Obviously, you can only have one KHL debut, and this sets us a problem when we search for phrases to describe the undoubtedly special occasion taking place in Bratislava on Saturday evening. For among those stepping out onto the ice in the colors of Slovan to face Dinamo Riga will be the familiar figure of Miroslav Satan, whose presence would be a jewel in the crown of any league. A Stanley Cup winner, a world champion, and a player with a long list of personal achievements, the most impressive of which must surely be his 1,000+ games in the NHL.
His KHL debut came back in January of 2011, but in contrast to his long and successful career, his spell at Dynamo Moscow was ill-fated and short. So what do we call his return? A second chance? The Second Coming?
Whatever we call it, to see this outstanding player in the KHL once again is a source of pride and joy.
Welcome back! Are you excited?
“Thank you! Yes, I’m excited, especially to be playing here in Bratislava, in Slovakia, where hockey is really popular, as I think you all saw last season when Lev Poprad played in the League. And now the KHL has moved to the capital and people are delighted by that. You could see this during the preseason when seven or eight thousand turned up just to watch our friendly games. So we won’t have any problems with the support, and we just hope our team will be able to compete.”
Your previous spell in the KHL with Dynamo was cut short, but all the same you must have formed some impressions about the League and the atmosphere in that time.
“I really liked the KHL – it is a good project, which becomes better with each passing year. Yes, unfortunately, after six games for Dynamo I broke my hand and I felt very bad about not being able to help the team at that decisive stage of the season. Now Slovan has given me a second chance and I hope that if I can stay fit and healthy, everything will be fine and I’ll help the team reach the play-offs.”
Of course, now that you’ll be playing in your homeland it will all be different - more pleasant for you and more interesting. As for the bigger picture, what are your thoughts? Is Slovakia ready, is Bratislava ready, and is your team ready for this step up to a higher level?
“I think it will be a lesson for us all – the players, coaches and fans… The first season is always special, so this learning process, gaining experience, will be the most important factor, especially for our younger players who have never before played outside of Slovakia. But it is also a wonderful chance to show the world how good we are, both Slovak hockey and our team, and to show that we can produce talented players who can successfully compete on an international stage, especially one as good as the KHL.”
With your age, your wide experience, and your long career you will probably play a special role in what is overall quite a young team.
“Yes, I’ll be expected to be one of the leaders, and I understand and accept that. And I’ll try to help my team mates both on the ice and off it, so they can become stronger and improve their game. I’ll be helping the coaches and generally doing everything I can to ensure that this team makes the jump to a higher level – from the Slovak league to the KHL. That’s the role I’ve taken on here, and I’m well aware it won’t be easy. We’ve all been set a tough mission, but I hope that with our collective strength we’ll show the fans that we’re good enough to succeed even at this high level.”
What is it like working with Rostislav Cada? We know he is a strict, authoritarian coach. How are you getting on with him?
“We’re still kind of getting to know each other. Overall, I like his strict style – it is perfectly suited for working with youngsters, and it is good for the team. All our training sessions have been at a very high tempo.”
But do you not get any special privileges?
“No, no, I’ve always liked the atmosphere of being just one of the team; it’s the genuine professional approach. And it’s certainly our coach’s trademark. I realize I might be speaking too soon, with just one game behind us, but I think our coach is doing the right thing, and I’ll give him my full support in everything and help out where I can to make sure our guys keep improving their game.”
It seems even you keep getting better, since despite having a long career you are showing no sign of fading. And you have just enjoyed yet another outstanding world championship campaign…
“Well, yes – in the two or three years since winning the Stanley Cup the thought occurred to me a few times that I’d achieved all that I could, and that another season would add nothing to my career, but it turns out that I still have a taste for the game and I still get pleasure from it. I understand that my body isn’t getting any younger, but while it still copes with the training, travelling and playing, I’ll keep going out onto the ice and enjoying my hockey.”
What was the main reason behind Slovakia’s impressive display at the world championship?
“There were many factors. One of them was a new coach, and he made a lot of changes, bringing in young players and adding a few leaders, like me, and in the end we had a very interesting line-up. No-one had any idea how it would go, but surprisingly everything came together: every player did his job, and from the very start of the tournament there was a superb team spirit, and this helped everyone to perform to their very best, or even better. And we surprised a lot of people, myself included: we beat the Canadians and the Czechs – those were the two most memorable games, of course, and they secured us the silver medal.”
Maybe it was the best you could possibly achieve, as no-one seemed able to compete with Team Russia.
“Russia, of course, had by far the strongest roster in the tournament, was the clear favorite, and the team confirmed this status out on the ice. With us, though, no-one even expected us to make the knockout stage, so we kind of punched above our weight. The fans were delighted and they welcomed us home as if we had won the gold. For the younger players it was a great experience, and one which will help their progress.”
So now is it time for you to punch above your weight in the KHL?
“Perhaps that’s exactly what we’ll have to do. We’ll see… I think our team is capable of surprising anyone. Every game will give our players experience, which will be valuable to them and to Slovak hockey, because improving your level of skill in the League is something you can bring to your national team.”
Before every season in Russia it is customary to hear teams announce highly ambitious goals for the season, whether it’s capturing the Gagarin Cup, qualifying for the play-offs… How about your team?
“Well, we won’t be announcing any ambitious targets. Everything will be new to us, so it would be wise to avoid any gung-ho predictions. Talking amongst ourselves, we believe that to qualify for the play-offs would count as a huge success for us, and we’ll be striving to do just that.”
Oleg Vinokurov in Bratislava, special to khl.ru