The Ontario native finished his season with Lukko as Finland’s top scorer, posting sixty points (27+33) in 56 games. Danforth was told that his style was well-suited to the European game long before he touched down in Rauma, a hypothesis further supported as he picked up Liiga’s Lasse Oksanen trophy for the season’s best player. Danforth barely had time for a victory lap before his announced departure to Vityaz Podolsk, a team that is quickly building a foreign legion around Russian powerhouse Alexander Semin.
If his track record in Bridgeport, Cincinnati or Rauma is any indication of what’s to come, Podolsk should set high expectations for Danforth’s first foray into Russia. We caught up from quarantine on his transition to Finland, KHL expectations and childhood admiration for Pavel Datsyuk.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): Fresh off of a remarkable season in Finland, how did the Vityaz opportunity unfold for you?
Justin Danforth (JD): I was playing through my season and waiting for a good offer, really. Vityaz came up and I met with the GM, and it seemed like a great fit for me.
GK: Was a European hockey career always on your radar?
JD: Growing up, I was really small and fast. A lot of people would say, “Your hockey would be perfect for Europe. You’d love European-style hockey.” I constantly heard that as a kid. My goal was always to eventually play hockey in Europe, even back when I was thirteen years old. I thought that I could go and have a great career there, so making the move and transitioning over was always on my radar. Obviously the opportunity came pretty fast, one year in North America and then I was going right over. It was always something that I had in the back of my mind.
GK: You played with Brandon DeFazio at Lukko and Mathew Maione on Team Canada. Did you consult with them about the KHL experience?
JD: I spent a year with [Kunlun Red Star forward] DeFazio in Lukko and he’s one of my best friends. My first year in Finland, he was telling me stories about what to expect if I were to make the move. He got me more comfortable with the transition. Playing with Maione [Dinamo Riga] in the Spengler Cup, I picked his brain to get a better feel for the hockey and the different teams. It is a really big transition from Finland or North America, but I am definitely excited for it.
GK: What were some of the differences they pointed out to you?
JD: They said that everyone is a really good skater in the KHL. It’s a fast league with a bunch of skill. This year, I was watching a lot of DeFazio’s games throughout the season and I got a good feel for what the hockey was like. They also said the training camps may be a bit harder than in North America. In Finland, the last couple of years, we did a pretty challenging training camp as well. Obviously it’s not like the standard Russian camps, from what I’ve been told! [Laughs] I’ve heard they’re quite the challenge.
GK: Vityaz Podolsk has made quite a few moves this spring, and obviously they’re building a team around none other than Alex Semin. Are you looking forward to playing alongside him?
JD: It’s huge to have a player like [Semin] on the team. He’s such a role model for a lot of guys, including myself. I watched him play in the NHL when I was young, and he’s such a dominant player. To have someone like that on the team to learn from—I’m pretty excited for that, for sure.
GK: What were some notable adjustments that you needed to make from North American to Finnish hockey?
JD: It was a pretty big transition for me. It was such a different style of hockey than what I was used to playing mostly in the ECHL. In Finland it’s a big possession game, a lot of trapping. You don’t really move the puck that fast. There was a bit of a transition period that took place—my first year, we had about eight or nine exhibition games and a couple of tournaments. That always helps with the transition. I think it’s similar to Russia in the sense of trapping and possession, obviously the ice sizes are different—but they do have their similarities.
GK: One of your obvious strengths is your speed. How did that impact your transition to the larger ice sheet?
JD: It was definitely nice to play on the bigger ice surface. There are pros and cons to it. You have more time with the puck, a bit more space to go wide on defensemen. Sometimes on the bigger ice surface, it’s a lot more challenging to create offense when there’s so much ice in the o-zone. So that takes getting used to, finding different ways to score goals and make plays. Over the last two years, I’ve been able to learn the ins-and-outs of the bigger style rink, and once you’re used to it, it all flows.
GK: Was the adjustment to a Finnish-speaking locker room difficult at times?
JD: For me, it was something completely new. I had never been to Europe before going to Finland, so everything was new—including the language. Our coach spoke Finnish and we had a translator. You get used to stuff like that, and it’s not really a big deal once you understand the process. The language barrier is a bit tough, but I’ve noticed that all of the guys are really fluent in English. It really was no big deal, just needed to take the time to get to know my teammates and the staff.
GK: How into the Finnish sauna culture did you get? The Russian banya is going to be your next level.
JD: I loved the saunas actually—it took me a little bit to get into it! We’d have sauna parties where we’d get together with the team. It was really like a bonding activity. Every Sunday—or whenever we could—we’d go out to the sea. Go into the sauna, jump into the sea, go back to the sauna again. It’s a pretty cool experience.
GK: You worked extensively with a skating coach when you were growing up. It seems like your parents really knew what they were doing in terms of investing in your strengths.
JD: That was mostly up to my Dad. He pushed my brother and me pretty hard when we were growing up to get better. We enjoyed the game so much that it was fun getting up at 6 am and going to the rink on the weekends—[laughs] well, not all of the time! I’ve been working with my skating coach since I was seven or eight years old, and I still work with her every summer. I am pretty thankful that my Dad spent the time and gave me that opportunity to work on my skating.
GK: What is your most vivid youth hockey memory?
JD: All of the tournaments we went to with our buddies—the Sudbury Tournament is big in Canada, so we’d go up there. Unfortunately our team growing up wasn’t that great, so we’d lose a lot! But we still had a lot of fun.
GK: Speaking of tournament travel, you spent the holidays in Davos for the Spengler Cup and came home with some hardware. Did you have your friends and family with you in Switzerland?
JD: Yeah, it was an amazing experience—one I will never forget. It was pretty special. My parents were able to come out and spend the week there, and I had a couple of buddies fly out too. We had such a fun time, and the coaching staff was amazing. It makes it that much sweeter when you can win the tournament and spend that special moment with your friends and family.
The atmosphere is great. When the Finnish team TPS played Salavat Yulaev Ufa, it would be a full house at 2:00 in the afternoon. Fans were going crazy. After the game, you go out, and the fans are still going crazy in the beer tents. It’s a pretty unique experience—if you’re a hockey fan, it’s definitely something everyone should experience.
GK: You played lacrosse growing up, which seems to be a common crossover for hockey players. Do you feel that it impacted your on-ice abilities?
JD: I definitely think that playing two sports or as many as you want growing up is helpful. With lacrosse, you just develop more athletically. You get better footwork, better IQ—you understand that game more, which helps you with hockey.
In playing two sports, you become a better athlete. You build up your competitive drive. It played a pretty big role in my hockey success and just being a better athlete overall. For kids growing up now, if they want to play two sports, they should be given the opportunity. If you’re playing competitively, you become a better teammate and it just helps you grow as a person.
GK: I read somewhere that Pavel Datsyuk was your favorite hockey player. We don’t know if he’s coming back to play another season, but would you look forward to facing-off against him?
JD: That would be pretty cool. He’s such a great hockey player—someone I’ve watched a lot of videos on! I haven’t actually thought about who my favorite player is in a long time [laughs], and I don’t know where you found that either, but he’s such a fun player to watch. He sees the game so well and I tried to learn a lot from him when I was growing up.
GK: No ice time in quarantine is challenging for everyone in the off-season. How are you trying to make the most of it?
JD: I’ve been pretty lucky. There’s a guy I know who lives close to me and has a good setup in his garage. I’ve been going there for the last month and training with him. The strength part of it is fine, but obviously with not having the on-ice, it makes it tough. Hopefully in the next couple of weeks, things will start to reopen and we can start skating again. I’ve ordered a pair of those Marsblades, so they’ve been helping out a little bit.
GK: You’ve racked up quite a few personal titles over the years. Does any one in particular mean the most to you?
JD: That’s a good question. I think maybe Rookie of the Year in college.
Going to college, you don’t really know what to expect. It is so much different than what you’re used to, so I think it was pretty special to be able to succeed my first year there. That was a starting point for me, and knowing that I could succeed at that level, it helped me to build to my confidence. I’d say that was one of the more important ones.
GK: What are you most excited to see or experience in Russia?
JD: I think the culture—I want to be immersed in the culture and get to know what the Russian style is all about. Everything will be new and interesting, there’s no one particular thing. I just want to get there and live it.
GK: I usually ask this to everyone mid-season, so perhaps your answer will change once you get to Podolsk. KHL road trips are long…how will you keep busy?
JD: I like mixing it up every trip! I like playing cards with the guys on the bus—I guess in Russia, it will be on the plane. Whatever’s good to watch on Netflix, I’ll probably be watching that. Different podcasts like Joe Rogan will help me get through it. Those three things are what I do most often on trips.