After a strong year in the MHL, Russian forward Egor Babenko was bound for a rookie year in the KHL, but things didn’t work out that way. In this translated interview, originally appearing on the popular Russian website sports.ru, Lethbridge Hurricanes forward Egor Babenko talked about his move overseas, adaptation to a new continent, and CHL salaries.
* For the original sports.ru article by Dmitri Groshev, click here.
– Egor, you had a strong year last season in the MHL, scoring 27 goals and 50 points in 53 games. Many said that you were ready to play in the KHL for Lada. Why did you move to the WHL?
– Frankly speaking, I wasn’t planning going to Canada. I was playing in Togliatti in the MHL and I was thinking about how to get to play in the KHL. This summer I talked with the team’s representatives and they told me that they were going to count on me. I was very happy to be playing in the KHL, but it didn’t end that way.
– What happened?
– It wasn’t up to me. I have been drafted in the KHL by CSKA Moscow, and they had the rights on me. Lada negotiated with them for the whole summer, but they didn’t get to an agreement. Therefore I couldn’t play for Lada, and CSKA didn’t offer me to play for any other KHL team.
– According to some rumors CSKA asked Lada a very high transfer fee for you.
– I don’t know, it’s not my task, I should only play hockey. Anyway, my agent Alexander Chernykh told me that I could play in the MHL or to play for Lethbridge in the WHL. I talked with my parents and friends and we determined that if I couldn’t play for Lada and I had no chances to break CSKA lineup, then the best thing would be to play in Canada. I haven’t lost anything, quite the opposite. I knew that the league was of a very high level and that often arenas are very crowded. Why not? The only bad thing was to leave behind me the great fans in Togliatti. But I know that they are following me. I can only thank them.
– Did you follow the import draft ceremony? Is it that different if compared to the KHL draft?
– There aren’t many differences, drafts are the same in Russia or in Canada. The only difference is that I didn’t imagine that another team was going to draft me in the KHL. When my father called me to tell me that CSKA drafted me with the 19th overall pick I was very happy, but also very surprised. I wasn’t expecting that. In the CHL draft it was different, because I knew that they were going to draft me and I also knew what team was going to draft me. And in the end Lethbridge drafted me with the fifth overall pick. I followed the ceremony on the internet, but the emotions were high anyway.
– What were your first impressions about Canada? You got off the plane and…?
– I landed in Calgary on night. They met me and brought to a hotel. Then the day after we moved to Lethbridge, it’s a three to four hours trip from Calgary. I watched at the window for the whole trip, I couldn’t believe that I was there in the end. The trip has been very long. Earlier my longest trip was to Germany, where my grandparents live. Hopefully this summer I’ll manage to visit them, I don’t see them for four years already.
– Did you know the Hurricanes before?
– I read some things. I know that earlier for the team played [Martin] Ruzicka, [Tomas] Kopecky, [Brent] Seabrook. And during one of our first practices I met Kris Versteeg. I couldn’t imagine that I would practice with a two-times Stanley Cup champion. By the way, in the locker room there is a wall where you can read all the names of the great players who played here. That’s some good way to get motivated.
– How did they meet in the team?
– All was good. Canadian guys are very friendly in everyday life. On ice it doesn’t matter what country you’re from, everyone is treated fairly. Moreover, in the team there is one Ukrainian guy, defenseman Igor Merezhko. In the team they call me Fedorov, and Igor, Ovechkin.
– That’s interesting. I can easily understand why a forward is nicknamed Fedorov, but Ovechkin for a defenseman?
– Hard to say (laughs). Maybe it’s because he’s very big, like Ovechkin, and shoots right. I don’t know why they call me Fedorov. Maybe because they seen him often on the TV because of the Hall of Fame induction. In Russia they called me “Baben”, maybe it’s a bit too complicated now, they simply call me “Babs”.
– Did you pass through “rookie tests” in the locker room?
– Of course (laughs). After one of the away game we won we got to the bus to get back home. Everyone was in a good mood, and we had a long trip in front of us. So the veterans decided to get some fun and got all the rookies singing in the driver’s microphone. The better you sing, the louder would the guys be and so a winner would be picked up. I and Igor decided to sing an American rap song. We found the lyrics and started reading it in the microphone. I’m not sure we won, but the whole team was laughing.
– What are the main differences between playing in Canada and in Russia?
– Well, no one told me something like “forget all you know and start from scratch”. Of course, it’s different. I had to change a bit both my game and the way I practice. All according to what the coach asks me. I remember that at the first practice I noticed how good the guys where. Speed, hits, fights. And a lot of these things, all right away. I had to get used to all this step by step. They show us tapes of our games, so that players can see their own mistakes. Coaches can call out a player, turn on the TV and show what’s wrong in any shift. Here there is a big attention to every detail. I don’t want to say that in Russia everything is bad, of course, but the level here is a bit higher than in the MHL. And the Super Series result showed this.
– Team Russia lost both games to the WHL.
– Maybe our guys didn’t manage to successfully adapt to the faster and harder style of the Canadian teams. It’s always hard for Russians because of the different styles.
– Did you fight already in Canada?
– If needed I can drop the gloves, but it’s not my task. My task is to score points to help my team winning games. We have another guy who is “responsible” for fighting, and he fights quite often. I’m going to take some lessons from him because you never know.
– What did you buy with your first pay?
– I went to a grocery store and bought a bottle of chocolate milk! It’s hard to buy more expansive stuff with your pay only. I get 250 dollars. Older guys get 300. I was making more in Russia. But the fact is that I didn’t get here to Canada to make money, but to get better as a player. I’ll try to not slow my pace and to win with my team. I’ll think later about money.
A professional hockey writer and translator. Loves Russian culture, language, and hockey. Reachable on twitter @AlexSerenRosso