It means Victory: Nikita Kucherov lives up to the name, goes beyond the mark
Nikita is not Russian for Nicholas, it does mean Victory/Victorious
Killorn and Johnson were not wearing shirts, but they were listening to censored Drake
I was supposed to do this after Christmas, but he let me do it before. This was tuesday.
the quote came in a fax machine, I don’t know who said it, but I’d like to kick his ass.
“Though he has skill, he lacks dedication. He is willing to wait for a shot, he is lazy, careless, and a novelty. A player trying to play like Ovechkin but failing horribly. Riding the coattails of former players and faltering on his own. A second round pick would be a stretch.” –European Hockey League scout #124 post U18 Tournament (Released to writer from a confidential source n/m not released)
Nikita Kucherov is a lot of things: he is a play maker, he is a sharpshooter, he is reserved and concerned about his English. He is not the talkative player that his centreman is, nor is he the quiet leader that his fellow winger is. Kucherov is put perhaps best in the words of fellow forward Vladislav Namestnikov; “Kuch is Russian”. Nikita Kucherov is not by any stretch of the imagination anything less than a Hall of Famer in the making. Night in and night out, Kucherov is moving up in the +/- standings, though some analysts will tell you +/- and Corsi have fallen out of relevance in the last few years. The thing Kucherov is perhaps most obviously is a beloved player, his name is just as seen as Stamkos’s, Johnson’s, and Palat’s. Kucherov is not “Lazy”.
“I used to not talk. To me if I couldn’t say how [what] I wanted to say, I don’t [didn’t] say it.” That is one of the first things he tells me. His voice is softer than I expected to hear, he speaks quietly, as if I will chastise him for improper grammar. He looks at me with blue eyes that are only enhanced by the blue of the Tampa Bay Lightning long sleeve shirt he wears, the logo pulled a little and stretched with love. In his hands he holds a nearly empty water bottle, over his right shoulder sits a translator a few seats away, listening just in case. There are a few times I ask him something that doesn’t translate into Russian, that makes his eyebrows knit together as I try to find another word for the one I was going to use. The humour I use sometimes doesn’t hit the mark, but he smiles anyway when I do, maybe not truly understanding the joke but understanding that I mean to ease the tension.
He is nervous. That is what I get when I first start talking to him, he’s nervous that there is a language gap between us. When he introduces himself, his voice and his hands shake a little, he looks around the conference room like it might be a jail cell. I realize that this is not where Nikita Kucherov likes to be, this is not his element. Having come back from a Pacific Division road trip that resulted 2-1 (taking 4/6 possible points) against the Ducks, Sharks, and Kings, he’s done his job. He’s been where he is most comfortable, in the presence of his teammates and on the world’s stage playing in the NHL. He’s not used to this, this room with its painted walls. Overhead the fluorescent bulbs hum and the sun shines in over Garrison Channel. He looks like a trapped deer. He rubs his hands on his shorts, the fabric making a noise reminiscent of a faulty zipper as his calloused hands catch synthetic fibres. He rolls his shoulders and watches me. He never stops watching me as I set up my recorder, my back up battery, my notes and my pens. The battery catches his attention: “What’s that?” “This [I gesture to the battery]?” “Yes. What does it do? Why do you bring it here?” “It’s a backup battery for my recorder.” I show him the light and the beep that signifies the device being fully charged. He finds it interesting, it makes him smile as he looks at it light up on different levels as he talks, then I, showing frequency.
“Johnny is more patient than Pally. Pally was learning English too, so when I say something he didn’t get, I say [it] to Johnny and he say to Pally. That’s how it was.” While playing Slavic telephone seems like a fun idea for all, I asked Johnson about Kucherov’s English “He is very shy about it. They both are, when we first started playing together it was kind of hard, he didn’t want to say more than ‘yes’ or ‘no’, sometimes I’d do something he didn’t like and he’d be mad. He’d just glare at me from across the ice, or in the room. I was scared he’d walk up behind me, or I’d have a horse head or something in my bed. That didn’t last. (offside) Stop laughing, Killer, I’m being serious!” As I walked back to the conference room and away from the sound of crashing weight plates and laughter only broken up by “Horse head”, I thought how concerning it must be to not be able to tell someone what you really want to say. This has been an issue in the NHL for as long as players have been coming from Russia and Eastern Europe.
“Do you wish that the NHL taught players and journalists Russian?” I somewhat shock Kucherov as he’s slipping his phone back into his pocket. “How you mean? Like school? I know some, but I don’t speak it at home”. ‘Home’ to Kucherov is Russia, more specifically the city of Maykop. When he was playing in the KHL, he played in Moscow, in 2011 he was drafted in the second round by the Tampa Bay Lightning. He was then sent to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). The young Kucherov went from speaking primarily Russian, to a region of Canada where the top language is, French. He was sent to the QMJHL to transition to the style of North American hockey he’d play in the AHL and eventually the NHL.
Russian hockey is played on a bigger scale. In North America, a regulation rink is 200ft long by 85ft wide. An International Rink, like those used in the KHL is 200ft long by 100ft wide. I’ll save you the math, and tell you that is a 15ft difference across. When you watch any NHL game, your announcer will tell you that one of the keys to the game is a “North-South game”, up and down the ice to reduce opposition scoring. It’s one of the main reasons your forwards play such short shifts. If you’ve ever watched Pavel Datsyuk or Evgeni Malkin, or ‘The Great Eight’ Alex Ovechkin, you’ll notice they like to move laterally. It’s something that you have to know how to do, you cannot teach the Russian style of play. Regardless of how many years Kucherov would spend in the Q, you cannot stop playing like you were taught to.
At this point Kucherov is still looking at me like I just said “You and I are getting married, we’re going to go to Mars and start the human race on a planet outside of our own” So I rephrase my original question. “Yes, I kind of do. I have people who can help me [he gestures to the translator who has been watching a Brady press conference on his phone], I have Vladdy, we talk to each other, but some don’t. It’s hard, the languages are different.” If you look at the numbers of players in the League, you’ll notice that there are more and more European players coming in year after year. Mostly they come from Russia, from Sweden, the Czech Republic (It is not Czech-Slovakia, it hasn’t been for decades, stop saying it), a select few from Finland, Switzerland, and smattering from Norway. The names on the back of jerseys are becoming less ‘Crosby’, ‘Smith’, ‘Orr’, ‘Shanahan’, ‘Boyle’ and ‘Callahan’, and more ‘Panarin’, ‘Kuznetsov’, and ‘Tikhonov’. Gone are the days of ‘John’, ‘Bobby’, ‘Steve’, and ‘Jack’, and here are the days of ‘Viktor’, ‘Artemi’, ‘Pavel’, ‘Nikita’, and ‘Alexander’. If we’re being serious, it’s ‘Aleksander’, but that’s fine.
We’re becoming better at saying names that would’ve stricken fear into the hearts of our Grandparents years ago, but we’re not treating the players any better. The players still have to rely on someone who might know the language they speak, and given the spread of European players in the NHL, you don’t have to look hard to find a ‘Henrik’ or a ‘Pavel’. Still, I am sitting here across from a man who can’t say what he fully wants to say; someone representative of the rest of the NHL in the last 20 years with the new class of players coming over from Russia. He thinks a little more on the subject “Maybe if we taught you some phrases you should know to make it a little bit easier for me.” If it really only took a few phrases to learn to make it easier for your favourite player to talk to reporters, wouldn’t you want them to do it?
I turn to the impressive season Kucherov is having. I tell him how fantastic it is to net your seventh and eighth goal of the season on the same night, and his ears turn red. He looks down at the shiny table and I can see a smile spread across his face. I decide to make matters worse and talk about the ASTOUNDING turn around he made between the 2013-2014 season and the 2014-2015 season. In the 2013-2014 season, Kucherov netted 9 goals and 9 assists in 52 games for 18 points. In the 2014-2015 season that culminated with an Eastern Conference Championship and a run at the fabled Stanley Cup, Kucherov more than TRIPLED his numbers scoring 29 goals, 36 assists for 65 points in 82 games. With his numbers being mentioned, he looks towards the ceiling, smile now visible on his face, eyes a little misty over his breakout season, and says just loud enough to be heard, “it was a good season.”
‘A good season’ is how the future looks for Kucherov, sitting right behind Steven Stamkos with 17 points spread across 10 goals and 7 assists in 29 games. If this is anything indicative of what the season with Kucherov in your canon looks like, then I think that despite a disturbingly slow start, the Tampa Bay Lightning are going to be okay. Kucherov follows me out of the conference room, I shake his hand once more, his shake a little less, and as he passes the weight room, Killorn and Johnson still inside, I can hear him ribbing his teammates for not lifting the heavier weights. Maybe Kucherov is lazy, but it’s not on the ice.