There are common phrases Toronto Maple Leafs’ players use to describe Ilya Mikheyev. Depending on who you ask, you’ll hear things like: he loves hockey, he’s a hard worker, and he’s dedicated to his team. But without fail, everyone uses the same phrase: “he’s flying out there.” Which is an appropriate catchphrase for the one they call Souperman.
No, that’s not a typo. It’s been a while since we’ve seen Souperman, so you may have forgotten the tale. On opening night, the Leafs beat the Ottawa Senators 5-3. In his first NHL game, Mikheyev scored and had an assist. That kind of debut performance will draw the media for a sound bite.
However, his English was a work in progress. Since leaving Russia, he was learning the language by binge-watching Friends on Netflix. With a translator beside him, Mikheyev was asked what was the biggest challenge moving to Toronto. He carefully worked his way through the answer. In broken English, he mentioned language and how people are different when suddenly he clearly and loudly stated, “I like soup.” Anyone within earshot laughed as he continued, “I don’t know why you don’t eat soup.” Campbell’s Soup heard the comment too and a few months later, Mikheyev was the poster boy for a new soup campaign.
It is a bizarre way to get on your first endorsement deal, but his journey has been out of the ordinary. When the Maple Leafs signed this 25-year-old player out of the KHL, it raised some eyebrows. How has a player gone under the radar of so many teams for so long? Not only that, but he is also a forward. The Maple Leafs already had an overflowing amount of skilled forwards in the system. But the tall, lanky Russian rookie had the speed to burn. He made the team out of training camp. He left his number 66 jersey back in Russia and put on the rarely used number 65.
There are always surprises coming out of training camp. Guys that weren’t expected to make the roster explode, but often fizzle early in the regular season. There’s no doubt that many thought that could be the story for Mikheyev. But he excelled, not only cementing his spot on the team but cracking the top-six forwards, playing regularly with John Tavares and Mitch Marner.
It was a fairytale type story, in 39 games, he has 23 points. But it all came to an abrupt stop on December 27, 2019. New Jersey Devils’ forward Jesper Bratt’s skate inadvertently caught Mikheyev’s wrist. The rookie knew he was in trouble, yet incredibly, played the puck behind the net. He then took one glance at his wrist and you could see the panic set in as he shakes off his glove. He pointed and yelled at the bench while skating as fast as he could. He immediately got off the ice and ran to the training room. It’s one of those video replays that doesn’t look bad until you know what happened, then it’s cringe-worthy.
A fluke injury that happened in a second ended the season for Mikheyev. He was out for at least six months. But then we know what happened. The NHL paused the season and now is about to restart, a full eight months after the injury.
“Now it’s great. I feel good. I have full movement fingers, wrist, arm, hand everything is good now,” Mikheyev told reporters during a Zoom call.
He explained how he turned the set back into a positive, “It’s bad to have injuries, but on the other side, I had a chance to work face-to-face with (the) coach and with (the) trainer. We improve skills (like) shooting, passes, skating. It is good for me too, I’m really happy to have this opportunity.”
Souperman is Superman
Now you could spell his nickname: Superman. Check out some of the comments describing Mikheyev’s performance at the Leafs’ training camp:
- Jake Muzzin: “he is flying out there, he making plays, he looks good we are lucky to have a guy like that on our squad that is for sure.”
- John Tavares: “he is flying out there, it is incredible.”
- Mitch Marner: “he’s been eye-opening to watch.”
Head coach Sheldon Keefe was asked if he believed Mikheyev was fully recovered when camps started: “I think he is shooting better now.”
Keefe says every aspect of the rookie’s game has improved, “The way the puck is coming off his stick, particularly off the pass, is impressive. I think that is an addition to his game that is going to serve him well.”
Outside of working with the trainers and eating lots of soup, there may be another secret to Mikheyev’s recovery. “Video games, I never played before. Now I play,” says a smiling Mikheyev, but he is not playing NHL 20, “I’m playing Fortnite. My friends play Fortnite, I play with my friends.”
For all of those Fortnite players, you may want Souperman on your squad. It would be an excellent strategy to ride his coattails, or cape tails, to victory – just like the Maple Leafs hope to do.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.