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Nikita Kucherov, unheralded superstar part 1: The car, the parting, and the (very) beginning

Starting a series about Nikita Kucherov’s long and difficult story.

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In early 2018, Igor Rabiner of Sport-Express wrote a fantastic piece about Nikita Kucherov’s life story—from the very, very beginning. We’ll be bringing it to you in parts this week because it’s a very long article. Here is the first part of the translation, where Kucherov’s mother Svetlana and first coach Gennady Kurdin talk about Nikita’s early years and tell a lovely tale about gratitude.

If you use this material, please credit Igor Rabiner of Sport-Express and Natalia (@exxtragalactic) of Raw Charge.

A car for the first coach

On October 11, 2016, forward Nikita Kucherov signed a 3-year contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The deal was far more modest than expected (what’s $4.76 million a year for a young rising star in one of the NHL’s leading teams?), but still the first big one in his career. Soon after, Gennady Kurdin, Nikita Kucherov’s first coach, received a phone call. It was Svetlana, Kucherov’s mother.

“Gennadyich, pick the car.”

He didn’t understand at first. She explained—or, rather, reminded. Back when Kucherov was a child, in late 90s – early 00s, Kurdin, who lived close to the future Lightning player’s family, regularly drove him to practice and back. Kurdin spoke. The child in the back seat listened—and learned.

“I was driving a Zhiguli (t/n: VAZ 2105) at that time,” Gennady Kurdin reminisces. “Leningradka (t/n: Leningradskoye highway) was jammed all the time. Turns out, I told him one day: “[If/when] you play in the NHL, will you buy me a car?” I guess I got tired of driving that pile of garbage and said it in the heat of the moment. I didn’t even remember! But he did. Both my question and his answer, ‘I will.’

“After the World Cup, Nikita came over, spent about five days skating with my boys in Podolsk. Then he went back to America, signed the contract. Towards the New Year, Svetlana calls me all of a sudden and says, ‘Pick the car.’ Nikita remembered that old promise and sent her the money. I ask her, ‘What kind?’ And she tells me, ‘Whatever you like.’ So I got a Land Cruiser…”

“Kurdin was just joking: who knew Nikita would play in the NHL?” Svetlana Kucherova says. “He was so little. But as soon as he signed his first serious contract, he called me and said, ‘I’m going to buy a car for Gennadyich. Ask him which one he wants.’”

Nikita Kucherov and Gennady Kurdin at kids’ practice in Podolsk after the 2016 World Cup. Photo courtesy of Gennady Kurdin

Not every first coach will daily drive their student to practice and back. And not every student will remember a promise made in passing 15 (if not more) years ago—let alone fulfilling it. Maybe it’s not about the promise, but just about the human gratitude.

Kucherov and Kurdin found each other. Who knows—if Nikita’s parents trusted another coach with their 5-year-old son, what would have happened? This one sympathized, and when the parents were working, he’d sometimes even drive Nikita from practice to kindergarten, where the other kids were already napping and, per his mom’s request, there was lunch left only for the boy.

But for three years, there was no one there to make requests. It was just too far away—tens of thousands of kilometers.

Colonel’s son born in Maykop

“Nikita’s father is in the military,” Kurdin explains. “We had been practicing for a couple years when he was sent to Uruguay for work for three years. The wife had to go with the husband. Meanwhile, little Nikita was starting to make some progress on the ice. Svetlana came to me, ‘What do we do? How can we leave him?’

“I tell her, ‘You have your mom in Maykop; bring her here. I’ll drive him.’ Fortunately, I lived on the next street. Svetlana brought her mom; sometimes her sister came over to step in. Did Nikita miss his parents? He didn’t talk much back then. And later, too. Only recently has he started speaking more...”

Svetlana adds, “Nikita was seven. A difficult situation, but what could we do? Kurdin didn’t say, ‘He’s doing well, leave him here.’ He put it in a different way: ‘What if he makes it? And you’ll lose time.’

“Naturally, we had to do everything to make sure our child wouldn’t eventually tell us, ‘Had you not taken me with you, I could’ve been something.’”

“We called grandma and aunt from Maykop. We came home once a year, for our vacations. Nikita didn’t cry. He was sad, but he didn’t cry. I did. Of course, he was miserable without his mom. But it wasn’t for nothing. I told him, ‘Son, you’ll grow up, become a player and go wherever you want.’

“Once a week, he had practice at six in the morning, so he had to wake up at five. He likes to sleep in, but if he had to go somewhere, he’d get up at any time. Even when he was little, you only had to tell him we’d be late for practice, and he would leap up to his feet even with his eyes closed. A responsible one!”

Perhaps, this kind of self-discipline comes from the military roots, beginning from the paternal grandfather. Svetlana’s parents are alive and well; her mother, at 75, is working at Maykop’s football club “Druzhba” (t/n: means “friendship”) and decidedly doesn’t want to retire. By the way, last summer, for the first time in 11 years, Nikita visited Maykop, even if for just three days. Back in childhood, he would spend every summer there.

Igor Kucherov, Nikita’s father, is a colonel in the Russian Armed Forces. During the first years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Igor and Svetlana lived in Ashgabat, where the husband served. Svetlana would go home to her mother to give birth to her children and then come back. That’s how Adygea’s only NHL was born. (t/n: Adygea is one of the Russian republics; Maykop is its capital.)

Soon after Nikita was born, his parents took him to Turkmenistan. But after another year of serving, they faced an issue: if the family stayed there any longer, they would have to get Turkmen citizenship instead of Russian. In 1994, when Nikita was 1 year old, Igor was admitted to the M. V. Frunze Military Academy in Moscow, and the family got a flat. They would get two rooms out of three; the other was supposed to be for someone else. It stayed locked for a long time; thankfully, in the end, no one moved in.

“The kitchen was so tiny that even two people would barely fit if they wanted to have some tea and cake,” Kurdin recalls. Less than a year ago, Nikita Kucherov with his wife Anastasia bought a new house and remodeled the garage into a little hockey rink; I wonder if he remembers that apartment, too.

Svetlana Kucherova and her two sons, Denis and Nikita. Photo from the family archive

His father was so busy with work that he would only have a chance to get out on Sundays, to see his son’s games. He would go there in civilian clothes. And, unlike most of the other dads, who didn’t hesitate to express their opinions, he was quiet. It took long enough for the people in “White Bears”, the school Nikita graduated, to figure out that it was their star player’s father.

I ask Svetlana whether her husband, who is still serving, is able to visit her son in the United States.

“Not yet. But he has just a little bit left until retirement. After he resigns, we’ll have to wait a bit, and then he can go.”

“Was there a moment when you told yourself, ‘Nikita will definitely make it’?” I ask.

“No. I’ve known since he was born.”

Seeing my surprise, she continues. “He was very agile and playful. Played everything. When he was one, we got an old kick scooter for Denis, who is three years senior. Nikita waited until he was two, and then started racing so fast you couldn’t stop him if you tried. The scooter rattled so much it was terrifying. At only two, son would ride down hills so high it took my breath away. But I didn’t say anything and didn’t stop him. Then I noticed his good coordination…

To be continued