During the 2019 NHL Global Series games in Stockholm, Daria Tuboltseva from Sport24.ru talked to Russian forward Alex Volkov, who made his NHL debut a couple of games before, about his path to the NHL and friendship with Nikita Kucherov. It’s probably the first time Alex Volkov has spoken so openly about himself. We’re now presenting you the first part of a long interview with him.
Editor’s note: If you’re going to use this translation anywhere, please credit Sport24 for the original interview and Igor Nikonov of Raw Charge for the translation. Thank you.
Daria Tuboltseva: How did you feel during your debut in the NHL?
Alex Volkov: The debut wasn’t very great because we’ve lost to the New Jersey Devils. But I’ve been waiting for that game so much. I was very close, but the last three years I had been sent to the AHL. Finally I got a chance and made a debut. The game was weird, probably because of the city. The fans in New Jersey are not very active, I didn’t even feel that this is the NHL game. I didn’t have that “wow“ feeling. The Devils fans were mostly buzzing. But the second game against the Islanders was better. There was a real atmosphere of the NHL game and the game itself was much more interesting
Daria Tuboltseva: You’ve played at the Nassau Coliseum, the home arena for the New York Islanders, it’s known as one of the most atmospheric in the whole league.
Alex Volkov: Yes, the fans was very cool, always supporting their team. For example, when they see that the opponent is locked in their own defensive zone, they are trying to stimulate their own team. If the Devils player makes a wrong pass, the crowd starts booing. I’ve read the interview with Nico Hischier, he said that they don’t even know why the fans are treating them like that. It’s very hard to play with such crowd.
Daria Tuboltseva: How did they informed you that are going to make a debut? How did you spent the night before the game?
Alex Volkov: The Lightning played against the Rangers the day before. I watched that game on TV and saw that Pat Maroon got in a fight and hadn’t returned to the game. But when the game ended I turned off the TV and was already in bed when Julien [BriseBois - Lightning General Manager] called me. He asked me if I’m healthy and said that they have two injuries in the team. I’ve had a minor injury before, that’s why I was sent to the AHL. I said that everything’s okay, I’ve already played three games for the Syracuse Crunch. He told me to get ready and that next morning I’m going to New Jersey where I will make my debut.
Of course I was delighted, I called my parents and told them to watch the next game. Next morning we drove with Cory Conacher to New York, who has also been recalled, spending five hours on the road. It was a long day: we left at 8:45, made it to New York by dinner. After arriving, I slept for about an hour and then we left to the arena. The Lightning stayed at the hotel in New York, so we needed to get to the stadium. We’ve had a police escort but it still took us more than an hour because of traffic.
Daria Tuboltseva: The team asked for an escort?
Alex Volkov: This is a normal thing in the NHL. In big cities with crazy traffic like New York, Miami, if the arena is situated far from the hotel, teams using a police escort. I don’t know how long would it take without them. That day I’ve spent six hours sitting. By the way, I thought that I would feel worse. But I felt even better than after a normal practice sometimes.
Daria Tuboltseva: Do you think they would have called you if the team were on the western trip? After all Syracuse is in New York State.
Alex Volkov: I think so, I would have flown on the same night and made it to the destination before the game. I’ve read a lot about other hockey players and their first games in the NHL. It seems to me that the situation when the player is spending a lot of time on the plane before his debut is pretty common. Some of them even spent five or six hours on their way and then immediately went from the plane to the arena.
Everything’s happening very fast in the NHL. But yes, I’ve been thinking what could happen if the Lightning were in the other part of the country. Syracuse is a small city, there isn’t a lot of flights. So I was lucky that the team was in New York.
Daria Tuboltseva: Did you talk to some partners before the game?
Alex Volkov: Misha Sergachev called me first. When I was already on my way, he asked if I was recalled. Probably they already knew that someone is joining them from the Crunch. I said that this is me and he congratulated me. I’ve met with the team only in the bus and talked to other Russian guys while driving to the game. I found out that I’m playing with [Nikita] Kucherov only when we came to the arena. He didn’t even worry about it, he doesn’t care who are his linemates, he’s always very confident.
We just agreed that we will communicate a lot on the ice, I understand everything in English so there wasn’t any discomfort. The coach told me to play easier, not carrying the puck much in the offensive zone, because I was going to play with [Steven] Stamkos and Kucherov. They also want to do it and they need someone to work on the ice. But the game didn’t go very well, I didn’t have any shots. Honestly we played indistinct, our line didn’t do anything and allowed two goals. However I think that wasn’t our fault, but defenders. Either way the debut was spoiled.
Daria Tuboltseva: Then you played against the Islanders, probably the most organized team in the league. Did you feel that?
Alex Volkov: Honestly it was quite easy to play against the Islanders for me. I played with Kucherov and Stamkos again and I was already understanding them better. The opponent allowed us to do more, there was more space and time to make a decision, I talked constantly with Nikita.
I think we should have won that game, they played mostly in their defensive zone but punished us for every mistake. But the Islanders are allowing other teams to play, they’re acting a little bit passively. At first I was even surprised, the coaches told us that it will be a difficult matchup and I should prepare for very tough game because they don’t have such stars as our team.
Daria Tuboltseva: Except [Matthew] Barzal?
Alex Volkov: Yes, except him. That’s why I thought that the game will be tight, but as soon I stepped on the ice, I understand that the opponent letting us play, you just need to get to the opposing net. I was sure that we’re going to win, but we’ve been punished for some bad plays. But I think we’ve made a step forward comparing with the game against the Devils. I also watched the game against the Rangers, and the Lightning haven’t played well against them as well.
Daria Tuboltseva: That was probably the best game in the season for the Rangers.
Alex Volkov: Yes, I’ve heard it. But they have seven players who are under 21 years old. The Lightning should have beat them based just on their experience.
Daria Tuboltseva: I see you are following everything that happens in the NHL, even read the interview with Hischier.
Alex Volkov: There is nothing to do in Syracuse. Besides watching TV shows, Youtube and playing hockey, I’m not doing anything. The city is pretty small, there’re just two restaurants.
Daria Tuboltseva: Sergachev said it’s not much better in Tampa
Alex Volkov: Well, I think it’s more pleasant to live in Tampa due to the climate. The weather is pretty important. When it’s -20°C in winter and you have nothing to do, it’s different. I have a dog and don’t even have a place to walk with her.
Daria Tuboltseva: Not a single park?
Alex Volkov: There’s a very popular University in Syracuse, which is among the top 5 American universities. It occupies a very large territory. But I live in the city center and it takes 15-20 minutes to get there. We’ve been walking there when the weather were fine, but on the rest of the days there is nothing to do.
We’re not even visiting restaurants a lot, because the food is the same, we’re preferring to cook at home. This is probably why I read and watch a lot of stuff. And it’s just interesting to learn how others are playing and how are they scoring that much goals.
Daria Tuboltseva: Have you been surprised that you were immediately assigned to Kucherov and Stamkos line?
Alex Volkov: I assumed it. I like playing with Nikita, I think we have chemistry. So I thought that they will put me on the line with Kucherov but I wasn’t sure. I’m a winger and it doesn’t matter for me where to play - on the left or right wing. I know Nikita is playing on the right side and I’ve been playing on the left lately. But I’ve had some thoughts that I would have to play on the third on fourth line.
Daria Tuboltseva: As I know, Nikita Kucherov really wanted you to make the Lightning team one year ago. Did he really talk to Cooper about you?
Alex Volkov: I’ve read about it just like you. We’re talking a lot with Nikita, I know he wanted me to play for the Lightning. I wanted it too. But it doesn’t depend on players. The coaches and managers have their own vision. That means I wasn’t ready at that moment. Regarding last season I have no complaints against anyone, the Lightning had a great season. And the playoffs... it’s a little bit different.
Of course I wanted to play, but when team have 62 wins during the regular season, why should they change something? Who should be benched if everyone played well? I was disappointed that they didn’t allow me to play at the end of the regular season. I thought they would recall me for a couple games and then sent me down before the playoffs, but it didn’t happen.
Daria Tuboltseva: During the last year’s preseason Kucherov have been often staying with you on the ice after practices. What did he tell you?
Alex Volkov: We’re talking a lot, trying to help each other. I watch every Lightning game on TV and can tell him if he should have played different in some moment. Even now when I joined the team, I told him “You should fix this and this, you didn’t look very confident“. And he said: “Yes, you are right, I should work on it“. We’re trying to practice some plays on the ice, so if we’re playing together we already have a better chemistry.
Other partners may not understand it very well but we both speak the same language, both forwards and have the same understanding of hockey. I think Americans and Canadiens are a little bit different in this thing. During training camp, we’ve been often staying after practices to try some one on one plays or other things.
Daria Tuboltseva: Do you have an artificial ice in your garage?
Alex Volkov: I don’t have a garage, otherwise I would love to. I’ve been at Kucherov’s house and saw his rink in the garage. He has a net and a lot of sticks there. He didn’t do anything while I was there, but it’s clear that he’s working a lot there.
Daria Tuboltseva: So you are friends, he’s not your mentor?
Alex Volkov: No, we’re friends and partners. We’re talking a lot off the ice. When I was sent down to Syracuse we kept in touch, although we didn’t text much, because we had different schedules. But now, while I’m with the team, we’re talking every day. It’s great that there are four Russian players in the team. We’re trying to stick together.
Daria Tuboltseva: I’ve heard a lot of criticism of the AHL lately in Russia. For example Nikita Zadorov said that this is an awful league where you shouldn’t stay for a long time. Nikolai Prokhorkin said that AHL is not the place where you can grow as a player, because of a lot young players. What do you think since the Lightning have a lot of players from the Syracuse Crunch coming up every year?
Alex Volkov: Prokhorkin is four years older than me, he already played in the KHL, so it’s a step down for him. That’s why he thinks like that. I came from the VHL, didn’t have experience from the KHL, didn’t even understand what professional hockey is, so everything was a new for me in North America. It was very hard for me during the first season in the AHL, I didn’t understand what to do and where am I over the first ten games. I thought what am I even doing here. During the first preseason I played four games: I’ve scored two goals in the first one, but it wasn’t counted because they didn’t have video reviews, then I scored twice in the second game and these goals counted. When I came to Syracuse I thought it was easier to play in the NHL. At first I was in shock, but eventually adapted and started to score goals and everything went well
Everyone needs to spend at least one season in the AHL, you will be prepared better for the NHL. I’ve re-learned a lot of things, for instance you need to return in your own zone, stop and then get in the position. Europeans and Russians are used to make a turn, but then you’re a losing a vision of the ice. I have been left on the ice a lot of times for some extra work. Now it’s working like a clock. They’re working on it with [Mikhail] Shalagin now, before him [Alexei] Lipanov had the same issue.
Daria Tuboltseva: They’ve been already sent down to the ECHL
Alex Volkov: The competition is very big in Syracuse. The Syracuse Crunch are the one of the youngest teams in the AHL. During my first season there were 15 forwards, but after seven games the older guys have been traded to make a room for younger players. I think Misha Shalagin came at the wrong time, he could have stayed in Russia for one more year. Some of the guys are playing for the Crunch already for 2-3 years, they are experienced and almost ready for the NHL. They wouldn’t send them down to the ECHL because of Shalagin. If Shalagin and Lipanov came next season, they would have a 100 percent chance of playing in the AHL, and then moving on.
Daria Tuboltseva: You’ve said that the first season was very helpful. Didn’t you think that you stopped developing as a player during the second year?
Alex Volkov: I wouldn’t say so. The second season is also useful, you’re becoming a leader, getting the ice time on power play and penalty kill. You’re confident and couldn’t allow yourself what you could before. To play like you want, not like coach wanted. But I think there’s nothing to do more than two seasons. If you’re not making the first team on your third year, you can go home. Especially if you’re Russian. If you’re North American, you keep playing. But I think you will definitely stop growing as a player on the third year. I started this season in Syracuse and it wasn’t already interesting for me, I got tired of playing hockey in the AHL.
Actually, I’ve been the first candidate to be re-called last season, but I failed the start of the season. I had a solid preseason and was very disappointed that they sent me down. We were fighting with Mathieu Joseph for that last spot, but he clearly won that competition. He played great during an exhibition games. They promised me that they can call me up after a couple of games. I’ve been waiting and tried to play carefully, avoiding hits and tough plays, was afraid to get injured. It was a mistake. I’ve talked to general manager and he said that I had a bad start of the season and i need to return on my level. After 10-15 games, I realized that I shouldn’t wait and that I have to play. I started scoring and got back on track, but the Lightning played well and there wasn’t place for me.
Daria Tuboltseva: Do you think the hockey in the AHL is system-less?
Alex Volkov: We have a system. We have a good head coach in Syracuse. He’s one of the best coaches for young players I’ve ever seen. We had a discipline, no matter what kind of player you are, you will be still running at the end of the practice, earning your spot in the lineup. But that doesn’t apply to veterans. The coaches are not very demanding on them. But if it’s your 2-3 season in the AHL, and you became a leader, you will have to work everyday,
Daria Tuboltseva: The veterans are not getting recalled to the NHL.
Alex Volkov: They can play at the fourth line for example. If the team need someone on penalty kill, they will recall some experienced player from the AHL. Some AHL coaches even giving them much lesser workload.
Daria Tuboltseva: It’s interesting that the Syracuse Crunch producing players for the NHL every year. How are they doing it?
Alex Volkov: When [Alex] Killorn, [Ondrej] Palat, [Tyler] Johnson, [Vlad] Namestnikov and [Andrei] Vasilevskiy played for the Crunch, they had a different coach [ed. note - It was Jon Cooper and Rob Zettler]. So I don’t know how it was before. During my time in the Lightning organization, five players have been recalled. We have a very complex system, coaches are trying to develop players, looking at their weaknesses and working on them. We’ve had a skating coach, also skill coach, last year it was Dmitri Afanasenkov. This year it’s another coach from Europe. Two or three times a month, some new specialists are coming and working separately with players. I don’t think other teams invite new coaches so often.
The schedule in the AHL allows time to do a lot of extra work. They don’t have such possibilities in the NHL due to their hard schedule. Speaking about other teams, there are a lot of older players. Some of them have already played in the NHL, but have been sent down and not even pretending for leading roles. The first two lines in Syracuse can easily be recalled. We have a lot of practices, sometimes even twice per day. Of course we don’t like it.
Maybe it’s because of the city, there’s nothing to do so everyone is playing hockey. You can stay after the practice to train your shot, because what the point of just coming home and watching TV? Vladdy Namestnikov told me that he has been spending the half of the day at the arena too. We’re often staying to play table tennis or darts.
Daria Tuboltseva: How did you get that injury which didn’t let you start the season in the NHL?
Alex Volkov: That was one of the last games against the Florida Panthers. I got injured during the last minutes, when we were leading with a big advantage. The game was very dirty, there were three fights. I probably made a mistake - I got a chance to run on a breakaway and score during last shift. Yes, it was the end of the game, but I thought it wasn’t a reason to not try it. I forgot that the game is dirty, been trying to get the puck but missed a hit to the shoulder from Mike Hoffman. I got bumped by the boards and felt the pain. I was surprised, because I didn’t have a puck and still got a hit.
After the game, I put an ice on it and went home. Couldn’t sleep that night, couldn’t even roll over in bed. Then I realized it that could be something serious. The next day I went to the doctors, they told me that I would have to miss from three to four weeks. I don’t know if I would have stayed with the Lightning, if I didn’t get hurt. I think that coaches and GM weren’t very sure if that injury is serious. Probably I’ve been sent down not because of the injury. But I was very disappointed, I was very sure that I’m staying this year. And I also had a better preseason.
It’s not about productivity, I had to show them that I can play the kind of hockey which the team is playing, that I understand everything in English. Moreover, Cedric Paquette got injured in the last preseason game, but they still sent me to Syracuse. I was very angry. When I came to the farm team, they told me how long the recovery would take. There were a lot of thoughts in my head, but support of teammates helped. Everyone was surprised that they didn’t let me to stay. I think that I’ve been sent down not because of the injury, but they just didn’t see me in the lineup. It led to some thoughts, not about coming back to Russia but about asking for a trade. I thought that I maybe just didn’t fit the team. But I couldn’t do anything, because I was injured.
I’ve quickly got out of this state and got focused on hockey. Didn’t want to make the same mistake I made last season when I failed the start of the season. I said to myself that I need to play better so they recall me. The first game wasn’t very good, I had a feeling like I haven’t played for a whole year. Then, during a week-long pause, I returned to form. Next two games I played perfectly, haven’t scored but created a lot of chances. After that they recalled me, so everything worked out well for me. Maybe if I stayed from the start of the season they would quickly sent me down, because the team had a slow start.
This is part one of a lengthy interview. We will have part two tomorrow. Stay tuned!