[Ah, the lovely sounds of Autumn bring joy to the hearts of hockey fans. The sharp crack of a frozen piece of rubber slamming into plexiglass. The NSFW chirping of the players on and off the ice. And my personal favorite, the scratching of quill on parchment as our beloved Russian language hockey writers furiously work to capture all the witty bòn móts of our beloved Russian contingency in our beloved nation's capital. Slava Malamud is back in style with this great interview in today's issue of Sport-Express with the newest Russians to take to the ice under the Caps moniker.]
The New Russian Troika in Washington
Slava Malamud, Arlington
Washington (the hockey team) loves Russians, and everybody knows this. We could actually dispense with the qualifier in the previous sentence and look as far back as Gorbachev, where we could see a long history of uncomplicated love, rooted in ancient and semi-mythical times. But we are interested in the present day - cool, hip, and online-- and all things hockey. In this context, Washington's (the hockey team's) love towards Russians starts with Alexander Ovechkin, is centered around him, and it breaths with fierce, reckless youth.
"We can do things that other teams are afraid of" said the Capital's GM George McPhee during the July draft, as he explained the internal mechanism of this colossal love to me. "I know that right now a lot of teams are scared to select players from Russia, but we have a different situation. We have Ovechkin, and there are a lot of guys that want to play in Washington... I'd like to think that we are simply more open than other teams in the league."
The result of this forbidden love was the selection at this very same draft of two Russians, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Stanislav Galiev. The former, as you know, is spending this season with the KHL (along with another potential "Capitalist", Dmitry Orlov), and the latter, who has been playing in North America for some time now, spent all of last week at rookie training camp in Washington. And of course he wasn't the sole Russian there. Along with Galiev in the Capitals camp were 20 year old Dmitry Kugryshev and almost-veteran/almost-American Nikita Kashirsky, who is around 24 years old and has experience playing in some of the most secluded corners of the North American landscape.
Of course, each of the guys has different plans for the future. Only love united them. Washington's love for Russians.
KUGRYSHEV: I NEEDED TO PUMP MYSELF UP
Last year Kugryshev, who was playing in the QMJL, made an appearance at the Caps rookie training camp. And what an appearance it was! The young Muscovite, at whom optimists nodded their heads and said "wow, for a small guy he's really talented!" (pessimists correspondingly shook their heads and said "too bad such a talented guy is so small"), was almost rolled into the ice by the furious pace of the training. After one particularly brutal session of suicides, Kugryshev and another pair of youngsters were sitting and lying in the corner of the ice, sucking in air with their mouths wide open, unable to stand or move.
"Yeah, last year I was a little unprepared, but now everything is in order" said Kugryshev, who had just signed a contract with Washington but was preparing to be sent to the AHL. "As usual, the third day of training was really intense, but it was also interesting. Like today we were working on the power play."
It looks like you've put on some more muscle as compared to last year.
"Yeah, they told me that I needed to pump myself up, so I hit the gym more often."
You know that you'll start your season in the AHL with Hershey. Do you expect you'll make it up to the main team this year?
"I'm going to try and prove myself in the best possible way. I can't assume anything else at this time."
Did you have any options as far as signing in Russia? Why did you decide to go to a farm club?
"Because this is what I came here for-- to make it to Washington. That's why I played in the junior league. Last year I think I reached a new level, so I've got something to strive towards. (Last season Kugryshev ripped and tore through the Quebec Ramparts, scoring 87 points in 66 games. -S.M.). Why should I abandon my goal now?"
Buses, low pay-isn't this all a bit scary?
"Nah, it's all okay. I'm used to it."
GALIEV: "FINE, I'LL BE STAN"
Last season, Galiev became the playoff hero in the QMJL and knows for sure that he will be there for one more season. For him, the rookie camp is just a chance to draw attention to himself and become familiar with professional hockey. In July, Stanislav (along with Kuznetsov and Orlov) were together on a mini-team in Washington, but it is already starting to look like something a bit more serious. There is a chance that the Washington coaches will experiment with the young Muscovite, moving him to center. Incidentally, this is the same thing that McPhee planned to do with Kuznetsov. It appears that the Capitals don't anticipate a deficit on the wings. Especially on the left wing from Russia.
"Stan's" (well, of course he became Stan. Galiev is too gentle and easygoing of a guy to insist on a correct pronunciation) technical ability and vision on the ice drew praise but, apparently, something somewhere wasn't clicking on the power play, which head coach Bruce Boudreau didn't fail to make notice of after the practice. He didn't, however, name any names.
Well, Galiev described his professional hockey debut in the most cheerful tones.
"Cool, fun, I love it all! Russian guys all around," added the grinning Stanislav.
Did you enjoy the NHL training?
"The level, of course, was much different from the juniors. For me, however, it was even more interesting. They tried me out at center for a bit, like today I was the dispatcher for the power play... It's all okay, this is how I play on my club."
So why did they move you to center?
"I can only judge from what Boudreau said in his interview. Maybe he sees a center in me. I don't know."
This is your third year in North America. It looks like you didn't waste your time. Your English is really good.
"At first it was difficult, of course. I really didn't know any of the language. I really missed my family and friends. But on the ice you don't think about anything like that. You try to think about hockey."
In your time you made a very unusual decision-you came to play in a USA junior league. One might understand it if we were talking about a Canadian junior league, but this is the USHL where you ended up. In Russia nobody even knows what that is. Even in America not many people know.
"This happened after I came with Dynamo to a tournament in Chicago. I just enjoyed everything there so much, especially the North American style of play. Basically, I returned home and told my mom "I want to play there". I thought about it and I made my decision. I came to America and I ended up on the Indiana Ice hockey team. At first it was difficult, but I quickly got used to it."
Do you think that Washington selected you in large part because you are from Russia?
"I was really hoping that Washington would pick me. I really like this team and have been following it for three years."
This year you can still play in the junior world championship. Have you had any contacts with the national team?
"We've talked on the phone. I think I will play in the SuperSeries that will be held this fall in Canada. That will be a place for me to show what I can do. The desire, of course, is great."
And lastly, why don't we teach the Americans how to properly pronounce Stanislav?
"It's okay, let it be Stan. In the Quebec league they basically called me Ghani."
And did you learn any French?
"No, I've got enough on my plate trying to learn English and how to play at center"
KASHIRSKY: "I'M OVECHKIN'S CHILDHOOD FRIEND"
There are only four players from the Dynamo Moscow youth team for those born in 1985 that are currently playing professionally. One is Alexander Ovechkin, whom you may have heard of. Next is Konstantin Romanov with Barys Astana. The third is Konstantin Fomichev who plays for the Wings in the VHL. The last is Nikita Kashirsky from America. Yup, that's right, from the immense expanse of America, where he has lived for the past eight years. So long that he speaks Russian with a slight accent and slips in American phrases in his speech here and there. Which is not really surprising for a former pupil of an elite Catholic school in the suburbs of Washington and graduate of Norwich University. Here he has a tattoo of an Indian motif (a steer skull in feathers) on his left shoulder-this is quite a serious statement of Americanism. But Nikita explains that this is just a symbol of his name: Nikita means "victor" and the steer also symbolizes victory. Your correspondent forgot to ask for which Indian tribe it has such symbolism.
Having played for his university, Nikita tested himself on the professional level in South Carolina in the ECHL league (2 levels below the NHL) and twice was called up to the AHL. Now his mission is to make it to Hershey, although it will not be easy to do this. There are a lot of young forwards in Washington's farm club this year.
"This time I'm much better prepared for rookie camp" shared Kashirsky. "Having played in the ECHL and AHL, it is much easier to get used to a fast game. Still, hockey players in colleges often do what they want, and oftentimes the game there turns into a primitive "run and gun" type game. In the pros, even in the ECHL, there is strategy, and it's a positional game."
So how did you find yourself in an American school at 17 years of age?
"I played with Sasha Ovechkin in Dynamo, but dimensionally I was the smallest guy on the team. I had a late growth spurt-that was from my parents. I probably weighed no more than 50 kilos. So I didn't really get to play a whole lot. Then they had the selections for Dynamo-2, and it was difficult for me to make to team. At that time, my brother had already been living in America for several years, and he recommended that I come and study at an American school. You can get into an expensive school here for no cost if you are a good hockey player. As a result, I received a scholarship to Georgetown Prep, one of the oldest schools in the USA. From there I went to a Division III college, and after studying there for four years I came to the ECHL."
Did Washington sign you on Ovechkin's recommendation?
"To be honest, I don't know. I remember when Sasha played his first season, I came to his games. And it turned out that a former assistant trainer for the Capitals was a good friend with my college coach. I'm sure they talked amongst themselves and my name came up. And when I was studying at Norwich in my second year, a scout for Washington found me and told me that he would be watching me... As for Sasha, I don't know. Personally I never asked for him to put in a word for me, so did he do it on his own? I haven't asked him. By the way, if he did do that, then I am thankful to him."
So is your plan now to make it to Hershey?
"The plan, of course, is to make it to the Capitals. But where am I now on the lists? I can't think about that. I just have to work my very best."
And if you don't make it to the AHL, then what? Back to South Carolina?
"I don't know. That all depends upon the GM. Some KHL teams have expressed an interest in me, but I've already signed a bilateral agreement with Hershey and South Carolina at the beginning of the year. I've just been offered to skate with a KHL team, but since I wouldn't have any insurance in Russia, I'm not going to risk it. That would really be fraught with trouble. Basically, I want to stay in America. I've already been here for a long time."
Here you are basically known as Ovechkin's childhood friend.
"Yeah, I'm asked about this all the time. I'm already getting a bit tired of it. All the time it's "tell me how you were friends with Ovechkin". I've already been asked this six times in the last two days."
P.S. The Washington rookies bowed out on the last day of the week, playing a game against the rookies from Philadelphia and winning it with a score of 4:3. Galiev corroborated all the good words in his spiel, making two goals. Kugryshev has to wade through a stable of talented wings in Hershey. And it already seems for Kashirsky that making it onto the farm club lineup will be "the attainment of a dream". Basically, alas, the chance of seeing a new "Russian troika" at the heart of the Capitals this season is minimal.
In the meantime, Ovechkin is already wandering the hallways of the training rink, having just arrived in Washington and already asserting his rights, simultaneously with the new season.