How We Play Hockey in Russia

How much I do I love hockey? I can’t even describe. In Russia, we don’t really have a Christmas break, but from December 31 to January 3, everything closed. Even hockey school. These were the worst days of my life. Four days with no hockey, I get so depressed. I can’t even sleep. Just sit watching YouTube of Kovalev and wait.

Some people in Canada understand this, I think. In my hometown of Chelyabinsk, hockey is religion. Only one sport. Hockey.

For me, it start when I’m little boy. I tell you one of my very first memories. My dad take me to the rink, and I see this older guy score goal, and he do a really cool celebration. Slide around on his knees, you know? I say to myself, I want to do that. This looks so fun.

From that day, I live at hockey rink.

Actually, I can give you my schedule. I remember, because it was same every day:

I wake up at 7 a.m.

Go to school for five hours. All morning, think about hockey. Can’t concentrate on school. Just want to skate.

As soon as I can, I run out of school and go to the rink. I live 30-second walk from hockey school. If I run, 10 second. My mom would be waiting for me at the rink with my lunch and my hockey bag. My mom cook unbelievable. I’d eat like a hungry guy. Quick as I could, you know? Because I couldn’t wait to get on the ice. I’d practice with my team, and then after practice I’d do another practice with the older guys.

Practice is much different in Russia. We skate, skate, skate. As a kid, that was the focus of the coaches — to make sure you were skating the proper way. No hitting, no dump in corner. Practice was about playing hockey — scrimmage, one-on-one, lots of skills. This is the Russian style. When I come to America, guys ask, “Is it like Red Army? You skating with weights and stuff?”

No, that’s different time. For kids my age, it’s skill, skill, skill.

When I was eight years old, I score maybe 10, 15 goals in a game. Give me time to try lots of different celebrations, like the older guys. But not NHL guys. I didn’t know NHL. My heroes when I was young was some local guys in Chelyabinsk. When I got older, maybe 14 years old, I finally got to see a computer for first time. YouTube was everything. I get to see how Wayne Gretzky play, how Red Machine play. I get to see how Alexei Kovalev, Ilya Kovalchuk and Ovi play. For me, Kovalev is the best. Nobody even close to his skill. You can ask any player who ever play with him, or ever see him on the ice, and they tell you the same thing. Kovalev was unbelievable.

I didn’t have a computer at home. My friend got one, so we would all sit there for two hours watching YouTube, seeing how guys are playing. Then we go onto the ice and try to do the same thing.

Couple guys who were older than me, they live in an apartment above our hockey school. One guy was Alex Semin. When I see him play for the first time, his skill was unbelievable. I’m like, Wow, I got to learn from this guy. So I started hanging out with him all the time, because we both obsessed with hockey.

The big problem was the rink was closed at night. We still want to skate. But I came up with a plan with Semin.  

We would save some money and go buy some Coca-Cola and take it to the security guard as a little gift, and he would open the gate for us. So we got to skate all alone. It was unbelievable. This was important time. After 15, 16 years old, no one can teach you skill anymore. When you are young, it’s automatic. That’s when you need to learn skill.

My father teach me, too. First thing, you never look at puck. Eyes always up. Look left, right, forward. You look down, it’s over. Even now, if I look down at puck in a game, my dad let me know about it. He texts me. If I score three goals but I don’t have an assist, he texts me. Because he teach me to be unselfish. You have to play for your partner. This is very Russian, this principle. I guess because of the Red Machine.

But this works only when all five guys working together perfect. If a guy skates in and shoots from blue line without passing, it’s like he doesn’t have respect. That’s how we play in Russia. When I come to America last year to play in NHL, I learn it’s a little different.

In my team in KHL, if you dump the puck, coach might put you on bench and you never go out and play hockey again. It’s true.

If you’re a forward and you dump it, like maybe once they say, “Hey, hey, come on. What you doing?”

Next time you do it, that’s it. You must be crazy.

My first 10 games in NHL, I don’t understand why guys keep dumping puck. I’m looking at coach like, Is he going to say something? And he’s like, happy about it.

Even Ovi. I see him dump it. I’m looking at him like, What?!

But we keep winning. So I’m like, Ok, well, I guess it’s working.

Now I totally understand why we do this. But at first, I’m so confused. In the NHL, the space is so tight that you can’t think you’re special. If my teammates play 60 hard minutes, do the right things, and then I turn the puck over at the blue line and we lose, I got 22 big guys in the locker room very angry with me. Not good.

The way we play for Capitals is a little different than most NHL teams. Lots of passing, movement. We play for our partner. No selfish guys on our team. That’s first thing I notice when I come here that surprise me. Everybody friends. Like, even this guy Brooks Orpik. He’s totally different from me. But he became my friend. He’s a little older, so we call him Batya. It’s like “father” in Russian.

He win Stanley Cup, so I know I gotta learn from this guy. But I try to teach him, too. After every practice, we do what we call “hockey school.”

For 20 minutes, we stay out on ice and work on our skill with Batya. He see how me, Ovi and a couple guys always do it. So he said he want to do it, too. We do some passes and stick handle, do crazy moves, funny things. For a big guy, he can really do it. He’s got skill. He’s not like a wood man, you know?

Brooks says, “OK, now we do checking school.”

I say no way, man.

Some people here in America don’t like Russian style. They say it’s boring, all you do is skate. Nobody fight. Blah, blah, blah. But I like to see when team possess the puck for two minutes and then wait for guy to shoot in the open net. Here, some fans always yelling “Shoot it! Shoot it!” when you cross blue line. But watch how much Chicago holds onto the puck in the playoffs. They don’t have many Russians, but they play the Russian style. I’m happy to see it working in NHL. To me, that’s the best way to play hockey. That’s amazing.

Some people say, “Hey, how are you doing in America? It’s like a big deal for Russians to come. Some don’t like it.”

I’m like, What you talking about?

My decision to come play in NHL was easy for me. My last season in KHL, I had a lot of injuries. I wasn’t scoring a lot. I feel like I need a new start for my career. And of course, I get to play with Ovi. Come on, this is great.

First practice in Washington, I see Ovi and my legs are shaking. I’m so nervous. He’s legend in Russia. He called me right away when I was drafted by Capitals. Every summer he text me: When you coming to Washington? Now finally I’m on his team. I feel like I’m 16-year-old kid.

Everybody know Ovi from his stats. But I tell you, when you get on the ice with him and you see his shot for the first time, it’s crazy. It’s so, so hard. When I shoot, I can see my puck. When he shoots … Oh, come on. Where’s the puck?

To play with him every day is really special, especially for Russian.

For me, it’s same hockey. Same since I was a little boy. I just want to play hockey, come home. Watch the Family Feud, go to bed. Wake up, play hockey again. That’s perfect for me. The only difference is that now I have a family who I must take care of as well — and they mean the most to me.

Who knows, maybe some bored Russian kid is watching my YouTube now. That would be cool.