Those who live between the pipes are often characterized as a different breed—some of the most memorable, enigmatic and beloved personalities in hockey history. CSKA goaltender and reigning Gagarin Cup Champion Ilya Sorokin is well on his way to the upper echelons of this fraternity, and has already established himself with the hockey-babushka demographic in Toronto (but I will let him tell you more about that later).
Sorokin, 24, hails from Novokuznetsk—a city that has produced a significant number of starting goaltenders in both the NHL and KHL, from Sergei Bobrovsky to Ivan Nalimov. The 2014 New York Islanders draft pick posted a 1.16 GAA in the regular season last year, placing him third behind newly-minted New York Rangers star Igor Shestyorkin and CSKA teammate Lars Johansson (it is worth noting Ilya played 40 games, while the others notched fewer than 30). In the playoffs, he led the pack.
On the subject of Shestyorkin, the former Army Derby rivals share a friendship as fierce as their competition on the ice—a relationship that Sorokin says he hopes will continue to nudge the promising pair in the right direction.
I caught up with Sorokin at CSKA Arena after evening skate. We discussed a number of memorable moments in his career, in addition to his dramatic playoff makeover.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): As I recently discussed with Kaprizov, a number of great players hail from Novokuznetsk—but especially goaltenders. Can you explain why this is the case?
Ilya Sorokin (IS): I think it’s all about trust. There weren’t high expectations for the team, and it was a little low on the financial side. [Metallurg Novokuznetsk] had to rely on young players a lot, so that’s why youngsters were getting a lot of ice time. You would gain experience step-by-step, and that led you to new levels.
GK: Is there any particular goaltending coach who defined the careers of the Novokuznetsk alumni?
IS: Personally, in my first few KHL seasons, it was Nikolai Alexandrovich Mishin. After him, every other coach I worked with has helped my development; I think I’ve taken a little bit from everyone I’ve ever worked with. As for Mishin, he also worked with [Andrey] Kareyev, [Ivan] Nalimov and [Vladislav] Podyapolsky. He also worked with [Sergei] Bobrovsky, but I’m not sure for how long.
GK: Goaltending is a brave choice. What drew you to the craziest position in hockey?
IS: [In English] I don’t like running! [Laughs] And the equipment looks beautiful.
GK: Nice gear, no running…I must be a goalie too then. Let’s talk about another member of our club who made news recently: Igor Shestyorkin. How do you manage friendship and fierce rivalry at the same time?
IS: It’s actually kindof fun. I met him when I was seventeen in Novogorsk at a Team Russia camp. We would always face each other at all levels of hockey. When the puck dropped, we weren’t friends anymore…but after the game, we would just hug, joke around and tease one another.
That’s what it has been like and, hopefully, it’s going to stay that way in the future. I hope our friendship is going to nudge the two us in the right direction and be the foundation for further improvement.
GK: I was at Madison Square Garden when Igor debuted for the New York Rangers. Has he shared any impressions from that night?
IS: I congratulated him on the win and wished him luck, but he didn’t say much. He has a tight schedule and so do I. Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to ask him about that when we meet in the summer. He did say that it was an incredible feeling and no words could describe it.
GK: There is a viral Instagram video of you two singing in the streets of Milan. If you happen to coincide in New York someday soon…will we have more music?
IS: [In English] Only in the summer!
GK: What would be the name of your Russian goalie boy band?
IS: We would have to work on one [laughs]… and get a producer!
GK: Challenge accepted! I saw a touching video this week on the KHL’s social media. Your pads for the All-Star Game were decorated by children at Moscow’s Pediatric Institute.
IS: Yeah, we went over there with people from Bauer. It was a center for kids with heart diseases. We gave them presents, and I asked them to do me a favor and draw pictures on my pads for the All Star Game. We’re going to auction them after the game and donate all profit to [Vilen Prokofyev], a Kazakh goaltender who fights cancer, for his treatment.
The only problem is that the pictures were drawn with sharpies. If the puck hits the pads, it will wipe them off—so I’m only going to wear them for the Skills Competition.
Ilya Sorokin poses with his pads for me, decorated by children at the pediatric institute. They will go to auction after the game as a fundraiser for Vilen Prokofyev, a young Kazakh goaltender who fights cancer. @hccska #KHLAllStars #isles pic.twitter.com/w2HmGgYeJu— Gillian Kemmerer (@gilliankemmerer) January 18, 2020
GK: On the subject of gear, I heard that you had a mask that caused you bad luck earlier in the season…
IS: True. It wasn’t just about bad luck; [the mask] had minor defects too. I thought I would still try it out, see how it goes, and if it wasn’t too bad I would still use it.
Turned out that the games didn’t go too well, and combined with the defects, I had to go back to my old mask. [In English, laughs] 70 me, 30 mask.
GK: You were traded to CSKA right before the World Juniors 2015. That must have been a shocking realization.
IS: I read about it on the internet! I was thinking, "Wow, so what am I going to do now?” I wasn’t sure what it meant for me. But now I can say that the move was good for my career. Everything happens for a reason. I can’t say I was scared at first, but I certainly had my doubts.
GK: You had an amazing exhibition game against Team Canada prior to the World Juniors, posting something like 49 saves. I heard the media attention was insane.
IS: Unfortunately, it was just an exhibition game. [In English] Not a gold medal game. It wasn’t a serious game.
GK: That’s not what everyone else thought…
IS: Yeah, and I was surprised the next day when we went to a hotel just outside of Toronto. An 80-year-old grandmother walked up to me and asked, “Which one of you is that goaltender Sorokin?” I told her it was me, and she asked me for an autograph!
GK: With age comes wisdom—she knew a star was born! Who were the goaltenders that you admired growing up?
IS: When I was a kid, I had one of Don Cherry’s Hockey Night in Canada CDs. My dad got it somewhere. There were a lot of Evgeny Nabokov’s clips when he was still with the San Jose Sharks, so I watched a lot of his highlights growing up. But when I moved to Novokuznetsk, Sergei Bobrovsky was there and he was just breaking out. I was there for his first couple of seasons. Obviously, when you see such a skilled guy everyday at practice and you see how he plays…he’s a role model for a lot of kids. Not even just in Novokuznetsk, but in all of Russia. [In English] And now, the whole world.
GK: I ran into your sister on the ice when you won the Gagarin Cup last April. Tell me about why you chose to share that moment with her.
IS: It’s a great feeling to have a family member by your side, one who supports you and roots for you. It multiplies the pleasure when you get to share these emotions with them.
GK: Some fans on social media were speculating that she was your girlfriend!
IS: [Laughs] I didn’t know about that!
GK: Who would you say is the toughest forward to play against in the KHL? Who has the most blistering or accurate shot?
IS: Since we have such great defense, I can only say that on our team [Kirill] Kaprizov and [Mikhail] Grigorenko have the best shots. I face them everyday at practice. They drive me insane and make me freak out—it’s frustrating. They’re the best in the league.
I mean, there are a lot of good shooters in the league but it’s hard to choose just one. I practiced with [Alexander] Ovechkin on Team Russia. He’s not in our league, but he definitely has the hardest shot!
GK: How do you deal with the different ice sizes in the KHL? In North America, we talk a lot about Russian goaltenders coming over and having to adjust to the smaller ice. Is it something you consciously consider every night as CSKA hits the road?
IS: You don’t notice it when you’re in the zone. But when you fall out from the game rhythm, every change affects you because one day you play at a Canadian-sized rink— it’s small and compact—and the next day, you move to a big city with a big rink and that means a different game strategy. So you get mixed up a bit.
GK: What is the most important thing that changes for you?
IS: It’s playing behind the net. It’s all about timing. On a bigger ice surface, you have more time to get up and skate there, but on a smaller ice surface, you don’t have that much time.
GK: I think the best judge of a team’s defense is often the goaltender because ultimately, you’re the one they are protecting. Tell me a little bit about Alexander Romanov. A lot of North Americans are excited about him.
IS: First of all, he’s a great guy. Speaking of his athletic abilities, he’s hard-working and very gifted. I’m not going to say anything else so he doesn’t get carried away…but if he keeps working hard, he’s going to be a great player.
GK: What would you say was the most exciting night of your career so far?
IS: Hopefully, it’s still coming.
GK: Good answer. You grew your hair very long last season and I barely recognize you sitting here now. Should we expect to see that again if you go deep into the playoffs?
IS: Yes, I’m going to — in fact, I already am.
GK: Is that your only superstition?
IS: It’s not even that. The mask just starts to dangle if you put it on a shaved head. I’m serious! It bothers me because I shave my head often.
GK: Lastly, how do you cope with long flights?
IS: Sleeping, reading, TV-series.
GK: No cards?
IS: [In English] No, I don’t like it. No one plays poker on CSKA. Maybe if they did, I’d start.