Neftekhimik's Czech Republic international forward Andrej Nestrasil gave an interview to KHL.ru and spoke of coach Andrei Nazarov's cheerful side, his time playing under Mike Babcock, and why he is enjoying his hockey in the KHL.
In 2008, Nestrasil left his native Czech Republic and headed for Canada to pursue his hockey dream. After six years of fighting for a place, the forward finally made his NHL debut in 2014 for the Detroit Red Wings, then under the wise guidance of Mike Babcock. There followed a move to Carolina, but after two successful seasons a serious injury sidelined him, and the way back was a long and hard road. Instead of just waiting for his luck to change, Nestrasil decided to take on a new challenge and so he moved to the other side of the world and signed up for Neftekhimik.
- Andrej, how is life in the KHL? Are you getting used to the larger rinks?
- Yes, I think so. I've made steady progress, and I didn't jump in at the deep end. Had I arrived in the middle of the season, it would have been much harder, whereas I spent the summer training with the team and played in eight friendly matches, which allowed me to gradually fit in. Yes, the rink is bigger, which troubled me a little at first, but it only took a couple of summer exhibition games and the preseason tournament in Astana to realize that I could adapt my game to it.
Here a player has more time to think and more space to create a chance, but on the other hand, you have to do more skating. To get to the goal can be quite a long journey, so sometimes it pays to be patient and wait for the right moment to shoot, but yes, it is still a bit strange.
- How did nine years of living in North America change you?
- Wherever you go, the world opens up for you a completely new view of ordinary life, and you change without even noticing. This was another reason for choosing the KHL, I learned pretty much all I was going to learn in North America, and I wanted something new. Hockey is great, but it's only one part of life. You have to grow as a person, expand your horizons, and you can't do this by just staying in one place. Although one thing I will say for sure: wherever you go, the best beer in the world is still made in the Czech Republic (laughs.)
- What surprised you most of all about Russia?
- I am a Czech who has played in many cities in North America, and now I've seen a lot of Russia. I am not easily surprised, and I respect local people and customs. Take that case of the sheep in Astana. It caused a real hullabaloo on the Internet, but why? The Kazakh people have such a tradition. The Americans, for example, use a groundhog in February, to forecast the weather, but it doesn't mean they are crazy.
I will say, however, that the style of driving in Russia is, to put it mildly, very peculiar to newcomers. For example, when drivers veer from lane to lane. But I've not encountered any bears holding vodka in their paws if that's what you mean (laughs.) We have the same things in the Czech Republic, of course, although our bears would probably be swigging beer.
Sometimes Nazarov shouts during a match, but that's just passion from his enthusiasm for the game and his winning mentality. He's very calm away from the ice - a good guy with a keen sense of humor. He always stands up for his players.
- How are you getting on with the Russian and Tatar languages?
- In Tartar I can only say, “Isenmesez,” which means “Hello!” I should know more after five months of playing here, so I will study some more. My Russian is a bit better, as my driver in Nizhnekamsk speaks only Russian. But you know what it's like trying to speak in a new language: I produce two words of Russian, then two in Czech, and then something in English.
- And how are you getting on at the “Wolf's Lair?”
- All fine. I've enjoyed the whole season so far! We have a very friendly team, a lot of young players, and there's a great atmosphere. Also, it is much easier when the team is on top of its game. Everyone is happier, more cheerful, and there's a good mood in the locker room. We did have some problems, such as when several players were injured at the same time, but we had guys who replaced them, and it did not affect our results. We have Russians, Tatars, Czechs, Swedes, a Slovene, an American and a Canadian in our team, but we are like one big family, a wolf pack, and everyone is ready to stand up for the others. I think this is clearly visible in our games.
- In the Eastern Conference, the competition is fierce, with only a few points separating many teams.
- Yes, for sure. The level of competition in the East was for me a great revelation about the KHL. It's very healthy, though, to always have to fight for points. Each match in the KHL is an important battle, unlike in the AHL. In North America a victory gets you two points, but here you get three, so I reckoned that if you put together a lot of wins you'd be out of sight of your rivals, but that's not the case. All my theories went out the window! The clubs are very close in the standings and the intrigue is still there.
- Neftekhimik is one of the revelations of the Championship. Can you give us your assessment of the season so far?
- It's fair to say that the season has gone better for us than anyone expected. The main goal was to reach the playoffs, and throughout the Championship we were never out of the top four places in the East, and we even hovered around first place a few times. But that all becomes irrelevant once the knockout stage begins. In the playoffs, it doesn't matter whether you were first or seventh, because you have to go out and prove yourself again.
- What is it like playing under coach Andrei Nazarov? Did you know of him before you came to the KHL?
- The first time I talked to Nazarov was on the phone in the summer. Then I looked at his stats: nearly 600 games in the NHL! That's a wealth of experience. I heard there were videos on youtube in which he was passionately defending his team. But I do like these coaches. They instill in their players a fierce energy and motivation, passion, commitment, competitive spirit, whatever you want to call it. You're fired up, which really helps if you're in a tough game. Yes, sometimes Andrei shouts during a match, but that's just passion from his enthusiasm for the game and his winning mentality. He's very calm away from the ice - a good guy with a keen sense of humor. He always stands up for his players,.and everyone is happy that he will stay on at Neftekhimik next season.
- What does Nazarov demand of you, personally?
- Everyone has been in the team for a long time now. Each knows his own role, so there is need for individual talks with any player about what is required of him. If you are entrusted with a place in the first or second line, especially if you were brought across the Atlantic to fill that role, then it's assumed you know what to do. And the specific way to play depends on the opponent, and sometimes on how the game is going.
I've enjoyed the whole season! We have Russians, Tatars, Czechs, Swedes, a Slovene, an American and a Canadian in our team, but we are like one big family, a wolf pack, and everyone is ready to stand up for the others. I think this is clearly visible in our games.
- Was your first goal in the KHL a memorable one?
- Yes, I scored it at the right time. We were playing in Nizhnekamsk against Spartak. The score was 1-1 in the third period and I scored our go-ahead goal. It turned out to be the game-winner.. Believe me, that is better than scoring your first goal when you're already coasting at 4-0 and you grab a late empty-netter. Much of the credit goes to Emil Galimov, as he provided a great pass and I just had to hit the target. Of course, I kept the puck. It will go on display at my home in the Czech Republic.
- Your line-mates have been Alexander Avtsin, Emil Galimov and Dan Sexton.
- With Avi I played 20 matches, but then Robin Hanzl was injured, I was moved to the first line and started playing alongside Dan. We have a team of great players, and everyone can pretty much replace anyone. When you partner Avi, you know the guy has a big shot, so you have to play very hard and make sure you pass to him. In contrast, Dan likes to keep the puck, move, and torment the defensemen, so you need to skate a lot so he has an option for a pass.
- Do you have the urge to shout to the guys at Carolina to tell them what they're missing?
- It's not that bad, but there is a part of that which spurs me on, and motivates me. I played nine years in North America, and it seems all the agents, coaches, and fans had already settled on their opinion of me, and they thought I had reached my maximum level, so now I have a great chance to test myself in the world's other strong League and prove to everyone that I can play much better than they thought I could.
I wanted to go someplace where they would see me as a valuable part of the roster, identify my role in the team and entrust me to do the job for a whole season. I want to be where I'm valued, and regarded as a vital component of the machine, and not a spare part; where I get a lot of playing time, and where the coaching staff are passionate and have faith in me. I've really loved this season and get so much enjoyment from playing in the KHL! I'm on the ice when we're short-handed, in powerplay, at even strength, in any situation. Getting 20 minutes of ice time per game is like a fairy tale!
- Can you tell us about the man events in your NHL career?
- All young hockey players dream of playing in the NHL, so I flew from Prague to Canada to play for the Victoriaville Tigres of the QMJHL when I was only 17. After having a good season, I was drafted by Detroit. I signed a two-year contract, and one of the conditions stated I was to play in the West Coast Hockey League, the third tier in the system under the NHL and AHL. Obviously, no-one wants to stay there too long, and I played for two seasons. After the second, I decided to ask the coach directly what I should do to climb a step higher.
I played in every match, flat out, gave my all, and even lost a few kilograms because of the incredible workload. The coach took notice and gave me a chance to play in the AHL. It was around Christmas time, someone at Detroit got injured, and two players were brought in from the farm club, and then I was named as one of the top five players at the Grand Rapids Griffins. In the end, I stayed there until the end of the season.
You know, one of the biggest factors in a hockey career is being in the right place at the right time. There's a lot of talented players who work just as hard as any other, but their chance never appears. So I was lucky. I signed a two-way contract with Detroit at a time when the team had so many great players, including Pavel Datsyuk. I did well at camp and in the friendlies, and so I started the season in the NHL! It was something way beyond my comprehension, and I could hardly believe this was reality and not some dream from childhood.
But there can only be 23 players in an NHL roster, so when an injured player on a one-way contract recovers and returns, the one on a two-way deal has to step aside and make room. It was either go on waivers or return to the farm, so I asked for the former and I got a move to Carolina. It was a big challenge for me. The team had not made it to the playoffs for a long time, and was going through a transitional stage. There was a new coach coming in, and a plan for rejuvenating the team.
I had an excellent first season at the Hurricanes, and yet again in the second. I played in the same line as Jordan Staal and Joakim Nordström, and we quickly forged an understanding and combined really well on the ice. But then I got a back injury, from which it took a while to recover. I returned to the ice, but that season did not work out very well. I just want to leave that year in the past, and prove - first of all, to myself - that I could return to my previous form and become an even better player. I want people to see how I perform and realize that injury does not have to spell the end, but is just another obstacle that I've overcome and now I'm ready to move forward.
Take that case of the sheep in Astana. It caused a real hullabaloo on the Internet, but why? The Kazakh people have such a tradition. The Americans, for example, use a groundhog in February, to forecast the weather, but it doesn't mean they are crazy.
- Let's return to your first game in the NHL – what was that like?
- Stunning. Although, right until the last moment I did not know if I would get onto the ice. After training camp in the AHL, I had hoped that maybe sometime over the course of the season I'd get a call, but then they said, “Okay, today you're gonna play against Boston.” The day before, I had written to my father to say it was possible, but not probable, and I doubted I would play, but he did not answer, which was very strange. And then his wife sent a text message – he was flying to Detroit for the match.
Imagine that! My father watched as I stepped out onto the ice with players such as Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, and under the guidance of the great coach Mike Babcock! And in the Detroit arena, just like I had once dreamed. Naturally, I was nervous, but the experienced guys, despite their status and all their medals, gave me great support, saying to me during the game things like, “Stay calm, play your game, you're a good hockey player, you will be fine!” Words cannot describe it!
- I can't resist asking you about working with Mike Babcock.…
- He never lets up until he gets what he wants from you. Mike could never be indifferent to anyone. When you do the right thing, he'd always come up, pat you on the back and praise you. He helped me a lot before my second match. I was standing in the stadium foyer and looking very nervous, as I had fallen over five times in my debut game, but Babcock walked up, smiled, and said, “I warned the guys and they promised that for this game they'll pour the ice a bit flatter.” That made me laugh,.and I felt a lot better.
Babcock can appear very serious, even angry, and some think he just shouts all the time, but that's an illusion. What surprised me when I was playing under him in Detroit was that he never even objected when the players brought their children to training, and let them run around the locker room. Once I came to train, saw a lot of children everywhere, and I was worried that maybe Mike would blow a fuse, as we had a team meeting scheduled. But he just laughed, played with some of the children, and then said, “Kids, go and sit downI need to speak your fathers.”
- And you were a champion in the AHL.
- Oh, yes, and that's a tough League. You spend a lot of time on the bus, on the way to and from the different towns. For example, on a Friday I could play somewhere that's a five-hour drive from home, then play Saturday at home and on Sunday be already setting off for a third game somewhere else. Although, in the championship season in the AHL, I did not make as great a contribution to the success of the team as I would have liked. In the final we beat Dan Sexton's team. But I was not selected, as Detroit had been knocked out of the playoffs and so riding to the rescue came Tomas Tatar, Joakim Andersson, and Gustav Nyquist. They still gave me the ring, but I didn't feel I had earned it.
- Of the games for your country this season, which do you remember the most?
- All those at home in Prague. I had never played for the Czech Republic seniors before, and to represent your country in front of your own fans, in a 20,000-seat arena, with my family watching from the stands - you cannot describe that feeling.
- But you did not get a call-up to the Olympics. Was it because of your injury in January?
- I don't think that was the reason. It is simply that the coach accepts responsibility for the results so he picks the players that fit in with his vision of the game. I'm very sorry that I was not one of them, and it's a big disappointment, but there is nothing I can do about it. You have to keep looking forward. Life goes on. There'll be other Olympics.
- Will you watch the matches?
- I don't have a TV at home, but I will definitely watch them if I can find a stream online and if I'm not training. There are a lot of my friends in the team, so I'll be cheering them on.
I was standing in the stadium foyer and looking very nervous, as I had fallen over five times in my debut game, but Babcock walked up, smiled, and said,I warned the guys and they promised that for this game they'll pour the ice a bit flatter. That made me laugh.
- When you know that you've made it to the playoffs, does it make preparations much easier?
- Definitely. We wanted to secure our place in the top eight before the Olympic break, so we could go on leave without any unnecessary worries. If we had not made it yet, I would have spent every night thinking about those remaining matches and I would not have enjoyed the break. The pause really helped me in particular, as I missed the last game in January due to minor health problems. Now I'm back at Nizhnekamsk feeling strong, fully-rested, and brimming with energy.
- You spent your mini-vacation not in the heat of Dubai, but in the snows of Switzerland.
- I don't really like lazing on the beach. Lying all day under the sun and looking out to sea is not for me. I much prefer the mountains to the ocean. Switzerland is great, and we were there five days. I love the beautiful nature, I can rest, I calm down... And I like walking around cities in which there are many historical places, museums, and galleries. We celebrated New Year in Moscow. That was fabulous and I soaked up all the atmosphere. But it's all a matter of taste, and I can fully understand why most players yearn for a bit of heat and sun after spending most of the year in the cold, on the ice at work and in the Russian winter.
- How should this season end for you to call it a successful one?
- First of all, we have to win. The more victories you get, the more successful the season. Secondly, I would like to become more creative with the puck, and learn some new tricks and feints, and thirdly, I want to improve my skating, and playing hereon the bigger rinks helps me a great deal. And finally, for me to consider the season successful, we at Neftekhimik need success in the playoffs! But in general, if I make a personal contribution to the success of the team, then I will say that the season was a success.
Andrej Nestrasil fact file:
Born: February 22, 1991 in Prague
Career: Slavia U18 (Prague) – 2004-2008, Victoriaville Tigres (QMJHL) – 2008-2010, Prince Edward Island Rocket (QMJHL) – 2010-11, Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL) – 2011-14, Toledo Walleye (ECHL) – 2011-2013, Detroit Red Wings (NHL) – 2014-15, Carolina Hurricanes (NHL) – 2014-2017, Charlotte Checkers (AHL) – 2016-17, Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk (KHL) – 2017-present
Honors: U18 World Junior Championships Top 3 Player on Team (2009), Caldera Cup champion (2013)