During the 2019 NHL Global Series games in Stockholm, Daria Tuboltseva from Sport24.ru and Igor Eronko from Sport-Express talked to Russian forward Alex Volkov, who made his NHL debut a couple of games before. It’s probably the first time Alex Volkov has spoken so openly about himself. It’s the second part of the interview, you can find the first part here.
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 well did you speak English when you first came to North America?
Alex Volkov: I thought I knew English, but when I came here it turned out that I didn’t. I had been learning it in school but without big desire. I knew some standard phrases, animal names, colors, the most popular verbs and adjectives. I thought it would be enough. But I didn’t understand almost anything, Americans speak very quickly, using a lot of slang. I was lucky that there were other Russians in the camp. This is how we became friends with Nikita [Kucherov] - I didn’t speak English and he has been helping me. When I was sent to Syracuse, they hired a tutor for me. Honestly, I was very lazy, I’ve been only five times to the lessons. I’ve tried to listen to my partners, how do they speak, what do they answer to questions. It helped me. I was lucky that I had Eric Cernak from Slovakia and Dominik Masin from Czech Republic. It was comfortable to talk to them, because English is not native language for them and they don’t swallow words. I’ve started with answering to questions like “What’s up?“ and “How are you?“. I’ve been listening how they’re responding and tried to do the same. Now I can speak with without problems, not like Kucherov or Sergachev though, but they’ve been here longer. Vasy didn’t speak either when he arrived, but now he speaks fluently. I speak probably worse than any of them, but at least I speak.
Daria Tuboltseva: Kucherov learned English by watching TV Show “Walking Dead“.
Alex Volkov: I’ve started to watch it too. It’s difficult to learn English watching TV shows and films without knowing basics. During my first year I though that i’ll learn it very quickly by watching “Friends“, but I didn’t understand anything. Now it’s better.
Daria Tuboltseva: Have you tried to turn on subtitles?
Alex Volkov: I’ve tried it on my way to Stockholm, but I can’t focus on subtitles. I want to watch the movie, not reading text at the bottom of the screen. And everyone’s speaking very fast, so you don’t have time to read anything.
Daria Tuboltseva: Have you adapted to the American mentality?
Alex Volkov: Yes. At first I couldn’t understand why they’re all dressing like that. Well, I still don’t get it. I didn’t understand how they can love some sports. Everyone loves golf in North America, I thought it was very boring when we first went to the golf course with the team. One year later I was already watching golf and was even interested. We’re making bets, I’m watching it in my free time, I know who Tiger Woods is. Same thing with football.
Daria Tuboltseva: Do you have fantasy in the team?
Alex Volkov: Yes, we’ve had fantasy league in Syracuse. PGA is a pretty popular golf tournament. We’ve divided into several teams, each team contained three people and we made some entry draft where we’ve been picking some players. The golf players have a plus/minus ratio, the one with the best ratio of his team is winning. The first year I did it randomly but my team finished in second. I was in the same team with Cernak and Masin, they knew how to play. Honestly, you need to bear with the mentality, you just cannot live differently. You’re adapting and slowly starting to like everything.
Daria Tuboltseva: Igor Ozhiganov was shocked at how players communicate with coaches. He even called some of them ass-lickers.
Alex Volkov: The relationship between coach and player is a little bit different in North America. The coach in Russia is the main person in the team, he rules everything. You better keep out of his sight. The atmosphere is different in North America, while coaches in Russia are pretty tough, everyone is mostly joking around in America. We have discipline, but everyone are more relaxed. It transits into everyday life. The coach can go on a dinner with team. In Russia, you’re just trying to hide from your coach. I don’t think it’s bad in America, it’s just different. At first it was weird, but we had been growing up in a different environment. I think every Russian player’s faced it.
Daria Tuboltseva: What do you think about some compliments from head coach? There’s a myth in Russia, that if the NHL coach is saying good things about Russian player, he will be sent down to the AHL next morning.
Alex Volkov: I think they’re just trying not to offend players. Even if the player made some mistakes, they’re still saying that he played well. Every hockey player reads interviews. I think it’s just a psychological method how to encourage young player. If coach would say that the player played crappy, he will be disappointed and might stop working. Positive feedback can add motivation.
Daria Tuboltseva: But this is a little bit hypocritical. They’re telling you “good job“, but still sending to the AHL.
Alex Volkov: After all, this is just business, no one owes you anything. It’s not some kind of sports school for children in Moscow, where the coach must educate the player. You have to be a ready player in the NHL.
Daria Tuboltseva: Is the life expensive in Syracuse?
Alex Volkov: Yes, probably because of the University. I thought that the accommodation would be cheaper. We’ve been to Charlotte, the weather is great there and the city is amazing. I looked how much would be to rent an apartment there and it was cheaper than in Syracuse.
Daria Tuboltseva: About 1-1,5 thousands?
Alex Volkov: You cannot rent an apartment for less than a one thousand dollars in America. This year I rented an apartment in the same house where I lived during my first year. It cost me two thousand dollars then. I had been sent down as the last, so when I arrived everyone already found something. And it’s Syracuse, not New York where you find accommodation almost everywhere. Also the school year has begun, everything was taken. I didn’t want to lease or buy a car. The arena was in the city centre and i wanted to live in the city centre. The apartment for two thousand dollars shocked me. I lived in St. Petersburg before and paid 23 thousand rubles per month (around 360 dollars). And it was a good apartment, after reconstruction. In Charlotte, you can rent a flat for 1500 dollars in the city centre, but you can also have a swimming pool, because the weather is nice. Now I’m also renting for 1500 dollars but the agent helped me with negotiating and I can explain what i want by myself.
The prices were very shocking for me during first year. When you’re moving from Russia to USA, do not try convert prices to rubles. You’re going to the supermarket and thinking how could milk costs more than 200 rubles (about 3 dollars). It’s the same with taxi: it takes you three minutes to get to your place and costs you 10 dollars. It’s about 650 rubles, but in St. Petersburg you can drive through half of the city for 300 rubles (4,5 dollars). Then I got used to it, now I know how much the usual things costs in US and i’m taking it easier.
Daria Tuboltseva: Did you have enough money for a living?
Alex Volkov: Sure. I’ve got a signing bonus of 92,5 thousands dollars and my salary is 70 thousand. But I didn’t even buy anything with this money, the bonus is still in the account. The salary was enough and I even saved some money. And I didn’t even deny myself anything. I can afford to buy something expensive in the shop.
Daria Tuboltseva: Your girlfriend moved to Syracuse with you. Did it help?
Alex Volkov: Yes, I really needed an emotional support. I can score twice, but if I understand that I missed two opportunities I would be very disappointed. I’m coming home unsatisfied, I can’t even talk or sleep and she will always cheer me up and distract me from my thoughts. It was very hard without her during my first year. Also there’s always good food at home. I didn’t really learn how to cook by myself and didn’t even want to.
Daria Tuboltseva: Ilya Mikheyev can’t imagine his life without soup. What about you?
Alex Volkov: I didn’t really love soup in Russia and I’m not eating it in America. Maybe he will change his mind too. I don’t eat American food, it’s too fatty, I prefer regular Russian food. The Americans love going to the restaurants, we’re doing it only at weekends, otherwise we’re trying to cook healthy food at home.
Daria Tuboltseva: The NHL are players getting 100 dollars for a dinner. How much are they giving you in the AHL?
Alex Volkov: I don’t even know how much it is in the NHL.
Alex Volkov: It’s probably the same. It’s about 50 dollars in the AHL. But you’re getting breakfasts and lunches with the team and 50 dollars for a dinner is good money.
Daria Tuboltseva: You could probably even afford a glass of wine.
Alex Volkov: Yes, you could even invite someone.
Daria Tuboltseva: A lot of people are becoming vegans in hockey. Did you think of becoming one too?
Alex Volkov: Not really, I’ve heard Nikita Scherbak decided to become a vegan. I thought he was joking when I read it. Then I saw his response and was surprised. Hockey is a specific sport, you cannot live without proteins. Also if you’re playing hockey your whole life, you’re probably eating the same food and it’s not a good idea to completely change your diet. The body is used to animal food, you may lack some energy without it and the recovery will take longer. You can’t reject it so sharply. I can understand it during the offseason, but it’s too risky during the season. Anything could happen.
Daria Tuboltseva: There are some vegetarians in the NHL: Zdeno Chara, Ryan O’Reilly. They don’t eat meat, but using some protein derived from beef.
Alex Volkov: Didn’t even know that. Honestly I don’t even imagine how to live eating only grass. This is not tasty at all.
Daria Tuboltseva: Tell us about your youth. You moved from Moscow to St. Petersburg when you were 16 to play in the SKA organization. Pretty unusual story.
Alex Volkov: I played for the HC Penguins when I was a kid. I’d been their top scorer and they transferred me to the HC Rus’, which cooperated with Penguins. I’ve had options to go either to the HC Rus’ or HC Spartak. But I thought there will be a higher competition in Spartak, so I’ve chosen the first option. Everything was good, we’ve had an amazing team. The year before the KHL Draft, me and Yegor Rykov (we’ve always played together) were told, that there are four teams which want to buy us the year before the draft so other teams wouldn’t get us. They were Dynamo Moscow, CSKA Moscow, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl and SKA St. Petersburg. Lokomotiv was out as the first, they’ve had a lot of their own players. It’s a strong team and there are a lot of players to choose from in the near future. Also I didn’t really like Dynamo. So I chose between CSKA and SKA. CSKA would have been a difficult option, but SKA didn’t have a lot of players, they had a pretty weak sports school.
We had been choosing together with Rykov and were thinking - why not to try it? They’ve taken us for the MHL (Junior Hockey League in Russia). We understood that we wouldn’t get a chance to play in the MHL in other teams. So we’ve agreed. SKA paid for us, HC Rus’ is not a rich team, they needed money. The preseason was okay, then Rykov stayed with the team and I was sent back. There was an option in the contract, that if I didn’t make the team, they loan me to the HC Rus’. They probably saw something in Rykov and I was a long shot. I had been recalled a half a year after and stayed with the team. Everything went well since that moment. I played with them, they protected us during the KHL Draft. Then I made it to the VHL and after the NHL Draft, I left the team.
Daria Tuboltseva: I know you’ve had an injury before the draft. You missed several months.
Alex Volkov: Yes, I’ve been at the Super Series with the National team and when I came home, I was sure that I was going to the WJC... I think it was the SKA-Neva coaching staff’s fault. I spent 35 hours on the way from Canada and they still put me in the roster. I didn’t even sleep. So I got injured in the same day I arrived. We’ve played in Ryazan. The ice was awful. There was some track in the ice, I got into it during the game and tucked up a leg. My ankle was broken and I was out for three months. The tendons were almost torn off. The recovery took a long time, it was a serious injury. I don’t like remembering that. It was the coaches’ fault for sure. But on the other hand, I thought it was for the better. I might have played awful at the WJC and they wouldn’t have picked me in the second round. And it could be another team. Of course, I could even climb higher if i played well. But could even stayed in the VHL. I said to myself that everything’s for the best.
Daria Tuboltseva: I remember that draft. And I remember that I had to check what player the Tampa Bay Lightning selected as the 48th pick. First of all, you were almost 20 and it was already your third draft. No one paid attention to you before. Secondly, you haven’t played at the WJC, didn’t play much for the national team, but somehow the Lightning picked you.
Alex Volkov: Honestly, the scouts had been visiting me during those two years. They told me that everything’s good and they will pick me in later rounds. I’ve said okay, I will be very glad. But no one selected me. I didn’t really think about it. During the last year, a lot of scouts came to see me. Probably 15 different teams. The Lightning were one of the most active teams. A lot of their people visited me, including Al Murray, the Director of Amateur Scouting, and his assistants. I couldn’t even imagine that I will be selected that high. But I knew it would be the Lightning. I was even afraid that some other team will get me before. As they told me, they were also afraid that I won’t make till the third round.
I think they wanted to take Alexey Lipanov before me. But maybe I’m wrong. Probably they picked me because there was a rumour that another team will try to get me in the second or the third round, but the Lightning had only the 76th pick in the third round. I was very surprised. I’ve been at our country house at the Draft day and was very worried about it. Because I already had a bad experience: I had to go to the CHL but haven’t been selected at the CHL Import Draft. And I even didn’t come to the SKA training camp, lied to my team. I was 18 years old and I decided to go to Canada. My agent told me that I will be chosen. The training camp is starting at the 27th of May and the Import Draft is at the 1st of June. And i had to wait and thinking about an excuse why I’m not coming. I said that I was sick, had diarrhea and can’t get on the train. They told me to take diapers and come there, haha. Eventually I wasn’t selected, I was very shocked. The agent called me and said: “Come to the USHL“. What the hell? So I’ve came to the SKA training camp. I had been punished, they reduced my salary by 50 percent.
Daria Tuboltseva: The young players are not getting paid a lot of money in SKA, not only there though.
Alex Volkov: I’ve played for the Russian team. If you’re playing for the national team, you’re getting four times more than the others.
Daria Tuboltseva: A lot of good players from the MHL getting about 20,000 rubles per month (about 300 dollars).
Alex Volkov: We’ve had like three times more than them. Because of playing for the national team. I don’t think it’s bad. I think it’s everywhere the same, not only in SKA. And they took half of my salary.
Daria Tuboltseva: Did they find out the reason why you were late?
Alex Volkov: Yes, they are not fools. That’s why I was punished. But they “forgave“ me a year later and re-signed a contract with me. I signed the contract that I was supposed to get without punishment. The salary is increasing every year. But before the NHL Draft, I decided to go again. The contract with SKA was over, they made me a qualifying offer. I had been waiting, although they asked me to sign it as soon as possible. They probably understood that something’s wrong. Imagine what should I think about, what should I do? If no one selects me, it’s over. I didn’t even watch the start of the second round. Turned off the phone, layed down in bed and stared at the ceiling. And then my brother comes running to me and told that I was selected with 48th pick. I though he was lying. I was quite astonished. A lot of people congratulated me. At that moment, I could tell that I was leaving.
Daria Tuboltseva: So you’ve waited till the end at your own risk?
Alex Volkov: No, the NHL draft was at the end of June, and the training camp was postponed till the early July. I would have signed a contract when I came there. It was the first time when they send me a copy of contract to sign. Mostly, you’re just coming to their office in St. Petersburg and signing the contract. If I wasn’t selected, I will be negotiating about conditions there. Because the qualifying offer is usually standard, there’s a small salary raise, but that’s it. But when I was selected, I immediately said that i’m leaving.
Daria Tuboltseva: Why did you want to leave? Didn’t see yourself in the SKA?
Alex Volkov: I just understood that I wouldn’t be developing there. I understood that it would be difficult to get to the first team, no matter what player I am. It was like that back then, now it’s changed, they started giving chances to young players.
Daria Tuboltseva: I was surprised that you scored 50 points in the AHL the year after playing in the VHL.
Alex Volkov: I thought I was lucky before, but the second year was the same. I always liked to score goals. It was a great achievement for me that I set the new record for rookies in goals, which was held by Cedric Paquette before. He had 22 goals and I scored 23. Alex Barré-Boulet beat me though, scoring 34 goals last season.
Daria Tuboltseva: You’ve been selected even higher than Nikita Kucherov. Did you discuss it?
Alex Volkov: No, I think it doesn’t matter. We don’t have it in Tampa, no one is comparing to others. There are a lot of undrafted players on the team.
Daria Tuboltseva: Have you met Steve Yzerman, who drafted you?
Alex Volkov: Yes, when he worked for the Lightning. The meeting with the general manager is always happening at the start and the end of training camp. Just asked me how I’m doing, told me what they had been wanting from me, rated my play.
Daria Tuboltseva: Did he give you any advice?
Alex Volkov: I didn’t speak English very well then, no one talked to me a lot. I just said a couple of phrases, it didn’t take a lot of time. Probably it’s different with North Americans, since they’re speaking the same language.
Daria Tuboltseva: For example, Yzerman told Kucherov that he’s fat and should lose weight.
Alex Volkov: I had to lose weight too. In Russia, after dinner we always went to supermarket to buy some snacks and ate it while watching TV shows. No one really cared about our weight or the body fat percentage. When I came to the Lightning, they told me that I had 16 percent of body fat.
Daria Tuboltseva: It’s pretty a lot.
Alex Volkov: Actually Kucherov had the same fat percentage. It’s not that much, but they’re measuring the body fat differently. Most teams doing the standard measurements: on the sides, calves, back and chest. At the Lightning, they also add chin and cheeks, so it’s a little bit higher. I’m practicing with a lot of guys during the offseason and I look even thinner than someone who has a better body fat percentage than me, but then i’m remembering that it’s different in Tampa. The standard at our team is 14 percent, others have 12 percent. When I came to the developing camp after the NHL Draft, I had 16 percent, but three months later it was already 13 percent. Now I have 10,5 percent, it’s the lowest point for me, I can’t go lower due to my body structure.
Daria Tuboltseva: Was it difficult to change your diet?
Alex Volkov: Yes, it was very hard to prepare for the main training camp. I used to eat pizza, some sweets, but now everything should be boiled, without any salt. I could only afford myself one Rondo after practice. Now I got used to it, don’t even want to eat junk food. I can afford it sometimes at weekends, but that’s it.
Daria Tuboltseva: Did you have the rookie dinner already?
Alex Volkov: Not yet. If everything will be okay, it will be in Tampa I think. We have only two rookies this year, wouldn’t be easy.
Daria Tuboltseva: So you are going to pay for the whole dinner?
Alex Volkov: Don’t think so, since there are just two of us, the veterans will help us.
Daria Tuboltseva: Have you already found an accommodation in Tampa?
Alex Volkov: No, I haven’t been there since the training camp. My girlfriend and my stuff are in Syracuse. I think it will be clear if I’m staying after coming back from Sweden, but you’re still living at the hotel during your first month.
Daria Tuboltseva: Do you think your trip to Sweden was planned?
Alex Volkov: Don’t think so, there are just 23 players on the roster, so I didn’t think about it.
Daria Tuboltseva: The Winnipeg Jets have been allowed to bring the third goalie last year, eventually they brought 25 players.
Alex Volkov: We also have 25 players, two of them technically out of the roster, the third goalie from Syracuse is also with us. If someone will get hurt, he will replace him, but now he’s not even getting paid like an NHL player. No one would be able to come here, if someone will be injured during the first game. We can play with 11 forwards, but the goalie just one.
Daria Tuboltseva: So, just because you couldn’t plan your trip to Sweden, no one came to see you.
Alex Volkov: Yes, it was discussed during the training camp, but when I got injured. My parents didn’t get the Schengen visa because I was in Syracuse. But now it was already late. They will come to see me in Tampa if everything will be fine.
Daria Tuboltseva: Did they already visit you?
Alex Volkov: They visited me one by one. I have an apartment with two rooms and live with my girlfriend, but my father, mother, brother and grandmother were going to see me, so there isn’t place for everyone. I have also a grandfather, but he can’t bear such long flights because of his age. At first, my mother and grandmother came to see me, father and brother arrived a one month later. But they didn’t come anymore, because there’s nothing to do in Syracuse.
Daria Tuboltseva: Are your parents related to sport?
Alex Volkov: No, my father played when he was a child. My brother used to play hockey, he’s two year older than me. He played until 11, then quit and started again at the age of 15, but just for himself. He has weak bones, he injured his knee twice and finished playing by the age of 18.
Daria Tuboltseva: Have you ever met with the MMA fighter Alexander Volkov?
Alex Volkov: No, but my cousin has been to his fight in Moscow and brought me a poster with his signature “To Alex Volkov from Alex Volkov“. I have it in my summer house in Russia.
Daria Tuboltseva: You are a very mysterious hockey player: there is almost no information about you, you didn’t give any interview.
Alex Volkov: I don’t really like to talk when you haven’t done a lot. Wouldn’t either say I was popular. And I had the other agent, now Dan [Milstein] is working closely with media. Now I understand that everyone’s interested how I got to the NHL.
Daria Tuboltseva: Do you think that the fact that the NHL is broadcasting free in Russia is good for the KHL?
Alex Volkov: I think it’s nice. People now have something to compare with. Previously, we just watched the highlights and didn’t even understand how everything works in the NHL. Now everyone can watch their favourite players for free, without searching for illegal streaming. When I was a kid, I couldn’t even imagine how they’re playing in the NHL. I didn’t even have a favourite player. I watched only the highlights, but it’s just a small part of the game, they don’t even show you the whole goal. But people can understand now why Nikita Kucherov has become the MVP.
Daria Tuboltseva: Do you watch the KHL?
Alex Volkov: But how? It’s not broadcasted here. I think every Russian player would watch it, but it’s not allowed due to geo restrictions. Turning on the VPN taking a lot of time, it would slow down the stream and the quality will be poor. I’d love to watch it, but it’s not possible. I think it’s bad for the league, the KHL is not getting popular outside of Russia. It’s also a problem for players, many of them might want to come there, but they don’t know anything about hockey in Russia. They’re mostly getting information from teammates.
Daria Tuboltseva: Did your teammates ask you about Russia?
Alex Volkov: They are asking about some friends who play in Russia. For example, Nikita Nesterov played for the Syracuse Crunch before, some of them asking how is he doing. A lot of guys from the AHL know Nail Yakupov or Mikhail Grigorenko. Players who had some offers from Russia were asking if players are getting paid in Russia. There was a lot of rumours.
Daria Tuboltseva: Do you know the The Spittin’ Chiclets podcast, they have a lot of crazy stories about Russia.
Alex Volkov: I’ve heard, but didn’t want to go deeper.
Daria Tuboltseva: The one about players getting paid by bags full of money?
Alex Volkov: Yeah, some of them think like that about Russia. He listens to someone who speaks about it and think it’s true. But it’s not. At least it wasn’t like that in SKA. I’ve been at the camp with the main team and the level of organization is pretty good. Probably the same as in the NHL, maybe even better. But I don’t know about other teams.
Daria Tuboltseva: Roman Rotenberg (Deputy Chairman of the HC SKA) would be proud of you.
Alex Volkov: I’m very honest. It’s even better now at SKA. When I left, the Hockey Town wasn’t finished yet (the SKA hockey base). We’ve just moved there at the end of the season, but everything was amazing. I talk to some guys, watch them playing and see what opportunities they have, all the equipment for practicing - it’s just the another level. We didn’t have it. I know they have a development coach, they have special camps. I think they don’t have such conditions for young players in North America. But the system is different here, there aren’t sports academies, just the team organization. In North America, parents pay for their children. In SKA you live at the hockey base, they do everything for you and even get paid.
Daria Tuboltseva: The SKA-1946 just had a record winning streak in the MHL.
Alex Volkov: The result is already there. Just the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl had such hockey academy before. Their teams have always been very strong.
Daria Tuboltseva: When you played for the SKA, have you felt that this team bought almost everyone? They’ve won their second Gagarin Cup when you left.
Alex Volkov: Honestly, I didn’t even think about it. I wasn’t close to making this team, and I understood that I wouldn’t be in the near future. We just did our job, tried to make the national team. If you’re playing for the national team, you have bigger chances to get into the first team.
Daria Tuboltseva: They had Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk, Nikita Gusev...
Alex Volkov: Well, what’s wrong with it if it’s allowed. Any club can do that. They are trying to set the cap hit now. But I don’t understand why everyone criticize them because they did everything according to the rules. If someone wants to win, he will do everything for this. They now have sold-outs because a lot of stars played in the St. Petersburg. Before it wasn’t very popular there. No one knew what KHL is. When I played for the HC Rus, we didn’t even understand what kind of league it is. I didn’t even know what the MHL is. We didn’t watch the KHL highlights, only watched the NHL ones. Now some players want to play in the KHL.
Daria Tuboltseva: A lot of players are expecting to go to the NHL next summer.
Alex Volkov: We don’t know how it will be. It’s important to go to the NHL, not the AHL. I’m speaking about older players, who wants to go like Panarin, Gusev or Dadonov. I don’t think that the KHL level will fall because of it. Some young players will take their place. The teams won’t be able to have a lot of stars, will trust more younger players. I can already see that the teams in the league are becoming more equal.
Daria Tuboltseva: Now it’s just CSKA and the others.
Alex Volkov: Before it was SKA and the others. Now it’s CSKA. The teams are moving on, HC Avtomobilist invited Pavel Datsyuk. But the young players are not very noticeable. Damir Zhafyarov from Torpedo plays great but he’s already 25 years old. Perhaps there will be more young players next year. Maybe even in the SKA.