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Nikita Kucherov, unheralded superstar part 2: Financial adversity, Silver Sharks and White Bears

Nikita Kucherov’s character took root in childhood, and here’s why.

Hockey: World Cup of Hockey-Semifinals-Russia vs Canada John E. Sokolowski-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 second part of the translation, where Kucherov’s mother Svetlana and first coach Gennady Kurdin talk more about Nikita’s early years and his hockey development.

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

Born to play

It was no coincidence. Svetlana Kucherova is a master of sport (t/n: a Russian rank for athletes; equates to national champion) in athletic gymnastics. She did it from 7 to 14, when she had an injury. After that, Svetlana worked as a coach while also studying at the Physics and Mathematics faculty of a pedagogical institute. Though, truth be told, Nikita outright refused to do anything (for example, stretching) under mom’s guidance. He only had one coach and it was Kurdin. Mom was just mom. Svetlana quit coaching after marrying Igor, who, by the way, had played football for many years.

Once, while walking from work, Kucherov’s father saw an ad about a municipal skating rink, “Silver Sharks”, that had just opened nearby. The parents decided to send both sons there.

Denis was already playing football not so far away, and they had tried to get a spot for Nikita as well. However, the coach didn’t even want to hear about a 4-year old kid, even though the child in question was better with the ball than some of his 7-year-olds. Even now, Nikita loves football, basketball and volleyball during vacations. But back then, Svetlana’s hurt pride made her decide: no football for Nikita, ever.

“I remember putting roller skates on Nikita and going with him to sign up for the hockey classes,” Svetlana recalls. “In front of the school, there was a concrete court. The way he set off! The skates were his brother’s, much bigger in size, but he didn’t care. He skated so well that a woman passing by told us, “He’s going to be a famous sportsman.” Igor and I turned and said, “We know.” And kept going.

I’ve never had any doubts about his future career in sports. He wanted to be the best in everything! Whatever game he picked up, he wouldn’t stop until he outplayed everyone in his field of vision. Turns out, he can even play chess, and I didn’t know; his grandpa taught him. He won’t ditch the ball until he does everything perfectly, either. I filmed him once while he was playing football. He had so much energy! I would say, “God, when will his battery run out?” He just kept going. Our friend told us, “Give up your hockey: our country has many good hockey players and so few good footballers.” But by then, it was impossible.

Svetlana explained to me why she didn’t make it big in her sport and Nikita did. It was not just the injury. “I would take pity on myself sometimes, do the exercise while the coach was looking and stop once they turned away. I felt ashamed but couldn’t help it. Nikita doesn’t spare himself. Ever. He sets a goal and moves towards it. There are no steps left or right—only forward. I wouldn’t be able to do it. The way he motivates himself! And whenever I call him, he’s never satisfied with himself. After every game.”

On their first day in “Silver Sharks”, the family were told, “Come back when you get something to wear on your feet. Buy some skates.” However, there was nothing to buy them with. The rink opened on September 5th, 1998. Less than a month earlier, the Russian economy had crashed; salaries hadn’t been paid for half a year. That’s when Svetlana decided on a rather unconventional move.

“I asked them, ‘Do you hire?’ They told me they had a janitor spot. There, I met Kurdin and other people. I thought they would give skates to the rink workers but they didn’t. I worked there for a week, waited until someone brought in used skates and bought them on credit. Paid for them when I could. I worked as a janitor for a month or two.

“Why would I continue? I reached my goal; by that time, we got our salaries back. The skates were three sizes too big, but did it really matter? Nikita used them for three years. Honestly, thanks to the people who were with us at that time. It was hard. But we survived. People sympathized and gave what they could. Obviously, we couldn’t just wait until we got the money.

Here’s one fact to understand the severity of the Kucherov family’s situation. When it was time for Nikita to go to 1st grade, he and Denis didn’t go to school with bouquets. (t/n: It is traditional for Russian schoolchildren to bring flowers to their teachers on September 1st, the first day of classes) Each of them carried just one flower.

“There was no work available. Sveta became a janitor and brought both her sons into hockey,” Kurdin adds. “Denis quickly lost interest, though. They weren’t particularly well off and had little money, so we got them what we could. Nikita was very little. The shorts went below his knees. The helmet was huge. He was so funny! And became a top scorer in the NHL.

“To be honest, with our system, if he hadn’t got into my group… Had his mom brought him to CSKA, no one would have even listened. But there, she worked with us—‘our’ person, so to speak, so we felt the need to help. The kid started skating from zero—and he was good at it. Every day, you could see he enjoyed it.”

“Yes, Nikita started skating right away,” Svetlana confirms. “I was with my camera then, to film his first steps on ice for the family history. I thought he would fall but he didn’t. The coordination! Nikita could have gone to any sport. He just has the natural talent.”

Nikita shared the skates with his brother, so one of them had to skip the practice. Looking at both of them, mom concluded: “Denis, it’s not your sport.” After that, Denis did pentathlon, skiing, learned to play the viola in a music school. He got degrees in economics and law, completed a postgraduate program and became a sales director in an online shop. All in all, he followed a standard path for a modern youth.

“Did you have to raise your voice at Nikita often?” I ask the mother.

“No. Nikita was a ‘comfortable’ child. He always watched what we scolded Denis for, and never did it. So we never told him off; there was just no reason.

“So no belting?” (t/n: It’s not as outrageous a question as it might seem. Unfortunately, some old ways are still persistent in the Russian society, at least among the older generations.)

“What are you talking about?! He was a normal boy. Belt, why… A sports field was the only place to find Nikita. Even when school and practice were over, he would go play something else in the schoolyard. I always knew exactly where he was.

Unlike the Silver Sharks, where children trained in whatever they had, the White Bears gave out uniforms. Svetlana says Nikita was so in love with his gloves that for some time, he even went to sleep in them. In his free time, he would stand in a goaltending position and make his dad throw a ball at him for hours. They even thought he’d become a goalie. But it didn’t last for long.

Back then, in the very beginning, happened the only episode (that Svetlana remembers) when Nikita cried. He stumbled on the edge of the rink and lost four teeth. Thankfully, those were baby teeth.

The White Bears. Can you find Nikita Kucherov among these kids? Hint: he’s small and sitting in the bottom row.
Photo from the family archive

Two little Nikitas

Svetlana is meticulous by nature. She went to a bookstore and looked for a hockey encyclopedia to find mentions of Kurdin. She was pleased to find out he had won the World Junior Championship in Sweden. “You even played in the first national team!” To which he replies, “No, only the second.” Still, it was an indication for the mother that this was no random person. Kurdin even began the 1980/81 season playing on a line with Vladimir Petrov. But once, as Alexei Kasatonov told me (and Kurdin confirmed), Kurdin accidentally bumped into Petrov during a game, and the latter hit his head on the ice. When Kurdin hovered over him, Petrov opened his eyes and said, “You had a chance, Gena, and now you don’t” … and passed back out. Indeed, Kurdin didn’t do well in CSKA.

Two of his students did. Two Nikitas: Kucherov and Gusev. Igor Ozhiganov wasn’t too far behind, either. In fact, in childhood, the two of them were behind Ozhiganov—in height. Until the age of around 15, they were both tiny; just look at the pictures. Imagine how hard it would have been for them if Kurdin hadn’t protected them from the bigger guys.

Nikita Kucherov and Nikita Gusev were always smaller than their peers, but it taught them speed and quick decision-making.
Photo from the family archive

For Nikita, hockey quickly became his whole life. He covered the walls of his room with posters: of the Red Wings and the Russian five, of Bure, Yashin, Sundin. But so much depends not on you but on the circumstances. If Kurdin hadn’t got another job quickly enough…

It was a typical story from the 1990s. Kucherov’s first coach worked for the “Silver Sharks” for a year. A two-time USSR champion with the early 80s’ CSKA, a medalist with Spartak, he finished his career in Finland. When he got back to Moscow, he saw a new ice rink being built near his home. He talked to the director. “Do you have a diploma?” Kurdin said yes. “I don’t understand anything about any of this, just go and work.”

The director was a former Komsomol worker and a prefecture official. At first, it was all good, but after half a year, the boss would rent the rink out to anyone: criminals, businessmen. Kurdin found it impossible to practice at nine in the morning. Then at eight, then at seven. The coach complained—and heard in response, “Again with your freeloaders!” He meant the kids—the ones the rink had been built for. “Do you think before you speak?!” Kurdin roared. He says (not without a hint of pride) it was when he became earning his reputation as a quarrelsome coach.

The quarrel led to job termination—and for cause. Kurdin sued the director. Had he lost the case, he wouldn’t have been able to work as a youth coach any more. The Moscow Sports Committee supported the director at first, but then told him they would order to take down the rink if he lost. So it happened.

By that time, Kurdin had already been working at another municipal rink, White Bears. Unofficially at first: director Mikhail Avachyov told him he would only be able to hire him if he won the court case. But most importantly, the kids didn’t lose time: Kucherov, Gusev and the rest moved to the new rink with Kurdin from the very first day of the new season.

However, Avachyov didn’t give Kurdin the 1993 kids. He gave him the class of 1992, Gusev’s year. “Can we join you?” Svetlana asked. “You can. But if he can’t handle it, no hard feelings.” That team had five boys born in 1992, but only Kucherov managed to stay. Though he mostly kept quiet in the company of teammates: joking about the big guys had consequences, after all.

Kucherov and Gusev didn’t grow much until they were 15. Even Sergei Gimayev, the director of the CSKA school at that time, kept warning Kurdin about it. “Gena, they’re tiny!” he pressed when they were travelling by train to Kurdin’s homeland for the opening of Viktor Konovalenko’s memorial. “So what! You were big, and Kharlamov was small. They’ll grow! You have to wait for the little ones…”

Kurdin saw it come true, for both Nikitas. One is going to the Olympics as one of the main Russian stars. The other has no equal in the NHL.

The coach thwarted any of the bigger boys’ attempts to hit the smaller ones on the hands with their sticks when the latter outplayed them: it could kill all the creativity. More than that, during games, Kucherov was given his own… enforcer, Alexander Frolenkov. “He loved fighting and would take every chance,” Kurdin laughs. “Goons were everywhere at that time, and in my team too.”

“Kucherov didn’t have forward speed,” Kurdin recalls. “He couldn’t get away because he was younger. But he and Goose would still beat everyone with their passes. During their last year in the school, people, regular fans, would come to see just them. Some would even go to other rinks. They liked watching real hockey!

Even at 15, Kucherov didn’t have much strength for shooting, but I didn’t press on it: I taught him that a shot is the natural continuation of the pass. When the player is solely concentrating on their shot, they won’t see where they’re throwing. Nikita always sees. That’s why we focused on the precision of passes. It was clear that when he grew up, he would shoot just fine.

Nikita’s childhood room, filled with hockey posters and banners.
Photo from the family archive

Now he stays after each practice to shoot 200 times. Last summer, when he bought a new house, he quickly remade the garage into a hockey rink. It has plastic ice, 20 sticks with different blade curves (he saw colleagues use two other kinds and asked to buy them), nets, special walls that cushion the shots, and a variety of pucks of different masses, including weighted ones.

“Does Nikita remind you of any of your CSKA partners?” I ask.

“Remind… Not really, no. I’ve seen Kharlamov, Makarov—two generations. Nikita has things in common with many players, including those two. He is essentially a Soviet pass-oriented player. I raised him as one for ten years. Sasha Ovechkin is a pure NHL player; I think it’s because he grew up in the 90s. That’s how hockey players were brought up at that time—to play for themselves. Ovechkin, Kovalchuk… They’re great masters, but more of individualists.”

The unpredictable

Kurdin elaborated on the topic and gave his opinion on why Kucherov seems to be doing even better in the playoffs than during the regular season while Ovechkin’s situation isn’t as smooth.

“I always tell my boys, ‘You have to be unpredictable.’ A player shouldn’t do the same thing because the defenders are studying him. They watch you so much in the NHL! Ovechkin will come, stand in the left circle, get the puck and shoot. Everyone knows it.

“Why does he stop scoring when the playoffs come? Because the team gets a special person to stand there next to him and take away the puck. It doesn’t happen during the regular season because players think he’ll break them with his slap shot. But in the playoffs, they do it anyway, and the result is very different.

(Editor’s note: This was written in 2018 and is a good example of why drawing broad conclusions based on a small number of playoff games isn’t a good idea. Just two years later, this quote doesn’t hold up at all.)

“Kucherov has always played with boys a year older than him, and it helped him. I say all the time that in hockey, I taught him to survive. If he carried the puck, he’d be crushed. He and Goose learned to get rid of the puck quickly, see the partner and the field. Pass and get open. However, Kucherov had normally been in Gusev’s shadow (because the latter was a year older) and fed passes to him. He was kind of inconspicuous; you might not have seen him in the game but the passes and goals were there. That was his style: being invisible but doing everything. He got so used to it that I told him last summer that it was time for him to take the game more upon himself; his role is different now…”

Details say the most about a player’s character. I remember the 2017 NHL All-Star Game in Los Angeles. With 2+1 points, Kucherov went one on one and, despite being able to score a hat trick (which, out of all the Russians at All-Star Games, only Pavel Bure had managed to do), made a pass to his partner for the empty net. Could you really be surprised about it? As well as the fact that, according to the knowing people, before the [2017/18] season, Kucherov and Stamkos, two main stars of the Lightning, went to John Cooper and asked to play together. And it worked!

After listening to Kurdin, I am also reminded of Nikita Nesterov’s words about Kucherov. “I don’t know his style. Because he changes it all the time. He does this, then that. At some point, you find yourself feeling like you don’t know this player at all. He can do anything to you. Let you close, slow down, skate around you, shoot from under you. He plays smart and makes decisions quickly.”

After leaving the White Bears for CSKA’s Red Army, Kucherov and Gusev rented an apartment for two close to the ice palace. They’re still thick as thieves—but across the ocean. Will we ever see them on the same team again? Preferably, with the Lightning…

To be continued