Avangard’s star forward Vladimir Sobotka spoke to KHL.ru about the World Cup, his NHL adventures, his return to Omsk, and his experience of playing under Fyodor Kanareikin and Raimo Summanen.
Omsk fans can at last celebrate the return of one of their most dangerous players, Czech forward Vladimir Sobotka, after a serious back injury caused the 29-year-old to miss the entire preseason and then the World Cup delayed his start to the IX KHL Championship. Sobotka is yet to find the net this season, and must adapt to playing in an Avangard team full of new faces. The popular Czech does not deny that acclimatizing to the KHL after the World Cup is far from easy.
"The world Cup is the strongest tournament I've ever played in"
- Vladimir, how would you rate your performance and that of the Czech team in Toronto?
“As regards my game, you would be better off asking the coaches. I can only say I felt great out there on the ice. It was the first time in two years that I’d played on the smaller rink, so I had to re-acclimatize myself to having to think and play faster, but I managed it quite easily. And our national team had a lot of young players, so we dealt very well with the pace of our opponents. We played some very good games, but sadly failed to reach the semi-finals thanks to that soul-destroying overtime defeat against Team Europe. Nonetheless, all the team gave one hundred percent and did all they could do.”
- Is the World Cup is the strongest tournament in which you’ve played?
“Yes, without a doubt!"
I spoke with Kanareikin as soon as I arrived in Omsk. The coach gave me a couple of days off to acclimatize, and said that he’s counting on me.
- You missed all of Avangard’s preseason due to injury, and missed the start of the KHL season, but then went off to the World Cup with the Czech team. Some of the Avangard fans wonder why that happened.
“It's quite simple. After a long layoff through injury, I had to wait for permission from the doctors to resume playing. That’s why I missed the entire preseason, and I was only allowed to get back to training on the ice just before I was due to join up with the Czech Republic roster for the World Cup.”
- How difficult is it to re-acclimatize now you’re back playing in the KHL?
“Obviously the time difference between Canada and Russia and the difference in the playing styles are both obstacles, but many other players are in a similar situation. I just have to get used to the larger rinks and find my own game as soon as possible.”
"I can't comment on the change of coach. The management knows best."
- How would you rate your performances for Avangard this season?
“They haven't worked out as well as I’d have liked. As I said, I have to try to hit the ground running after playing on the small rinks in North America. When I played at the World Cup, so much had to be done differently. You take up different positions and you have less time to decide what to do. That’s why I haven’t got back in my stride yet.”
- We have all grown accustomed to your prolific scoring. You’ve made four assists so far this season, but why are you yet to grab a goal?
“Probably because the opponents have very good goaltenders (laughter).”
“Why would I want to fight Ryspayev? I came here to play hockey, not fight. Yes, I box in my spare time, but I won’t deploy those skills on the ice.
- Were you surprised by head coach Evgeny Kornoukhov’s departure before the Championship?
“I wasn't with the team when that decision was made, so I cannot comment on it. The club management knows best in these situations.”
- Reports reached the media that you and Kornoukhov did not always see eye to eye. Is that true?
“I have never had problems with the coaches in Omsk. There were times when I wasn’t quite on the same wavelength as Raimo Summanen, but these things happen in every job. After training, we’d meet, have a talk, and always find a compromise.”
“I’m glad to be back at Avangard”
- What about working under Fyodor Kanareikin? How quickly did you get accustomed to his demands?
“I haven't spent so much time in the team since my return, but I can say the atmosphere is positive and I’m very glad to be back at Avangard”
- Had you had any one-to-one meetings with the boss?
“Yes, I spoke with Mr. Kanareikin as soon as I arrived back in Omsk. The coach gave me a couple of days off to acclimatize, and said that he’s counting on me.”
- You were, no doubt, keeping an eye on Avangard as the team began the new season. How would you rate the team’s start to the campaign?
“Yes, I managed to steal some time and watch four or five games, Avangard started the season in impressive style and produced great hockey, and I’m glad I’m back in Russia and can help the team improve further.”
“I felt great out there on the ice. It was the first time in two years that I’d played on the smaller rink, so I had to re-acclimatize myself to having to think and play faster, but I managed it quite easily.”
- Has the team been affected by the departure of your fellow Czech, Martin Erat, who was one of the leading players last season?
“He is a very skillful player with excellent movement and speed. It was a pleasure to play with him for a whole year. I can say that when players such as these are gone, it always leaves a big gap. We certainly miss Martin.”
- At the start of the season the team added Derek Roy to the ranks, and he was a team-mate of yours at St. Louis. Did you two ever play in the same line back in those days?
“Yes, we had a few matches in the same troika at St. Louis, but at that time he played more often as a center and I was out on the left wing.”
- Now you have been playing together in Avangard’s starting line. How easy was it to combine with Derek?
“We hadn't played together for a long time, so now we’re working very hard in training at forging an understanding. We’ve only played a few games, and we’ve been helping each other a lot on the ice, because our roles have changed from what they were five years ago at St. Louis. I hope we will click and we’ll soon be scoring in every match.
"The team had the greatest respect for Summanen."
- In Omsk you were under the guidance of Raimo Summanen, whom we’ve already mentioned. Was he the most eccentric coach of your career?
“Raimo is genuinely an awesome coach. The team had the greatest respect for him and always tried to meet his expectations. Yes, sometimes his emotions boiled over, but everything was fine the next day.”
- What was Raimo’s most eccentric act that you remember?
“He could fly into a rage after a defeat, if it was down to players’ mistakes or if we lost heavily, but then again, many coaches give vent to their emotions when their team makes mistakes and loses games.”
- Do you think Raimo’s emotional outbursts hampered his work with the team?
“No. as I said, Summanen really suited the team. Every coach has his own approach and his own philosophy. We accepted Raimo for what he was, and he was easy to work for.”
"Struggling with the back injury was the toughest part of my career"
- What has been the most difficult period in your KHL career?
“Perhaps the toughest part was my recent back injury, which put me out of the game for a long time.”
- The infamous KHL tough guy, Damir Ryspayev, promised to challenge you to a fight last season. Could take up this challenge?
“Why would I fight him (laughing)? We have different roles on the ice. He is an enforcer and brawling is his job. I came here to play hockey, not fight. Yes, I box in my spare time, but I won’t deploy those skills on the ice.”
I had a long layoff through injury and had to wait for permission from the doctors to resume playing. That’s why I missed the entire preseason.
- Boston drafted you in 2005, but it was two years before you made the move. Why did you not go there straight away?
“I was 18, I was very young, and I had to gain experience as a player. For his reason, the Czech league suited me very well because I got a lot of playing time, the coaches had faith in me, and I was happy. As soon as I had matured and grown in confidence, I went straight to the NHL.”
- You spent the greater part of your first NHL season playing for Boston, but spent most of the following campaign at the farm club. Why was that?
“It is a fairly common situation for a young player. One day you are in the starting line and the next you’re at the farm club. because you have to adapt to a new way of life. Hockey in North America is a very different game and you almost have to learn from scratch.”
“I could see straight away that Tarasenko would be a star in the NHL.”
- You spent 3 seasons at Boston before moving to St Louis. Why made you decide to change teams?
“That wasn’t my decision. Boston simply traded me.”
- You played with Vladimir Tarasenko at St. Louis. Could you see straight away that he would become a superstar?
“Yes, Vladimir is a very talented guy. When he arrived he had problems with English, but he quickly learned the language and adapted to the team. In one of his first games, Tarasenko scored two goals, and everyone realized he had what it takes to become a star in the NHL.”
I have never had problems with the coaches in Omsk. There were times when I wasn’t quite on the same wavelength as Raimo Summanen, but these things happen in every job.
- Here in Russia there have been rumors that Ken Hitchcock hates Russian players. Nikolai Zherdev and Nikita Filatov found it hard working with this coach. Do you have anything to add?
“We always had a good relationship, and I never once heard anything about Russian players having any problems working with him.”
- Many pundits claim your move from St Louis to Avangard was triggered by strong competition for places, from the likes of Jori Lehtera and Paul Stastny. Are they correct?
“It's hockey, and every team strives to be better and strengthen its roster. That is how it should be. My contract with St. Louis was up and I received two offers – to sign another deal with St. Louis or move to Avangard. I thought it over and decided on a move to the KHL.”
- You are now in the last year of your contract at Omsk. Have you started thinking about your future yet? Would you choose the NHL or KHL?
“My aim now is to have a good season, and after that you’ll see what I decide.”