After a rocky start to the season and early coaching changes, Yaroslavl clawed its way into playoff contention under two-time Gagarin Cup winner Mike Pelino—making his debut at the helm of a KHL squad. Lander sits among his team’s top point-snipers this season, and intends to lead the youngsters on the squad by example.
Anton and I touched base while Lokomotiv prepared to face reigning champions CSKA in Moscow. Among other things, we discussed his unlikely reunion with former Edmonton GM Craig MacTavish in Yaroslavl, the 2018 cup run in Kazan and Loko’s sneakiest card sharp.
Gillian Kemmerer: Your father is currently the head coach of Timrå IK, the first pro team you played for in Sweden. Was there ever a doubt that you’d grow up to be a hockey player?
Anton Lander (AL): Like you said, we started out early. My Dad played a little bit when I was a kid, so my first time skating was with him and his team. I had a great childhood where I had an outdoor rink close to our house, always street hockey. Where I’m from, hockey is the biggest sport.
GK: Does having a hockey expert at home mean added pressure for you?
AL: I never had him as a coach, but we’ve found a good way to talk about hockey. He waits for me to bring something up if I need advice or positivity. We have found a good way to communicate about it so that it doesn’t become too much! My little brother plays for Timrå as well, so it’s a lot of hockey in the family. [Laughs] But sometimes we need to talk about something else too.
GK: What were the most difficult elements of your transition from Swedish hockey to the NHL?
AL: First of all, I didn’t speak good English. I had been learning English along the way, but that was a big adjustment for me. I think especially the Russian players [in North America] have been in the same boat—you don’t feel part of the team if you don’t understand English.
[On the ice] I understood way more than I was speaking, so it was more about being a teammate. I didn’t understand everything or get the inside jokes. Coming from Sweden where the whole team spoke Swedish, you had so much fun and understood everything. That was a big change for me.
If we talk hockey, everything happened so much faster. You had to make decisions in less time. Guys were coming quicker and they wanted to hit you harder than they did in Sweden. Everything was many steps up.
GK: You played for the Edmonton Oilers on-and-off from 2011 to 2017…a playoff drought through to the arrival of Connor McDavid. That must have been an interesting time.
AL: It was many new coaches, new GMs, new faces coming in and out. They were always talking about “rebuilding,” but as players, we started to get tired of the rebuilding talk because we wanted to be as good of a team as we could be and reach the playoffs. There were some tough times for me personally as well, being sent down to the AHL through the years. [My wife and I] had some great experiences, and I am really happy that it has been a part of our lives. My older son was born in Edmonton too, so one day we will go back and show him where he was born.
GK: How much did you see of Wayne Gretzky?
AL: He was always around. A few games during the year, he came to the rink and I saw him and said hi. It was amazing to see him—he’s done so much for the sport of hockey, not only the Oilers. I was kindof starstruck there.
GK: Craig MacTavish served as General Manager of the Oilers during your time there, and was your head coach at Lokomotiv earlier this season. Did this influence your decision at all to come to Yaroslavl?
AL: No—to be honest, I had signed [with Lokomotiv] before his name had even circled around. I was at the World Championships in Slovakia, and after a game the Swedish media told me that I had a new coach. When they told me it was MacTavish, I was happy and surprised. Normally you hear some names circling around, but that was not a decision when I signed.
GK: What was your reunion like?
AL: I mean, I was still surprised! He’s a great person and I never had him as a coach. He was General Manager when I was [in Edmonton]. I really respect him, and he was really good to make the group tighter and play for each other.
GK: You won the Gagarin Cup in 2018 with Ak Bars Kazan. Was there any moment in the season when it clicked for you that the team had championship potential?
AL: In the regular season, we won games and we lost them. Personally I went through 28 games without scoring a goal, so I was nervous there. I had a good meeting with [Zinetula] Bilyaletdinov who was the coach, and he told me to keep working hard and that I was doing the right things. As long as we kept winning games, I got saved a little bit there. Then we went through the Olympics and came back for three games, and then went straight into the playoffs.
I think the big key, through the playoffs, was that we won 4-1 [twice] and got a lot of days between rounds to rest or even work harder. I thought I was more tired through the regular season than the playoffs—I think I’m talking for the whole team there. I don’t really have a moment where I felt like we could actually win. Every game was a new game, and we wanted to win that game. It didn’t matter who we played against.
GK: The added rest was great, but what defined that team’s success?
AL: I would say how we played as a team, and of course our goaltender [Emil] Garipov. We played really tight and didn’t make many mistakes. One thing too—we scored the first goal in many games. We had a really good system and played tight. We were tough to beat when we got the first goal.
GK: Having been through a Gagarin Cup Final, do you think the current squad at Lokomotiv has what it takes to win?
AL: That’s a big goal for every player on our team, I’m not going to lie about that. We have many steps we need to reach before we are there, but there is progress. We just need to get into the playoffs first of all. When the playoffs start, in my opinion, anything can happen. If you really believe it and you play really tight as a group, anything is possible. That’s the main goal for us, but it’s a process.
GK: Mike Pelino recently stepped into the role of head coach, and it’s his first time leading a KHL squad. What is it like to play for him?
AL: I don’t think you can tell that it is his first time as a head coach. He’s doing a great job. He knows how to reach out to players and tell them what they need to do. His practices are hard, and these days you need to have hard practices to get your body used to the high tempo of games. His key is really reaching out to every player.
GK: No small task, given how many nationalities and experience levels are represented in your locker room.
AL: We have Denis Grebeshkov [also a former Edmonton Oiler] translating everything that Mike says. He does direct translations, and it’s sometimes funny for the Russian guys! Everyone knows that we are here to win hockey games. Different players, different ages…young, old, Swedish, French. It doesn’t matter; we are all here for one reason. If everyone is buying in, it doesn’t matter where you’re from.
GK: During last season’s playoffs, Lokomotiv put the youngest team ever on the ice. Do you ever feel like a veteran at 28?
AL: I mean, yes and no. I don’t think about it that way, but of course I try to lead by example…working hard, on the ice and off of it. You need to be professional everyday. If you’re cheating one day, that’s going to come back to you later on in the season. I’m not trying to tell the guys what to do, I just try to do what I can to get better.
GK: Speaking of youngsters in the K, have any stuck out to you as the most talented?
AL: Kaprizov, obviously. I think he is unbelievable with finding the puck around the net. It’s not only luck—he is so good about putting himself in a position to score. I think he’s been doing that for many years, so he’s the one player that I need to say.
GK: Playing for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl carries an extra weight. The city and its fans live with the memory of that tragic plane crash in 2011. How do you keep the memory alive as a team?
AL: At the beginning of the season—on the anniversary of the crash—we went to the memorial site. I had been there before, but being there as a player for the team…you thought a lot about it. It was both beautiful and hard at the same time to look at it. The moment was so sad, it’s tough to find words. There is nothing you can do—you learn to live with it. We do our best for the fans and the families, who really deserve it, to win hockey games. I think every player had some connection to one of the people on that  team.
GK: You recently played Ak Bars for the first time since joining Lokomotiv. How was it?
AL: Yesterday we played in Kazan, and I spent two years there. I took a moment to just enjoy being back. I was happy those two years…me and my family, we really like it here in Russia.
I was so focused to play good hockey, and it was a big game for us as a team. There were so many guys from Lokomotiv who played in Kazan—I think five guys. We were all happy to be back and were sad we didn’t get the result, but it was nice to play in that arena again.
GK: Speaking of life in Russia, have you adapted to the local cuisine?
AL: I am really into borscht! That’s my number one soup now. [Laughs] I had chicken noodle before in America, but the borscht is number one these days.
GK: You recently became a father again…two sons! Would you say that you have a great defensive pairing, or a set of wingers?
AL: I don’t know! I’m not going to push them into hockey or anything. I just prefer that they go into a team sport, because you learn a lot from being on a team. It helps you along the way in life, and that’s the only thing I will try to get them into.
GK: You mentioned that your older son was born in Edmonton. Is your family in Russia with you at the moment?
AL: No, unfortunately. We wanted our baby to be born in Sweden, so they went home. Our first son was born in Canada, so we felt that if it was our last, we’d have one baby born in Sweden. They went back in late October and will be there for the whole season…which is lonely, but best for my family. My mom and older son have [Russian] visas, so they might come later.
GK: Yaroslavl is a big destination for tourists, not just hockey fans. What is your top sightseeing recommendation?
AL: Take a walk along the river. It’s really beautiful, seeing all of the stores and cafes around there. That’s what I do when I have some days off.
GK: Days off at home are rare, given the travel schedule! What do you do to pass the time on the road?
AL: Here at Lokomotiv, we play cards a lot! When we went to China, I think we played cards for four hours. [Laughs] That was too much, but at least it was killing time. We play cards and drink coffee basically.
GK: What game do you play?
AL: I think it’s called Shnarps? I might be really wrong! I don’t know who came up with it…probably Captain Kronwall because he’s the big boss, so I guess it’s his game.
GK: Does that mean he’s the best at it?
AL: I’d say Staffan is the sneakiest card player! He tries to trick you. But like I said, we’ve been playing a lot lately…so you know all of his tricks now.