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Nikita Kucherov, unheralded superstar part 3: All about the work ethic (and a bit of luck)

A wild Steve Yzerman appears.

NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Minnesota Wild Brace Hemmelgarn-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 third part of the translation, where Kucherov’s mother Svetlana and first coach Gennady Kurdin talk about Nikita’s transition from playing in the CSKA system to leaving for North America.

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

Wheel shop, flat water, and “Why are you even here?”

Kucherov’s success also comes from what North Americans call work ethic. Igor Larionov told me, “Steve Yzerman spoke very highly of Kucherov in our conversations, said he’s a professional even in everyday life. Kind words about our players are always nice to hear. It may be difficult at first, but everything will come if you work hard. Kucherov does.”

This, too, took root in childhood. Kurdin remembers a story. When Nikita was around 15, the family moved to Kozhukhovo, where they were finally given a decent three-room apartment. The skating rink where the White Bears were training was halfway across Moscow. Kucherov’s team had the day off, and Kurdin was training with the ’97 kids. Suddenly, he saw Kucherov and Gusev come out onto the soccer field. Fine, Gusev lived nearby, but…

“Nikita, it’s such a long subway trip for you! And on an off day,” the coach said, stunned.

“Well, I went outside and all the guys I knew were smoking and drinking.”

So he went to play soccer, just like that. Halfway across the enormous city that is Moscow. It was so much easier to stay there, have a cold one with the boys…

In summer two years ago, the friendly line of Kucherov, Gusev and Ozhiganov met up at a restaurant and invited their first coach. Kurdin enjoyed the time and was pleased to find that the boys are at ease with him, not treating him as a strict coach and talking where they would only listen in the past. What struck him the most was the fact that while Gusev and Ozhiganov ordered a glass of beer each (which is rather natural for summer), Kucherov would still only drink flat water.

“He doesn’t drink at all,” Svetlana confirms. “The most is a glass of champagne. At least he’s holding one in the picture (laughs). Even at home, during the offseason, it’s a no-no. Only flat water. The diet is very restrictive. He can have some borsch or Olivier salad on vacation, but very rarely. No side dishes except for vegetables, boiled or steamed. It’s very strict.”

It began when the Tampa Bay Lightning drafted him and he started coming to the training camps. Apparently, they found some excesses, and since then Nikita has been fighting them. In summer, he cuts until his body fat is minimal, like some bodybuilder. In terms of regime, in Tampa, he and Vlad Namestnikov found each other; the latter, too, always watches what he eats and drinks.

Kucherov’s agent, Dan Milstein, explains that Kucherov actively works with a dietitian. This woman worked on Pavel Datsyuk’s nutrition for many years; she takes pride in the fact that at 36 years old, the Magician’s testosterone was higher than that of his 20-year-old teammates.

As for Nikita’s indifference towards alcohol, I was reminded of it when Svetlana showed me a picture of her then little son with Jaromir Jagr, who is known for never drinking. When Jagr had a broken finger, he came to the White Bears rink for a photo op, and so we have this picture now. Reminds me of the classic shot of Gordie Howe holding a stick by the face of a little boy named Wayne Gretzky…

Work ethic is not only about regime but also about hockey itself.

“Gennadyich had a rule. If you got sick and missed practice, when you came back, there was no guarantee that you’d be put back on the same spot,” Svetlana recalls. “No, you had to prove that you deserved it. You start from the fourth line even if you used to play on the first. Nikita went through it many times, because he would always get colds twice a year. He also has a reflex: on July 1, he starts working. The coach would always let them go on June 1 and assemble the team again a month later.”

“It often happens like this: a player does an exercise, loses the puck and comes back for the next one,” Kurdin says. “In my team, if you lose the puck, you have to get it back. You’ll be more responsible with taking passes next time. Kucherov learned it.

“In Gorky, where I was learning, we were told, ‘You see the pipes over there? It’s a factory. That’s your choice: either you play hockey or you go to the factory.’ Have you ever been in a wheel shop? No? You’re lucky. Cinders, fumes, wheels falling. Workers have boots with metal protection because if a wheel falls on your foot without it, you lose a toe. I know it because I used to play hockey for the wheel shop. We went to the GAZ tourney as juniors – got paid 120 rubles. That was good money. And we saw some things.

“I told Kucherov and Gusev about the wheel shop too. They understood. One player, Sasha Atayev, used to be the Moscow team captain at 13 but then stopped working. But his dad works at a construction company, so he went to work with him. ‘And you have to work hard to get out of poverty,’ I told them. Nikita is working. When he played with the “triplets” with Johnson and Palat, it was awesome. But then he outgrew them. He just works harder – remember the ice in the garage. Hence, he’s now on Stamkos’s level. The star level.”

However, before that, Nikita had a long way ahead. Svetlana tells me that Nikita could even practice on New Year’s Eve: Kurdin was hard on both himself and the boys. The White Bears spent a lot of time on open ice, too.

“We didn’t have enough ice time in the White Bears rink. We were behind: they began in ’99, when Nikita was six and the others were seven. The usual enrollment is at five. We had to catch up, but there was little ice practice. So we made arrangements with open stadiums: ‘Olympia’, ‘Vympel’. Over three years, we’d had around 30 outdoor practices. Even at -30 degrees (-22°F), we wouldn’t cancel. So, Kucherov could play at the Winter Classic anytime. He’s used to it! By 13 years, we had caught up with the others in terms of skating time.”

Many didn’t believe in him—mainly because of his size. Kurdin likes bringing up the story of how a CSKA coach Alexander Levitsky, who was entrusted with the Moscow team of 13-year-olds for a Spartakiad, sent Nikita home during the preparation camp.

“He came back two or three days later. ‘Nikita, what happened?’ I asked. ‘Levitsky said I’m weak.’ Now, whenever I meet Levitsky, I ask, ‘So, Leva, is Kucherov weak?’ He runs away from me…”

The fateful gift to the MVP.
Photo from the family archive

Svetlana remembers one of the MVP prizes—thankfully, there’s a picture of it that you can see below. Valeri Kharlamov’s son Alexander presented it with the White Bears’ director Avachyov. The prize was a big toy car… with the word “Lightning” written on it.

No one paid attention to it back then. Turns out it was a sign. The car is now on the Kucherovs’ dacha, which was also built recently with their son’s financial help.

In 2009, Kucherov and Gusev’s White Bears had a graduation. Kurdin was the one who went to find new teams for his talented boys. No one was particularly interested.

“First, I brought them to Dynamo’s base in Novogorsk, to Tolya Antipov, whom I know from the national teams. The tryouts were in progress at the time. They skated a bit, then Tolya came out and just waved them off. ‘Mine are the same.’ And that was it. Then, I saw Nikolai Vakurov from CSKA. We went there, and at first, they turned their noses up, too. Eventually, though, they relented, ‘Whatever, we’ll take them since they’re free.’ White Bears is a municipal school, not a club, so players leave for free. Neither the school nor the coach get anything from it. I didn’t even get the Merited Coach of Russia title for them, let alone money. Write about it, maybe Tretiak will read the article. During Kucherov and Gusev’s time, the Moscow hockey federation wouldn’t let us work in peace, came up with some disqualifications, and it’s still going on. Meanwhile, the Ice Hockey Federation of Russia, knowing about the conflict, just keeps watching from the side instead of protecting the coach.”

“Yes, we went to Dynamo, but the attitude was more or less, ‘Why did you even come here?’ From the first second, they let us know we were not needed,” Svetlana adds. “CSKA were more interested.”

In a little while, Gusev would become a playoffs MVP and win the Kharlamov Cup with Red Army. In the same season, Kucherov would get the best +/- in the MHL. But it was unimaginable that four years later, Kucherov would do the same in the NHL…

In Kurdin’s words, in the club, he still fed to Gusev, but his own success had begun growing. At the 2011 World U18 Championship in Germany (where Gusev was already too old to go), the first line consisting of Kucherov, Grigorenko and Yakupov scored a whopping 52 points, 21 of which were Nikita’s. He became the best sniper and beat the all-time point record.

That same year, Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman drafted Kucherov in the second round. For the peak time of the “Russian Factor”, it was rather good.

Some could’ve assumed that Kucherov would get a red carpet in front of him—but only those who are not familiar with the KHL’s ways. It’s a league where young players are rarely ever given chances. It’s a league of “here and now”.

Two injured shoulders and the first glimpse of America

It seems that Nikita was constantly out of phase with his parents, who were travelling because of the father’s job. After getting back from Uruguay when Nikita was ten, they stayed just long enough to see Nikita graduate from the White Bears and left again—for New York, where Kucherov’s father was sent for military work. Because of that, per Svetlana’s words, they didn’t witness the historic moment of Nikita’s first Red Army salary.

When they returned three years later, it was Nikita’s turn to go to America. Right away. Nikita even finished high school in the US, in the Permanent Mission of Russia to the UN in New York. But it was here, in Russia, that Nikita was pushed to leave. As it turned out later, it was for the better.

I remember a recent interview with Nikolai Prokhorkin, who remembers Red Army Kucherov as a “meanie” who could snap at partners even at team dinners; he said this anger had helped him achieve things overseas. But both Nikita’s mom and Kurdin were very surprised by such a description.

They say Nikita is not like this at all. Gennady’s guess is that Kucherov and Gusev, as Prokhorkin’s linemates, were simply annoyed about two things he did: keeping the puck for too long and diving. The latter is something Kurdin has made his boys immune to. He told them about Spartak, where veteran Sergei Kapustin would tell off young Alexander Kozhevnikov, “Why are you lying around, asking for penalties? Man up!”

Meanwhile, Kucherov, who never did things by halves, was struck by injuries. As it often happens with smaller players, his shoulders suffered the most. One, as Svetlana recalls, he injured during the junior Super Series: a Canadian player boarded him with two minutes left in the last game.

Kurdin tells about the other:

“In their graduation year, they were playing in the semifinals of the Russian Championship. You were allowed to bring five older guys, from the class of 1991, but we simply didn’t have any. Nikita was two years younger than many of his opponents. Zhiga (Igor Ozhiganov) makes a pass to him near the red line; Nikita prepares to take the puck, but suddenly some big guy hits him in the shoulder… Nikita didn’t finish the game. Later, the pain wouldn’t go away, and the injury only got worse.

CSKA paid for an operation on one shoulder; it was done in Moscow. However, Svetlana’s memories of it are rather gloomy.

The other shoulder was still hurting, but CSKA refused to do anything about it.

“As I understood it, Nikita was told, ‘You need it, you do it.’ On his own money,” Kurdin says. “But what kind of salary did he have? If you’re on the junior team, and he mostly played there, it’s around 30 thousand rubles (t/n: by the 2011 rates, about $1000 a month). There, Tampa played ahead. No one needed the guy here; the Lightning helped him.”

“CSKA told him: you do it on your own money, and we’ll return it later,” Svetlana adds. “Nikita only laughed; he knew what they were actually trying to do there. But it wasn’t just about the operation. They simply didn’t believe that the shoulder was hurting. I think Nikita was even more bitter about that. Meanwhile, when the Lightning management learned about that, they told him to come right away. In an hour, the matter was settled. The agent called Yzerman, Yzerman called the club owner, and they solved the issue with the operation.

“We were in New York. Nikita came to us, and we showed him a glimpse of the life he didn’t know yet. Went for a walk around the city. A hockey store had just opened on Sixth Avenue; we went there as if it was a grocery store. Bought half of it, and Nikita kept touching, looking at everything: sticks, pucks, caps… From New York, we traveled to Tampa for the operation. It was much less of a torture than the one he’d had in Moscow. It was a whole different level, and although the injury was more complex, the scar is now smaller than on the other shoulder.”

Three years later, Tampa Bay Lightning player Nikita Kucherov would himself pay for a serious operation in Tampa for his mom. Both Svetlana and Kurdin say she was barely walking by that moment. Now she is flying.

At the time of Nikita’s operation, though just for five minutes, Steve Yzerman came to talk to his mother through a translator. Svetlana was impressed: a great player (whom, by the way, her son particularly admired in childhood) found the time to talk to and support the mother of a 19-year-old boy who was still pretty much no one for the world hockey.

“Any hockey player’s story depends on the situation they end up in,” Igor Larionov says. “Kucherov wasn’t needed in CSKA at first, but then ended up next to a person who knows and respects the Russian hockey. I mean Yzerman. Nikita was lucky in that.”

By that time, Nikita had three seasons and many achievements with Red Army but only 27 games, 1+6 points and barely any minutes with CSKA. Neither Sergei Nemchinov nor Július Šupler were willing to trust him—as usual in the KHL. “It’s not Šupler; it’s the system,” Kurdin says.

After the operation, Kucherov returned to his parents in New York, went to physio, worked on his legs with a trainer in Columbia University. And one fine day…

“Initially, he wasn’t planning on playing in North America,” Svetlana says. “If he had been allowed to play in CSKA, he would have. But he saw no prospects. I remember when he walked into our room and said, ‘I want to leave and play in Canada.’ No doubts. But, as a good son, he added, ‘You good with this?’ We began discussing this from all points of view and eventually said, ‘If you want to, and if you can, then go.’ He quickly went back to Moscow to terminate his contract with CSKA, and we were just leaving the States. So he left for Quebec, and we went to Moscow.

Right before that, CSKA had gone through a change of power. With a new head, the team, still far from its current glory, had other things to worry about besides Kucherov.

“Were you sure that Nikita would do well when he decided to leave?” I ask Kurdin.

“Of course not,” he answers honestly. “You have to take your chances. But sometimes, you aren’t given any at all. Nikita got lucky with Yzerman, because he thinks about hockey in a Soviet way. He talks to Nikita a lot, by the way, asks about his opinion…

To be continued