Photo: Chris Gordon
The Washington Capitals spent about 20 minutes Thursday morning posing for pictures with cute animals, both domestic and wild, and then proceeded to a grueling practice session featuring something that looked suspiciously like a bag skate.
After almost an hour and a half on the ice, the players started trickling in to the locker room. Some of the guys, though, stayed on the ice a bit longer, including Dmitry Orlov, Mikhail Grabovski, and the latest addition to the Capitals roster, Evgeny Kuznetsov. The Russian-speaking troika remained on the ice, enjoying a game of King of the Hill on the center circle.
Finally, the Russian rookie and his buddies made their way to their locker room stalls, where he patiently answered RMNB’s questions until no stone was left unturned in the first chapter of what hopefully will be Kuzya’s long tenure in a red jersey with #92 on the back.
Now that the first couple of weeks in the NHL are behind you, what are your first impressions? What do you like? What do you not like?
I like everything. Everything is new for me, it’s like I discovered a whole new world for myself. I came to another country, but I don’t really have any problems here. I feel very comfortable. Everybody is helping me out, and I am thankful to everybody for their help. We have a great atmosphere on the team, even though we are in a difficult situation, and we really need to win every game, but we are all thinking only positively.
After the first game you said that there were moments when you felt unsure of where you were supposed to be.
Well, it’s not like I didn’t know what I was supposed to do or where I had to skate. Everything was explained to me, but it almost felt like there were so many players on the ice playing against me [laughing], and everything was happening so fast! But now, little by little, I have begun to understand the substance of the game. I wouldn’t say it has gotten to be easy for me, it’s just that – and everybody says that – I just happened to come here at such difficult time, when we are facing very strong opponents, one after another. All the games are very difficult, but maybe it’s even for the better.
Speaking of this difficult run of games, especially the trip to California, where you faced the likes of Doughty and Beauchemin– how hard was it to play against such elite defensemen?
Well, it’s not like I have never played against top-level defensemen; there are a few very good ones in the KHL, especially during the NHL lockout. But the game is a bit different here – you just get ahead of someone by half a body, and you are closer to the goal right away, and a bit of space opens up for you. There are a lot of one-on-one battles – and if you beat your guy, you may catch a good chance to get a shot on goal.
During these eight games you have played so far, was there a particular defenseman you felt was the hardest to play against?
Well, I pretty much know everybody, even though I hadn’t played against them. These days, everybody watches the NHL games. And I can’t say that I paid any special attention to any one in particular. There are a lot of good defensemen out there.
Your first NHL career goal – how did it feel when you scored?
Yeah, the sensations were… it was just incredible. I was standing right there in front of the goal, and I saw the puck coming right onto my stick… to really understand it, you need to live through it. Of course, if only it weren’t for that shootout attempt – there would be a more festive mood; I was really upset because of that miss. Didn’t even get a shot off!
Speaking of that first goal – it really wasn’t the highlight-reel kind of goal, unlike many you have scored in your career; it was much more of a blue-collar type, may I even say a typical North American goal?
I think here you can only succeed… you can only score goals if you are willing to put that kind of work, that kind of effort in. You can’t just stickhandle around the whole team. Hockey here is somewhat different from what we have in Russia, where there is a lot of open skating. Also, we as a team are in a situation where we have to play this way.
That puck that Ovi scooped up for you – what are you going to do with it?
I don’t even know where it is, somewhere at the arena… Sasha got it for me; they are going to put it in a frame. And then I am going to give it to my parents, to put on the shelf with my other trophies.
You are somewhat famous for your extravagant goal celebrations – including kayaking, swimming, doing pushups and even playing dead. But after your first NHL goal, your celly was kind of modest – are we going to see anything more spectacular any time soon?
Not yet, right now I would hesitate to put on anything like that. I think I need to establish myself as a player in this league first, then – maybe [smiling] – when I am scoring a lot of goals!
Is it easier for you to be on the same wavelength with other Russians, or maybe any Europeans?
Actually, that is not the case at all. I have good understanding with all of our guys, Europeans, or guys from North America. Because [the coaches] explain very well how to play our game, and I like all of our guys, everybody I got a chance to play with, I found good understanding. If you explain to a player what’s expected of him, he’ll play well no matter where he is from.
What is harder for you: to make adjustments on or off the ice, in hockey, or in your everyday life?
I don’t really have any problems here on or off the ice. The most important thing is I like it here and when you are enjoying everything it is easier to adjust, to do whatever is necessary.
Do you miss your family a lot?
Of course I do, anybody who moves to another country would feel that way. But that’s life. I will definitely bring them all here by the start of the next season. My wife should be here by the time playoffs begin.
And the doggie, do you miss her? And by the way, how does a Yorkie get through that tough Uralian winter?
Yes, every time I talk to my wife on Skype, she picks her up and shows her to me. And the last two or three winters were kind of mild in Chelyabinsk, it only got below minus-30 a couple of times. And she always wears a coat when she goes outside in winter.
What can you say about the fans and the hockey arenas here?
It’s really nothing but positive here for me. Every day there is something new. Of course, I have played in big arenas before, but to have such a great building as your home arena, it is really awesome. And the atmosphere, the fans screaming, supporting us – especially [against the Kings], when we tied the game, it was incredible how loud everybody was screaming. It’s such a festive feeling. It really is a celebration here for the people.
Yes, I have said it before, I just changed the number for my last season in Chelyabinsk, but here I am back to my number. It’s going to be 92.
You got to play next to Sergei Fedorov in the KHL All Star Game; Fedorov is really a very special player for many Caps fans, even though his stay in Washington wasn’t very long. Did he talk to you about the Capitals and the NHL?
Simply said: he is a legend. Not just in Russian hockey, but for the whole world. It is really something special even to be next to such a great player. When I was growing up, I looked up to him, tried to learn whatever I could from him, even how he skates, everything. He said a few words to me two years ago, and those words made me really think about myself, and I really did change a lot about myself because of that talk. Those words will forever stay between him and me, not even so many words – just 5 or 6 maybe, but they were very special. His words really touched a nerve – in a good way, I am very thankful to him for it. If he ever reads this, he’ll know what I am talking about.
No, but I will go back to using it in summer when I start training. It’s a good skating exercise, they do it here as well.
Photo: Chris Gordon