Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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The Russian Hockey Hall of Fame faces CSKA Arena—an apt location, given the number of Red Army heroes who grace its walls. Inductees’ portraits are etched in glass and backlit for maximum drama; bas-relief hockey players flank the ceilings in a style similar to the opulent Moscow metro stations. Tretiak, Tarasov, Fetisov, Zubov…decades of stickhandling genius, masterful goaltending and strategic brilliance gaze down upon you in a cerulean twilight.

While the portraits and names were familiar, it was not the etched glass panels that struck me. Instead, I was fascinated with the spaces between them. The empty squares between Olympic champions and prolific coaches are filled with such delicious possibility. They wait for another generation to write themselves into history, someday to be inscribed upon these walls between national heroes and global icons.

In a sense, this was the perfect place to wait for Kirill Kaprizov. An Olympic and Gagarin Cup champion at the age of 22, the hotly-anticipated Minnesota Wild draft pick has already earned accolades equal to some members of the Hall of Fame. Kaprizov recently celebrated his 100th regular season goal in the KHL, and leads the league in goals-scored ahead of players well his senior.

A native of Novokuznetsk, a city in southwestern Siberia, Kaprizov shares regional heritage with the likes of Dmitry Orlov and Sergei Bobrovsky. While this industrial hub sandwiched between Kazakhstan and Mongolia has produced a slew of hockey stars, Kaprizov has the capacity—and indeed, the public expectation—to one day match or outshine his predecessors. The beauty of it all, much like those unetched panels of glass in the Hall of Fame, is that we cannot fathom how the adventure will conclude. I visited Kirill after CSKA practice in Moscow to learn more about how it began.

Gillian Kemmerer (GK): Do you remember the first time that you laced up your skates?

Kirill Kaprizov (KK): Back in the village, my dad took my brother and me to a rink. My dad gave me a pair of skates and a skating suit to wear. My brother is older than me; I was 4 years old at the time. I put the skates on and went to practice. My brother skated for about five days, maybe a week, and then switched to soccer. At first, I was just skating along the boards…but it didn’t take me long to start playing hockey. That arena was in the suburbs of Novokuznetsk, about twenty minutes away from the city. Later on, my father’s friend Sergei Isakov gave me another pair of skates when I really got into hockey. He played for Khabarovsk and Novokuznetsk.

GK: When did you first realize, “Hey—I’m pretty good at this. I can make a career out of hockey.”

KK: There was never a defining moment. When you’re a kid, you just skate around and have fun. I think I first began realizing it when I matured a bit and was about to start in the Junior Hockey League. That’s when I knew that I was going somewhere. The level of hockey was getting higher—merely skating around wasn’t cutting it anymore. So I would say it hit me when I was about to graduate from hockey school. I was fifteen or sixteen at the time. 

GK: Who did you idolize growing up?

KK: I wouldn’t say there was one [person]. When I was a kid, I followed just about anybody. There wasn’t one specific player that I liked. I mean, I have always enjoyed how Evgeny Kuznetsov and Vladimir Tarasenko played. I watched them at the World Juniors, and I saw Tarasenko play in the JHL (Junior Hockey League). I followed players across the pond as well. [Sidney] Crosby, [Ilya] Kovalchuk, [Pavel] Datsyuk—all of them. But I never focused on just one player because it was fun to watch them all. 

Team Russia at the 2011 World Juniors was big for me though. I had to go to hockey school in the morning, but I watched them late at night. I even missed my first class because of it. When Tarasenko signed with the St. Louis Blues, I followed him on [social media] to never miss the news.

GK: You scored the game-winning goal to clinch Olympic gold in 2018. Last year, I spoke with Alexei Kovalev who won on Tikhonov’s “Unified Team” in 1992. As the USSR had collapsed weeks before, the Soviet players competed under a neutral flag and anthem…a similar experience to your own as the “Olympic Athletes from Russia.” Did that layer of drama impact your experience at all?

KK: Team management made our life easy there. We had everything we needed and truly felt at home. We had a great atmosphere. We didn’t pay much attention to the fact that we played under a neutral flag or whatever. Everything was great in the locker room and the fans supported us from the stands. It felt like we played for Team Russia. It was an awesome experience, playing for that team. I have only positive memories from the Olympics.

At first, though, it was obvious that not all of the best players made it to the Olympics. I was really nervous prior to the first game, even though we played against Team Slovakia if I’m not mistaken. I think I scored on a tip-in in my second shift. It got easier after that.

GK: So many NHL and KHL starters come from Novokuznetsk. What are they feeding you out there? 

KK: It’s great. Unfortunately, the team [Metallurg Novokuznetsk] is not in the KHL anymore, so the boys have less of a chance to show what they’re capable of. Back in the day, there was a kid in every graduating class who would sign with the top teams and make his way to Team Russia. There was almost always a kid from Novokuznetsk playing for Team Russia at the World Juniors.

GK: There must have been some amazing coaches in your system. Is there anyone that you remember in particular? 

KK: Novokuznetsk has a great hockey school. The thing is though, they would call you up to the pros early and you would get a chance to play in the KHL. If you play well enough in the JHL, there was a great chance they would try you out in the KHL. You would get your chance a lot sooner than on some top teams in the league. The budget just wasn’t as great, so they had to rely on their junior school alumni. Kids had a chance. If you were good enough, you were on the team.

GK: The legendary Sergei Fedorov is on the board of CSKA. Does he ever give you any pointers?

KK: He’s at the rink everyday—we talk everyday. Obviously, he spends more time with centers. He gives them a lot of advice. But I can walk up to him just as well and ask a few questions.

GK: I saw on Instagram that you’re the godfather of [CSKA defenseman] Nikita Nesterov’s child. What are your new responsibilities?

KK: I was really pleased when he offered me to be godfather—I didn’t expect it at all! It just so happened that we got to know each other when we joined CSKA. We hang out almost everyday. This past summer, I came to visit him at his place and he was having a christening. It’s great. I mean, Sergei Andronov’s wife is Kirill’s—Nikita’s son’s— godmother. As for the responsibility, you feel it. You have to spend time and talk, bring presents to birthdays and things like that. It’s just something that you have to take care of.

GK: Did they name their kid after you on top of it?

KK: [Laughs] No. Nikita told me that he liked two names, and chose Kirill in the end.

GK: You played alongside Ryan Stoa and Linus Omark – some wonderful mentors from outside of Russia. Tell me a little bit about your relationship.

KK: I was in my first KHL season and German Titov was our coach. I think that Ryan joined the team because of him. [Titov] must have scouted him in the AHL or somewhere else. I spoke no English at all and never studied it in school, but I liked playing hockey with [Stoa] and I think it was fun for him as well. I was still just a kid back then, and had a lot to learn. I didn’t play much in my rookie season, but when I played with him, I was having a lot of fun—even at practice. We started hanging out after a while.

What I liked the most was that I didn’t speak a word of English, but he would invite me to go to dinner with him. He didn’t speak Russian, so we would sit there and he would start talking…I mean, back in school, I would come to my English class and I would think, “Why do I need to learn it?” But Ryan got me interested. I learned a few words from him and then I would hear them in my class and feel better. He would say something else to me I wouldn’t get, but then I would whip out my phone and look it up. He’d tell me to put it away and tried to make me understand what he was saying with his hands.

He really helped me out in a lot of different ways. We spent a lot of time back in Novokuznetsk, especially at the rink—we were always together there. We still keep in touch. I think I last spoke to him about a month ago.

GK: This might sound like a silly observation, but you have a trademark smile on TV and on the ice. It’s obvious you love playing…

KK: [Interrupting] Come on, we’re in hockey!

GK: Okay…but Vitali Kravtsov, for example, has said that he was not allowed to smile. His coach Igor Znarok used to tell him that hockey was very serious. Has any old-school coach ever tried to stop you?

KK: No one ever told me that. I worked with the other Znarok [Oleg]. He’s fine with joking around, but there’s a time and a place for everything.

GK: Your season stats speak for themselves, but what are you still hoping to improve?

KK: I need to improve at everything, to be honest. There’s still a lot I need to get better at—shooting, for instance. Sometimes I have a good chance, but I take a poor shot. I need to work on all of my skills, even skating. You can’t be perfect, but you need to keep improving.

GK: You were just named captain of your division’s All- Star Team. What does that mean to you?

KK: [Laughs] When I walk into the locker room now everyone taunts me: “Make way for the captain!”

GK: I’m not supposed to ask you this, but I must! Are you excited about opportunities that wait for you in America?

KK: I mean, what can I say? The [KHL] season is still on. I have to do my best here, but I do have a great desire to move over. I have to focus on the ongoing season. It’s the end of the regular season—I need to get ready for the playoffs and do well so that we win our second cup in a row. There’s still a lot to be done before I have to worry about it—such as making the World Championship team. There’s still time. I’ll think about it later.

GK: Do you have any superstitions? Most players have a few.

KK: I have a few of my own, and there’s a certain routine that I try to stick to. Sometimes I change it around—although I don’t want to share!

GK: Lastly—what’s your road trip entertainment strategy?

KK: On the plane, I usually start watching a movie or put the music on and just fall asleep right away.

Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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