In this translated interview originally appearing on Russian portal championat.com, Habs defenseman Alexei Emelin, back at home in Tolyatti, Russia, talks about his old team Lada, just back in the KHL with a new arena, about his feeling playing for the Habs, and about the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.
* For the original interview by Viktor Ostreshko, click here.
– How do you like the new Lada Arena?
– If we compare it with the old “Volgar”, it’s a cosmic difference. It’s not bad even if we compare it with the Bell Center. Of course, it’s a bit small for a city like Tolyatti. It’s very pleasant to be there. Lada’s new home is a bit also my home too. This is why I felt proud stepping in the new Lada Arena.
– Are you happy about Lada’s return in the KHL?
– Are you happy yourself about your family’s successes? Therefore I’m happy. I hope that Lada is back in the KHL for long time. This, of course, will be a particular season: it ain’t easy to get back after a few years. But, of course, I’ll cheer for Lada.
– Would you like to play for such a team?
– I always played for such a team: I had my debut under Petr Vorobyov, during the lockout season. Hitting the ice was hard: only stars were skating out there. But our coach told us that it wasn’t necessary to respect the opponents that much. That we had to play. Until then I had no authority on the ice. And I started showing my battling qualities only the following season. The team had no money and most of the players from the senior team left and only we youngsters remained. Our coach Vladimir Krikunov called us “pioneers” (here there is an explanation of what he means.) But we didn’t feel like pioneers. We quickly understood that it’s pro hockey and no one would pay attention to our age. Or better: everyone tried take us down because of that. So we just went on and play. And we tried hard to gain respect from our opponents.
– What are your ties with Svitov? You even played together after that famous fight.
– We weren’t friends and weren’t enemies. Svitov is a good fellow, a hockey player. He did his job, I did mine. Well, things went bad for me, but it happens. So, what do you think, now I should hold a grudge for the whole life? If we meet, we greet each other. But there wasn’t and there is no friendship among us. But absolutely not due to that situation. Simply we’re different persons. That’s all.
– Why did you choose to go to the NHL? After all things were going well here, you were a KHL star and everything was good.
– First of all, playing in the NHL is my childhood dream. But not because the NHL is better than the KHL. It was just my dream. I wanted to prove myself there. I already knew everything about playing here [in Russia], while it wasn’t that clear there [in the NHL]. And third, Montreal Canadiens are a legendary team. Could I miss the opportunity to play in the team where world-class hockey started?
– Some of the NHL stars recently decided to get back to Russia. What do you think, were they right?
– You can’t give an unique reply to this question. They took such a decision based on some reasons. How can I judge them? If they decided to get back to Russia, it’s better for them.
– But some think that it’s a step back for them?
– What’s the difference to them if “someone thinks something”? They play here and please the fans. Is it a bad thing? Regarding the level of play… It’s a subjective matter. Radulov, Kovalchuk, they are very good players. If they would get back to the NHL, they would play in the first line. But they play [in Russia]. It’s their right, their choice.
– What do you think yourself, what’s the better league, the NHL or the KHL?
– This is a question like “what’s better, apples or carrots?” It’s different leagues, different hockey. Probably the KHL is behind in marketing or the whole package.
– But in the NHL there are more stars.
– Hockey is a team sport. And stars don’t decide everything. What brings results? The team. Without team play, no star can win alone.
– So, you want to say that the NHL and the KHL are at the same level?
– Don’t try to force me giving rates. It’s not correct. In the NHL it’s one kind of hockey, in the KHL another one. And stars from there may not shine here. Do you remember lockout seasons? Absolutely not all the NHL stars played great in Russia. Why? Just for a start, try and reply to this question.
– Where do you prefer playing: on the big or small ice?
– It’s the same to me. It’s simply a different style. On the European ice you need to be in the correct position, otherwise nothing can save you. On the North American ice you need to play more physically, move fast. But good players can quickly adapt to any kind of surface.
– You play for the most prestigious team in the NHL. Do you feel an extra responsibility?
– Canada is the biggest hockey country of the world. And Montreal is its hockey capital. I play in the city where you can live hockey more deeply. And I feel a good share of responsibility toward fans, who don’t only love hockey, they live and breath it. In Montreal they always talk about hockey. They want the Stalney Cup back in Canada. It’s a matter of honor for Montreal.
– Do people recognize you on the street?
– In Montreal they recognize even the farm team players. A hockey player [in Montreal] is like a city attraction.
– Is Russia still far behind Canada regarding hockey?
– Each other country is far behind Canada. It’s really like that, no one can deny. In Canada there are two sports: hockey and figure skating. I haven’t heard anything else. There are many sport school: on the morning they study, and on the afternoon they get loaded on a bus and they go to a rink: someone to play hockey, and someone else to skate. Then at some points the coach says to the parents: “this kid should continue”, or “this kid should try something else.” But the masses keep on playing, that’s why they get each year so many great young players. I hope that in Russia it will be again like that, hockey as a mass sport, and that in hockey schools there would again be kids who played outdoor hockey only. If that happens, we’ll be the leaders again.
– In the NHL they always organize jokes on rookies. Did you have them?
– No, I did not, for some reasons. I only got a joke once, from Galchenyuk. But it wasn’t my rookie season, it was his.
– What happened there?
– He got a bucket and filled it with water. Then he put it on the top of the door of my room. As you can imagine, rooms get opened on the inside. So, I opened the door, and all the water fall on me.
– That Galchenyuk kid is a brave one.
– Nah, what are you saying. I like joking myself. Nothing terrible, it has been fun.
– What about your “bad guy” reputation?
– I don’t have such a reputation and never had it. Someone doesn’t like how I play? I’m sorry, but I’m not going to change it.
2014 Sochi Olympics
– And now about the bad things. Do you often think about the Sochi Olympics?
– Oh, you really wanted to talk about something bad. I think about it every day. It’s tough to swallow, even now.
– What do you think, what was the reason behind that failure?
– There isn’t one definite reason. There are many, small reasons. Of course, at this level it can’t be different. They get all the best in the team, but the single players’ greatness didn’t have a big role. So, what were the reasons? In some parts, the team’s spirit, then the tactics, and the luck too. We had a good roster. I think it was the very best of the tournament. We had a good coaching staff. And the Olympics at home…
– Many said that the home factor hindered, and did not help.
– You mean pressure? Of course we felt a lot of pressure. But I can’t say that we lost because we couldn’t deal with it. There were a lot of guys in the team who are used to deal with pressure. Pretty much each one of us played in some finals, against great opponents. And we weren’t scared by the pressure.
– Your family is a true hockey dinasty. Your father-in-law, Oleg Volkov, was a well-known player in Russia. You are too. If you’ll have a son, will he be a hockey defenceman too?
– Well, it’ll be up to him. As it was to me. But, of course, it would be easier to him to choose: grandpa was a player, daddy too.
– And why did you choose hockey?
– I like it. Someone likes music, other ones like to draw, while I love playing hockey. My father is a football player. I played football too. But then I said him, “papa, get me playing hockey.” And he did.
– Why do you play defense? Many kids want to be forwards.
– I never played forward. Even in football I was a full back. In hockey my coach told me pretty much right away to play on defense.
– And your daughters practice sport too?
– The younger one is still too little. The other one is a figure skater. You see, we live in Canada. (Laughs.)
– Do you plan to stay in Canada once your career is over?
– I do not plan anything. I just play here.
– If some KHL team will offer you a contract, would you get back to Russia?
– For now I didn’t get any offer. I’m under contract until 2018. And I don’t like doing hypothesis, I prefer living today.
A professional hockey writer and translator. Loves Russian culture, language, and hockey. Reachable on twitter @AlexSerenRosso