving around with my wife – too boring to do it by myself. I lived in Biryulevo – not the nicest area, but I never was kicked out of the car or had a knife to my throat.
Do you still remember in details that story about bandits extorting money from you?
There was this criminal group Orekhovo, they demanded money when I signed my NHL contract. The FSB and RUBOP (Organized Crime Division) sent some people to set up a trap [at my place]. They guys asked me “Do you have anything to watch? Any combat action stuff?” All I had was some tapes with hockey fights, so I turned that on for them.
They stayed for two days. Finally the thugs called and set up a meeting. The security guys tied one up right away, but the second thug got away at first. It was funny – they were supposed to intercept him with a car, but it wouldn’t start. They later got the second one as well. never had anything like that in America, but whenever I came back to Moscow for a few years afterwards, I was always looking over my shoulder.
Your first difficulties in America?
I didn’t know the language. My pregnant wife was sitting in a hotel room; we didn’t even know how to order dinner. I bumped into a Russian scout, so I grabbed him: “Let’s go order some food – my wife is hungry.” … To learn English, Alex Godynyuk wouldn’t speak Russian to me: “Learn English!” There is a tradition in America to exchange presents for Halloween – so the guys from Hartford gave me a dictionary with the inscription “What the fuck”. That was one of the first expressions I learned, I was driving everybody nuts with it. Overall, it didn’t take long for me to learn the language. I was young and ambitious, wanted to play.
In Washington you played with Peter Bondra, who was born in Ukraine, just like your ancestors.
Yeah, Pet’ka [Russian short form for Peter] is from Luck. He speaks Russian well, even had a Soviet passport. He told me they were trying to talk him into playing for the Soviet National Team, even send someone to convince him. But his mentality is European, even American already. You have to know him – very enterprising. His son David is also a good hockey player, playing in the US right now.
Which of the non Russian-speaking players were you close during your first years?
A fighter Mark Janssens lived not far from me – he was a center, helping me with faceoffs. Shanahan and I often stayed after practice stickhandling at center ice. Brendan was complaining: “I am getting dizzy – let’s just shoot the puck. Five in the left corner, five in the right one” And he was always hitting the target.
Brad McCrimmon was always helping with advice – he died in the Lokomotiv crash. He was always looking after the two youngsters – myself and Chris Pronger. Chris was even younger than me. He didn’t have an ID yet, so I let him borrow mine. Also, Paul Coffey once shocked me: he gave me a bad pass once in practice, skated up to me and apologized: “it is disrespectful to give an inaccurate pass.” Later I tried to teach that to my kids – to respect your teammates.
You played with Theo Fleury in Chicago. What do you remember about him?
Not an ordinary guy. He was on drugs. Had a serious addiction. One time we were in Columbus, Theo went to a bar, got drunk, had a fight with the bouncer. There was a serious scandal, but they somehow managed to quiet it down.
[Ed. note – Read Playing With Fire.]
Jagr in Washington – what did you think about him?
In a way, Jaromir is like a child, very emotional and vulnerable. Toward the end of the season he had a falling out with Adam Oates – each was pulling the blanket onto himself. Nevertheless, Jagr is amazing. It’s always a pleasure to look at him, even at the gym when he does squats with a barbell. I am very happy that he played in Russia for awhile, and then returned to the NHL. I was rooting for him during the last playoffs – it was obvious how much he wanted to win, how many chances he created.
Is it true that outside the arena the tough guys are nothing but kindness?
Exactly. Berube, Simon, Chase. Nice, kind guys, with a good sense of humor. Very gentle and always ready to help. And generally speaking, there aren’t that many American guys who are assholes – there are some among French Canadians though. What I like about the NHL – the team is like a family there. Team parties, kids events, families visiting each other. It’s not like that in Russia. At best, we have players wives in fancy clothes and lots of makeup going to the game. In America, you have this constant festive spirit, you live as a team.
Do you remember your rookie dinner NHL ritual?
Nothing happened the first year because of the lockout. During my second year though, I had to sing a song. About my home town Vorkuta. We’ve already had quite a bit to drink at the time, so I really let it rip. Our GM was in the next room: “I thought we got a hockey player, and an opera singer showed up.”
In Colorado it was also a lot of fun. For the dinner party, the rookies were told to bring some lingerie – and it’s their problem where to get that from. So Cody McCormick had this solution: he brought two good looking ladies and said: “They have very expensive lingerie, so they refused to take it off, but agreed to spend the evening with us.” The girls ended up hanging out with the team.
So how do they decide in the NHL whose turn it is to be the butt of the jokes?
Every team has a clown (in a good sense) who always puts ketchup on someone, puts shaving cream in shoes, toothpaste on towels. In Washington Brendan Witt was always responsible for that. Usually the jokes are directed at someone who did something to deserve it.
Did you ever play a joke on anybody?
Dima Khristich – but it was an April Fool’s joke. He was coming back from New Hampshire, driving from the airport. I call him: “My car is broken down, give me a ride.” – “But I already went by you.” – “Send someone to get me then.” Meanwhile, I am already at the arena. Dima rushes to the practice, gives administrator some money, tells him where to go. Then enters the locker room – and I go “April Fool’s!”
Khristich is a real polyglot, isn’t he?
Yes, he is a very smart guy, finished school two years earlier. Always was doing some puzzles. A very good and decent guy, we are still very good friends.
The 40-year-old Nikolishin spent time last year as a representative of the KHL’s Players Association and a WJC analyst. Over the weekend, Niko — who spent several seasons playing with Evgeny Kuznetsov’s Traktor Chelyabinsk — was given a try-out with Gagarin Cup champion Dynamo Moscow for 2013-14. If he makes the team, it would be the first time in two seasons he’s played in the KHL.