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Maxim Balmochnykh: I don’t regret a thing


Just over a decade ago he was regarded as one of the most talented forwards in Russia. He has granted our correspondent an interview, in which he told of his harsh punishment from the Russian hockey establishment, spoke of the bloodiest moment of his playing career, and made a special announcement.

Some of you may not remember Maxim Balmochnykh, yet after he followed his silver at the 1998 IIHF World U20 Championship with the gold in 1999, he was considered the rising star of world hockey. He seemed to have hands of gold in addition to lightning pace, and if his career had followed a happier path he would by now be a serious rival to Pavel Datsyuk for the affections of the nation’s hockey connoisseurs.

Unfortunately, Maxim’s career somehow stalled, and the man himself says his temperament was the cause.

What advice would you give to players who give awesome performances at junior level and are about to take their place among the professionals?
“Work at it. You must devote all your time to hockey, but most important of all is to find the right coach.”

Did you have the right coach?\
“Yes, Gennady Tsygurov. Even when I stepped out of line, his attitude toward me stayed the same. He would forgive me, give me another chance and work hard to help me improve.”

Well, now you’re an adult you can explain why you made the mistakes which stopped you reaching your full potential.
”My biggest mistake was that I went to America too early. There was no need to go at that age; I should have stayed and played more in Russia. America wasn’t the place for me.”

In what way? Personal life?
“That as well. I had hardly any friends over there. And I had to play the kind of hockey I hate, where you just blast the puck anywhere into the zone, give your opponent a hit and charge around the ice. That’s not what I’m skilled in, and not what I’d been taught. Now I can see that I should have followed Datsyuk’s example. When he went to America he was already a fully-developed player, so they didn’t try to change anything, but they tried to change my game and I resisted.”

All that is understandable in a young, hot-headed guy, but there were other episodes later on in your career which are harder to explain. There is that time in Cincinnati when you were playing for the Anaheim farm club and you clubbed an opponent with the stick, earning an eight-game suspension. Why would you use a hockey stick as a weapon?
“I should tell you the background. It was the second game of the season and I had scored two in the first, so I had attracted a lot of attention. In the second game this guy started trying to bounce me off the face-off spots, so what can I say? In the end he succeeded.”

Is that so serious?
“A fight broke out. He was giving me a hammering, of course; he was a professional tough guy. And I hit back, with my fists and with the stick. I don’t like losing. But there was a plus side to that incident.”

Such as?
“No-one wanted to mess with me any more after that, so I’d made an impression over there. If that fight happened now, though, I wouldn’t react the same way.”

Why not?
“In the end I gained nothing from playing dirty. By the way, Alexander Perezhogin did similar, and while maybe the circumstances were slightly different he still used excessive force in a part of play. But in North America they never forgive you for that.”

There was another incident in 2006 when you knocked out an Amur player, for which you had your playing license suspended.
“That was Maxim Gusev. I’ve met him since, in Belarus, and I apologised for what happened, but that episode was far from simple. I was bearing down on goal when a defenseman jabbed me in the back. A fight started, and then another player came at me from the side and punched me in the face. After that, you can understand, I just saw red. So I went after Gusev and hit him. I tried to turn him to face me but it didn’t come off, and as a result the punch did appear brutal. I aimed for his shoulder but I missed and caught him in the head.”

And then what happened?
“I don’t remember clearly. Not because of the passage of time but simply because I got into a highly-stressed state. I can remember that they wanted to settle things with me on the bench, but I was dragged off to the locker room.”

There have been occasions in Russia when the police were called to intervene on the ice.
”I suppose this occasion was similar, but the law did not get involved. I was banned, that’s all.”

It was a severe punishment – revoking your license. It’s very rare.
“At first they banned me for 15 games then they suspended my license for nine months. Well, it was my fault. What can I say? Yes, the punishment was unjust, but for me to seek justice using my fists is also wrong.”

There was another unusual moment in your career, where it seemed you were treated with startling severity: before the World U20 Championship in 1999 there was an order forbidding them from selecting you to play for your country.
“That was all because I went to America – not just that I went, but the way I went. I had an existing contract with Lada, and of course those contracts were not in force in the US so it didn’t stop me signing for Anaheim. I don’t think they’ll ever forgive me here, although in 1999 Tsygurov ignored the order and called me up for the national team.”

I met an old teammate of yours from the 1999 Russian U20 team, Andrei Nikitenko, at one of Admiral’s training sessions. He’s not bothered by the long-distance travel and wants to play.
“Not for me. I’m retiring.”

Now that’s news!
“Yes, I’m going to go into business, maybe find work in a children’s school. Not as head coach, but an assistant. What’s important for me is helping hockey in Lipetsk, even if I can’t do it as a player. I feel that I should.”

You mentioned that your career has suffered because of things you’ve said. If you could turn back time, when would you have kept silent?
“In essence, what damaged me most of all were my words after that 1999 World Championship, when I said that we’ve bashed the Canadians, we still bash them and we always will bash them. But I’d say the same today. That sentence killed my career in North America. The Canadians’ coach, Mike Babcock, took over at Anaheim and did everything to stop my progress, and did the most to ruin my career. Do you think I should have stayed silent back then?”

No, they’re fine words.
“I think so too. Maybe I could have put it better, but the sentiment is right. I don’t regret a thing.”

You’re retiring. You did not really win anything at senior level.
I’m satisfied with my career. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? But it’s the truth. I went out on the ice for the love of the game, and I enjoyed what I did. Maybe in my life there were no great victories, but there was still hockey.”

Alexei Shevchenko, special to