[Viktor Kozlov has traded one capital city for another. From the capital of the free world to the capital of Bashkortostan. Yesterday's issue of the Russian-language SportsDaily website caught up with Viktor right after his arrival in Ufa.]
Dinara Kafiskina "Sport Den' za Dnem"
By now everyone is surely used to the fact that players from the NHL are returning to Russia. But top players of the level of Viktor Kozlov are still rare. Even though Viktor had the chance to stay in Washington for another two years, one of the most experienced Russian players instead decided to leave from the place where everyone else aspires to. I caught up with the 34 year-old forward in Ufa right after he arrived here. Kozlov is now going to play for the team from the capital of Bashkortostan.
"When I signed my contract with Washington, I decided for myself that these would be my last two years in the NHL" said Kozlov. "I even considered going to play in Russia during the lockout year, which I spent here. I really liked the attitude towards hockey, plus I was among my own people..."
How did they feel about your decision in Washington?
"I think that the management of any club realizes that a player has the right to choose. So they thanked me for my efforts in Washington, they wished me luck, and the guys on the team understood."
I read somewhere that you said the KHL is now undergoing a rejuvenation process.
"Yes. It really seems like that to me. Like they say, all of our youth are talented and all of our elders are honored (smiles)."
It wasn't only Salavat that wanted you in their lineup, but also SKA and Dynamo Moscow. Why exactly did you choose the Ufa club, where you signed a contract for an entire three years?
"Because the capital of Bashkortostan is not far from my native Togliatti. It's only 500 km. I wanted to be closer to my home."
So that was the main reason?
"Not the main one, but one of them... What also played a role is the fact that they've put together a first-rate team here in Ufa, with a great roster. By the way, I know almost half the guys on the team. Our paths have crossed over time while playing for different teams. I'm not going to name names, somebody might get upset (smiles). Basically, we have a chance to win the championship. Even when I was in the states I kept up with what was going on and I knew that Salavat was the leader all last season."
I'm sure the fact that Bykov and Zakharkin are at the helm also had some influence...
"Honestly, it will be really interesting to work with these specialists. It's not that simple to win back-to-back world championships! I met with them when they were in America, and they invited me onto the national team. If we hadn't made it into the playoffs I might have won a world championship gold medal (smiles). But to each his own. If you are destined to win, then you will win. I am truly happy for the guys that they were able to become champions. Hopefully it will be repeated at the Olympics. If they invite me, I will happily go."
It was even said once that you had signed a contract with SKA...
"I had talks with St. Petersburg, but I didn't sign a contract. I don't even know where that information came from."
It seems to me that, having read this interview with you, some people will be surprised. After all, many hockey players say that you can always return to Russia...
"While I am still able I wanted to come here and not just be a number on the ice, but play well and have fun doing it. I followed the KHL with one eye while I was in the States. Due to the intense schedule I really couldn't do more than that. But I did understand that our league is very high class now."
Right now the financial conditions in the KHL are such that in this area they can fully compete with the NHL. Many players don't hide the fact that this is one of the reasons for their return...
"For sure, previously you'd never think that it would change this much. Like they say, it's not the money, it's the amount. You have to eat, take care of your family. Money is an important part of life, but in my opinion it's not the most important. Of course, when you can go play at home and still earn some good money, you take notice of that."
Your teammate Sergei Fedorov made a lot of noise (in a good way) with his return ...
"The league has reached such a respectable level that apparently it became interesting even to him, so much so that he wanted to play here. Sergei runs like a freight train. He's full of strength, enthusiasm and fire (smiles). It's good that Fedorov has returned. Young guys will have someone to look at and learn from."
In the NHL you played for San Jose, Florida, the Islanders and Washington. Which season is particularly memorable for you?
"In Florida I had a really good season when Pasha Bure and I played together. I scored a lot of points then. You could also call my years in San Jose and with the Islanders successful. And I really enjoyed my time in Washington. Two years in a row we made it to the playoffs. We had a really tight-knit team; there were a lot of Russian players. By the way, I've always been lucky when it comes to Russians. Every team I've ever played on in my career has had players from Russia."
What are your first impressions of Ufa?
"I just arrived a few days ago. Of course I haven't had a chance to look around as much as I need to. At first glance it is a nice and beautiful city. I was in the arena, but I still haven't been on the ice. But I have already judged the dressing room. The conditions are simply fantastic."
You left for the NHL in 1993. What are your feelings on leaving the states?
"I was calm. I didn't spend all 12 months out of the year there. Every summer I went to Russia. So for me returning here isn't a problem."
And for your wife and daughters?
"Our women become accustomed to the good living conditions in America quite rapidly. But in any case my wife understood my decision. Besides, we made this as a family decision. Right now I'm in Ufa by myself and will get everything fixed up. My girls are flying over at the end of August. I have to find a school for them. They will be going into the second grade."