In spite of the organization of the new Russian U18 team playing in the MHL this summer, many players decided to move overseas anyway. One of them was Vitali Abramov. In this translated interview, top Russian prospect Vitali Abramov talked about his move to Canada, the main differences between hockey on the two sides of the Atlantic, and why being small is an advantage.
– Vitali, this autumn you refused to get interviewed, I quote you directly, because you “didn’t want to jinx it.” Are you superstitious?
– Yes, I am quite superstitious. I have some kind of secrets, which I won’t tell, otherwise they will stop working! But sometimes I do something in a spontaneous way. For example, if I play well in a period, I get to the ice using the same gate. When I was younger I would bring some talisman with me at the games. Like a ball of tape. Now it’s scissors. A pair of small scissors I use to cut the tape to get in the right mood.
– Your move overseas caused fired some discussions in Russia. Team Russia U18 head coach Mikhail Prokhorov said that the guys who moved overseas wouldn’t make the national team. KHL president Dmitri Chernyshenko declared that “Abramov moved to the unknown.”
– I don’t think it was a scandal. Simply some people expressed their opinion. My parents and I decided that it would have been better moving to Canada. I didn’t ask anything particular to my home town Traktor, they offered me a standard contract, just like all other 98-born guys, but I already decided to move, therefore it wasn’t a matter of money. Everyone understood my decision.
– But Chernyshenko declared that your move was a decision of your agent, Rostislav Saglo.
– It’s not correct to talk about my agent. He was ready to accept any decision from me, and I had my good reasons. I wanted to get ready as better as possible for my senior career. My move overseas is a stage of this process. And I took this decision with my parents.
– Aren’t you surprised that you caught the attention of so many big people in Russian hockey?
– I don’t think that the talk was only about me, after all I didn’t move alone. We can say like this: Without Abramov, Russian junior hockey won’t fall to pieces. We have a lot of good players. And I never refused to play for the national team! I will report, if needed, it’s an honor for me to play for the national team. I talked with Prokhorov, I explained him everything. It was very pleasant to see that he understands me and my reasons.
– Was it a hard talk?
– We understand well each other. He’s a great person, open, sincere. You can always ask him advice for any reason and he’ll help you. I think that he talked on emotions. He always let us understand that there was the chance to play for the national team even if you move to North America. The only thing is that it’s up to the calendar, as I can report to the national team only if Gatineau won’t get to the playoffs or get out after the first round.
– And what if they told you “either Canada or Team Russia”?
– Well, putting me in front of this wouldn’t have been correct. And thanks God no one put me in front of this choice. I couldn’t sacrifice the national team. Let me repeat: I moved overseas without refusing playing for the national team. Any Russian player who moved overseas is ready to join team Russia at the first call.
– Weren’t you worried about moving to a new country, and even considering that you left people disappointed at home?
– No, I was not. And I didn’t leave many people disappointed, I had a lot of good messages for me. My relative and friends supported me a lot. They told me to hold on and do my best. And what should I be worried about? I really wanted to show that I took the right decision.
– Did you know you were going to play in Gatineau?
– My agent always kept me updated, I knew where I was going to play. We had an agreement. Theoretically speaking I could have been drafted by another team, as Gatineau had the 13th pick only. But everything went as we planned.
– In Gatineau you met another Russian, Yakov Trenin.
– I already knew Yakov, we played together in Chelyabinsk from time to time, when I was called up to the team made of ’97-born players. It’s great to be in the same team as he is. He’s helping me a lot, both on and off the ice. He’s one of the leaders of the team, a very authoritative player. After he attended the summer camp with the Predators he was named alternate captain.
– What your Canadian life started with?
– A 40-minute trip from Ottawa to Gatineau. I was brought to the arena. They showed me everything and I choose my sticks. Then we went to a hockey store to buy my stuff. And only after that I could go to my billet family. Everything was so long! I desperately wanted to sleep, and the whole process was a bit long (laughs).
– Did you hit the ice the same day?
– No (laughs). The practices with the team started only three weeks later. And it wasn’t practices, but the training camp. They split us in two teams and had to play twice a day. Only after it we started the practices with the players who remained in the team.
– And did you rest in those three weeks?
– I wish! We had dry practices, very intensive. And three times a week I played in a local summer league. Many players play there to prepare for the season. There were players from the junior leagues, from the AHL, from Germany. I met even some former KHL players!
– Can I ask who?
– Our assistant coach is Eric Landry, I think he played for Dynamo Moscow and Atlant. He talks Russian a little.
– Usually Russian players have good ties with their billet families. Were you lucky with them too?
– They are great! The father is a policeman, and the mother a nurse. Their daughter studies at the university. They are great people, always ready to help. They helped me a lot in acclimating to Canada. No problems with food either. My mama sent them some Russian receipts and they cook them from time to time.
– So they got you to Canada, gave your equipment, found a home, and then there was your first game, when you scored a double. You played on a line with Trenin?
– I was worried for the first couple of shifts, then it was easier. I could even score three goals, but in one chance I decided to pass the puck instead of shooting. I’m not greedy! (Laughs) Yakov and I don’t play in the same line. We play together only during powerplays. We use five forwards. It was a bit strange at first, because in Russia I was used to have units rolling, and here there is a different concept. Sometimes they ask our line to play against a line of the opposition team, and we play the whole game against them. Or sometimes it’s the opposite. If we have to face a checking line which tries to hold us back, the coach shuffles the lines.
– Do you have a nickname already?
– Within the team they call me simply Vi or Vit. And in the press once I was called Abra-cadabra (laughs).
– You’re scoring more not only than Trenin, but also other good Russian prospects as Evgeny Svechnikov or Maxim Lazarev.
– Yes, it’s like that. I’m not big, therefore I try to use my intelligence, perseverance, good skating abilities. I don’t think that my size is a negative thing. I’m trying to make an advantage of my skills and work on my weaker sides. But I’m not going to talk about it any further. Professional secret! (Laughs)
– And what about fights?
– Fighting isn’t my task. But I’m ready for it. Once I was playing against Drummondville and Sergei Boikov, he asked me if I was going to fight. And I replied only if he dropped the gloves first. Of course it was a joke, we were laughing about it. But once it wasn’t a joke. A nervous game, with many brawls. Some fellow grabbed me on the neck, I was thinking, ok, we’re going to do it. So I was closing my eyes, but I see that our coach seen what was happening and called me back. He got our tough guy on ice, and they had a good fight even without me. (Smiles).
– Many people were thinking that, considering your stats, you would deserve at least a call to the Subway Super Series, if not to the WJC.
– I’ll be frank. I was really hoping to be called for the Subway Super Series. Who doesn’t dream about playing for the national team? But it didn’t happen. And we know that without playing at the Subway Super Series you’re not going to be called to the WJC. But it’s nothing terrible, I’m sure I’ll have other chances.
– So in Canada you are having a good season and your stats are great. You’re not getting lost. What can you tell to people who said that you “moved to the unknown”?
– I think that they are already having another opinion about it. But in any case we can get to the conclusions only judging by the facts. If I’ll have a good career in pro hockey or not. My view on hockey isn’t changed. Here there is only a different ice surface and more interest from the fans. My goal is to play in the NHL. I’ll do whatever I can, and even more, to achieve it. And only then we can say if I was right or not.
A professional hockey writer and translator. Loves Russian culture, language, and hockey. Reachable on twitter @AlexSerenRosso