All Eyes on Semyon Varlamov

Varlamov

The start of the season must be getting closer, for the Russian-language interviews have started to appear. Here's hoping they start multiplying. Bol'shoe Spasibo to our good buddy Slava Malamud at Sport Express for tipping us to this beauty that appears in the Monday edition of Sport-Express.

***

"Turning Point" is a stock phrase, and in this instance is not quite correct. What does 22 year old Washington goaltender Semyon Varlamov need to "turn" at this stage of his career? On the contrary, considering his medical history for the past two years, the best thing would be to immediately knock on wood and hope that the guy doesn't turn (or stretch or tear) anything else. So let's not be quite so harsh and simply state that Varlamov has reached a key moment in his career.

After veteran Jose Theodore's contract ran out, the Russian goalkeeper became the most experienced on the team and, therefore, the top contender for the number one spot. That means a real chance had opened up for the young goaltender to become an NHL primary goaltender. That is the first thing. The second thing, with half of last season lost due to injuries and then ending much sooner than Semyon and the club desired, he simply needs to kill all doubt with a successful entrance. This is now a chance for him to prove himself as a stable and high-quality NHL primary goaltender. Third, Varlamov's own first contract is expiring, and that means that his immediate financial future will now be decided. And that means a chance is opening up for him to become a stable, high-quality and financially secure NHL primary goaltender.

"Apparently, they never will learn how to correctly pronounce "Semyon"-groans Varlamov half-jokingly, half-seriously about American commentators. "They've learned how to do it in Washington, but everyone else... I thought that maybe I should just change my name to Sam? How does Sam Varlamov sound?"

The future Uncle Sam and I deliberated on this difficult topic at an Italian restaurant not far from the Capital's training complex. Varlamov had just come from there, where he had just completed a daily four-hour conditioning session. For this express purpose he came to Washington before everyone else-to adjust his "physique" in order to minimize the likelihood of injuries in this oh-so-important season. Well, during the intervals between the stationary bike, the "iron" and other such pleasantries-such as moving to a new apartment, getting an American driver's license (the bureaucratic aloofness is no worse than in Russia), there was this interview...

By the way, I advised Semyon to not change his name. Simply because a fourth name in three years (he's already trod the tortuous path from the not-so-nice Semen to the biblical Simeon and finally to the phonetically correct but difficult Semyon)-Americans might see it as sophisticated mockery. The commentators will have a fit and it will give Gary Bettman, EA Sports and other interested parties something to snap at.

What do NHL games give you more of-- pleasure or stress?

"Hmm, good question... The first year was, of course, non-stop major stress. Playing in front of twenty thousand people in the stands, debuting in the playoffs, knowing how much responsibility I had... I was really worried before games, I got myself all wound up, thoughts of losing constantly crept into my head; "God forbid this, God forbid that"... I didn't even get any special pleasure from the game. But in due time the stress went away. Last year, I started to catch a little bit of that high which a hockey player should have every time he goes out on the ice. And it became a real pleasure to see the fans.

And the NHL itself, and living in America - is all that a pleasure or what?

"Again, in the first year it was difficult. I played mostly in the AHL then, and there weren't any Russian guys. I was in a different world, where there wasn't anyone that I could have a normal conversation with.  Of course it was difficult. But now my English has gotten better so it is easier now. In general it's very easy and convenient to live in America-if you know English."

That's not always the easiest thing. Some people have real difficulties with languages.

"It's not easy with me either, but I try. I watch movies and television. I like the old American television show "Friends". I can learn a lot watching them."

I hear that you recently moved into a new apartment.

"Yeah, last year my window looked right out on an intersections, and at night it was a constant stream of police and fire trucks. And now there's some construction going on next door. I decided to find something in a more quiet area. This building is even brand new, and nobody has lived in it before me-which is just what I need. I don't need a lot of room, so there isn't any reason for me to get a house yet. Plus I don't really have the money for it yet."

Did you sign a one-year lease?

"Yeah, It doesn't make any sense to make any long-term plans yet."

This is your first "contract" season. It's an exciting moment in your career.

"The main thing is to play it excellently. It doesn't make any sense to think about what will be later on. It's best to think about how to get to the Stanley Cup finals. Right now we don't have any other objective."

And right now you have a single personal objective-to become number one. Previously there was Theodore, and the entire moral weight was on his shoulders.

"It's clear that I'm getting myself in shape to become the main goaltender, but there really isn't any pressure yet. You have to be able to separate yourself from all that-from the fans, from the press..."

It's not easy to do that. The press were even recently talking about the possible acquisition of Niemi.

"That's why I don't read the press. Since the end of the season, at least. My dad reads it and sometimes he tells me something if he sees something interesting. But yeah, there are rumors about Niemi... But they are going to write what they are going to write."

That doesn't sound entirely sincere coming from a person who had a big opportunity to become one of the primary goaltenders in the NHL.

"That's understandable, I don't really have any control over that. If they sign Niemi or someone else, what can I do, give up? I'll work even harder, that's all there is to it."

Do you believe that the criticism leveled against you is fair?

"I agree that last season was not successful. Part of that was due to injuries. Then there were the Olympics, which meant more time off the ice. It was difficult to get back in the groove. You remember my first game back in the NHL after the long break. I was absolutely lost. I let in six pucks. And the playoffs..."

Your statistics in the playoffs were very good.

"That may be, but if the favorite flies out in the first round, that means the goaltender wasn't pulling at certain times."

Has the management made any hints to you yet?

"Absolutely nothing. I just met up with Bruce Boudreau a few days ago, but we only talked about how our summers went."

Was summer difficult after a season like that?

"You have to be able to take something positive from every situation. Both of my seasons in the NHL did not turn out the best, but I learned a lot of lessons. How to prepare, what to do during the season. It is great experience, because all of this helps for the future."

So what exactly have you learned? From what you can share, of course.

"For example, how you have to prepare, how to build up a foundation. That's why I'm here now. I came before everyone else, so I can work with a trainer. There are 82 games in the NHL, and you have to prepare yourself accordingly. You have to spend more time in the gym, strengthening your body. In order to play 65-70 games, you have to emphasize summer training. Artur Irbe told me about this, so that I could work on my "physique". So when you get injured, there will be a chance that you can still have additional capacity."

Last year your injuries came in rhythmic episodes. Was that an indicator of bad physical preparedness?

"Yes, it appears that the body couldn't take the load."

Were you able to get any rest this summer?

"After the World Championships I went to Spain for a week with my best friend. We walked around Barcelona and some other nice places. Then I rested in Turkey for two weeks. That was my entire vacation."

Have you been able to wipe all the accrued negatives from the season from your mind?

"The World Championships helped. On the very next day after the seventh game in the series Bykov and Tretiak called me. So all my thoughts were already off of the season that had just ended and now on how I would get my gear together and fly out. By the time I got to Germany, I'd already stopped thinking about the NHL. There simply wasn't any time to grieve-- all superfluous thoughts had gone away."

But it turned out emotionally difficult for you at the World Championships.

"Yeah, nobody had given me a guarantee that I would be number one. I was very aware of this, but I really wanted to play for the national team. It was possible to gain back a little while the trainers had not yet determined the permanent number one."

On national teams you've generally had some bad luck. You didn't play at the Olympics, in Quebec you were injured and before that, if I'm not mistaken, there was a disastrous youth superseries in 2007...

"These things happen. I don't know what causes them. You can add even some junior and youth world championships. The entire haul was three silver medals. What can you say? Somewhere there just wasn't enough experience to make the final, most important step. I'm 22 years old now, I have a lot of time ahead of me, and no particularly great achievements. I have something to strive for."

For a goaltender, mindset means a whole lot. In this matter is it more difficult to play for a national team than for a club, or easier?

"I basically prepare identically-what I do here, I do there. Nothing at all changes, it is the exact same schedule. Maybe when I play for the national team there are some additional thoughts that come up, concerning the country and the fans.... The jersey for the national team is put together a little bit differently."

You just now mentioned 65-70 games. It appears that you are preparing yourself for the role of undisputable number one.

"Of course, that's the only way you should prepare. But Michal Neuvirth is a really good rival. And now they've signed Dany Sabourin. I think that the coaches will look at who plays better in the first games, and then choose their primary. But right now I'm preparing for a long season."

You just changed your jersey number from 40 to 1. What's up with that? Nostalgia for your old number?

(smiles) "Yeah, I've always played under number 1. It's just that when I came to Washington, that was taken so they gave me the first thing that came up."

You don't feel bad for those Capitals fans who've already purchased Varlamov jerseys with number 40?

"Well it's a pity, for sure. Please forgive me. But for me it is very important to play under "my own" number which I've worn my entire career. It didn't feel quite right playing under number 40."

But you haven't requested number 1 on the national team? Nobody is wearing it there currently.

"Oy. I don't know if you can write about this, but on the national team, number 1 is reserved for Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. So you can guess what the chances are...."

I think that we can write about this.

"No, of course that's right. I actually did request number 1, and they told me "Sorry, no." And then they explained it to me."

Fans in Washington adore you and surely wish you success in your duel with Neuvirth. Does that give you a little bit of advantage?

"Are you serious? Adore? Yeah, that is some kind of advantage. Neuvirth played really good for the main team last year. I really have a smidgen more experience in playoff games, and that's all. But that's why I need to prove myself every day, every month, every season... As far as fans, that is all news to me."

Well, really you haven't noticed how they react when your name is called before a game?

"No, that's great of course. I can only say thank you. But it really is best if I can separate myself from this. If I constantly think about what the fans or the press think of me, I could go out of my mind. I wouldn't have any time to think about hockey."

But you will be in the center of attention, for sure. Everyone knows what to expect from Ovechkin, from Semin, from Green and from Backstrom. All eyes will be on you.

(smiles) "Alright then, enough pumping it up. A goaltender, of course, has to be ready at any moment to lead the team, but our team is outstanding. They don't need a goaltender to be the savior. I will help as much as I can." 

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