Bailen’s All Star 2019-2020 season began with an injury and ended with a comeback, but his social media hi-jinx have nearly resulted in a few hospital trips. “Shelby almost got decapitated because we forgot to turn the fan off,” Bailen recalled from an unfortunate outtake this spring. “I did [a video] where I was picking her up, and her head almost got chopped off in the ceiling fan.” The couple took it as a learning moment, but both have sore necks and a few scars to show for some of their bolder attempts.
Despite the occasional mishap, Nick and Shelby have showcased their colorful personalities from Chelyabinsk to Florida this year, and the hockey-loving couple are looking forward to the new season under returning head coach Anvar Gatiyatulin. Bailen began his KHL stint with Dinamo Minsk in 2014, making a brief stop in Sweden before joining Chelyabinsk in 2017. Born in Fredonia, New York, Bailen naturalized during his time in Minsk and competes for the Belarusian National Team. I caught up with both of the Bailens between social media shoots and home renovations.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): You went from a major injury in the first game of the season to an All Star nod in January. Despite team struggles, you made quite the personal comeback.
Nick Bailen (NB): Obviously, it was very unfortunate that I got hurt. I don't even know if it was the third or fourth shift in the first game of the season. That was quite a blow to myself and the team. It ended up being a lot worse of an injury than we originally thought it was going to be because I was out for fifteen weeks or so. It was almost half the season. That was tough because it didn't require surgery, I just had to wait for everything to heal up. But [Traktor] were good. They gave me all the time I needed to recover, and let me go to see the doctors I needed to see. Once I came back, I just slid into good chemistry with my teammates and everything like that.
For me personally, it wound up being statistically one of the better years. If I would have had that same kind of season when I was healthy all year, I probably would have been top one, two, three, or four D in the league for points. It was definitely an honor to be named to the All Star game by the league for only playing, I think, sixteen games at that point. For the team's sake, we didn't finish where we wanted to. We had so many injuries this year to so many guys, coaching changes and things like that. Whenever we would have chemistry, somebody would get injured. I think at one point, there were eight or seven guys in the press box. Unfortunately, that's just the way hockey goes sometimes. I was blessed to be able to come back healthy and stronger than I was at the beginning.
GK: There were very few North Americans on Traktor this year. Did that require any adjustment on your part?
NB: Because I've been overseas for so long now, it's easier for me. I speak enough Russian to get by. When you get guys who have never played in the league before, it's an adjustment period to learn the different style or how to communicate with the guys and with the coaching staff. It's a different league than in the NHL or Sweden or Switzerland or Finland.
Take a guy like Lukas Sedlak. He dominated this year, coming from being a role player in the NHL to now being a top line center. I think he’s arguably one of the better centers in the whole league because he just plays the game the right way that it's supposed to be played. Once he got into the groove of things, he made everybody around him on the ice better. I think he's a good centerpiece to build your forts around and have as an example. [Tomas] Hyka, same thing, great player. It just took him a few games and then once they got grooving, they clicked so well together. With not having a lot of imports on the team North American-wise, I wouldn't say it affects me so much. It probably affects my wife more than anybody just because there's not as many wives to speak English with fluently. I find myself having to develop more of a Russian speaking background every year. So I better be fluent by one of these years, or it's going to be pretty embarrassing.
GK: If you were to write a guide for expats in the KHL, what are the differences you would have them look out for in the locker room?
NB: The main thing I always tell the guys is to make sure you walk around and shake everybody's hand in the morning, or they're going to get pissed off. I think I have an understanding that back from World War times, they would basically shake hands with everybody and be like, "Oh, it's nice to see you and it’s nice you’re still alive,” you know? Unless you're sleeping under the same roof. It takes time for North Americans to get used to that. Or when you're in the NHL, for example, the older guys eat first and get preference to certain things before the rookies do. That’s not really the way it works in Russia or even in Sweden or Finland, when I've been there. When guys come from the NHL or the American League, you have to go with the flow. Don't stress about the little things. Put your ego aside a little bit for that stuff, and just sit wherever you have to sit or eat wherever you have to eat.
GK: Anvar Gatiyatulin will once again be your head coach. Are you looking forward to working with him again? Traktor has been quite active in the off-season.
NB: For me personally, that's great. I had a good working relationship with him. He's a good coach and speaks enough English to have conversations with non-Russian speaking players. Pretty much all of our assistant coaches that we had at the end of the year are back, and all of those coaches have worked together in the past. So from that aspect, it's great because he knew what worked the year that we won the bronze medal. Obviously it’s a different year, different season, things can change, but he had a methodology that worked for Traktor. And I think he'll try to replicate the same things that we had that year, which I think will work again.
He's a really good player's coach. He respects you, so you respect him back. I think that was a great move. I know the fans are happy about it because he's a local guy. We brought back some guys that had a good year from this past season. A guy that I think gets under-appreciated, especially on certain teams, is [Alexander] Avtsin. We signed him back and he's such a hardworking player. He's great in the locker room because he speaks English so perfectly. He's been in the American League before, so he's a good translator as well. Workhorse. And then we've added a couple of other Russian skilled players and some imports.
GK: Vitali Kravtsov made a brief return to the Traktor lineup. You were on the squad since his outstanding rookie season. How did you like playing with him?
NB: I loved him. My first year in Traktor, he was an underage kid at seventeen and he spoke good English. Whenever you hear a guy speaking English, you kind of gravitate towards him a bit more just because you can hold good conversations and get to know them. And then I think maybe his agent told him, "Hey, I'm hearing you talk to the imports a lot. Ask them a lot of questions. Try to see how they work, etc." So we would always talk to him and be like, "Hey, we know you're so talented, but just try to do this a little bit more." Just little things. He's a good kid, so highly talented. The way he sees the game is different than other players that I've seen at his age, and he can make plays and turn games around if he wants. He's young and he’s got to learn some things along the way, but he could have a great career if he pieces it all together.
When you're a young kid playing in Russia on the big ice sheet, it's different when you get to North America and are playing against more physical D. They're not so much puck-moving defenseman, but they're there to lay you out, if you will. He's got to learn some little things about where to go on the smaller ice rink and where scoring opportunities are, but if he keeps working hard, I think he'll have a good career. His year would probably have been a tough one for anybody, let alone a kid who's nineteen years old.
GK: I want to bring your wife Shelby into the conversation, because she’s a key feature in all of the amazing Instagram videos that you two have been producing during quarantine. What was the creative inspiration?
Shelby Bailen (SB): Boredom!
NB: I think boredom. We don't have any kids yet, so when we're in Russia, at times it's just us. When we came back to North America, we were in self-isolation as well. Thankfully we're best friends, but we could kill each other at times I think, you know? There's little things that I do that annoy her…
GK: Like what, Shelby? Do tell us.
SB: Not putting dishes away.
NB: Yeah, not putting my dishes away.
SB: No, but I think we've always been goofballs. When I played hockey, I was always the clown in the locker room, and he is also. We normally always do this, but we've never actually recorded ourselves. So I think in quarantine, people were like, "Oh, you should be on TikTok." We probably got five messages. So finally we were like, "Might as well."
NB: It’s definitely fun, but it gets stressful at times when you keep messing up. Sometimes I get the side-eye look like, "Figure this out, Bud." And I'm like, "I'm trying here." But we went on a hot streak where we were filming a lot. We were trying to do everything hockey-related, like me wearing my equipment. When we were in Florida and it was 95 degrees Fahrenheit and 85% humidity, I got a little grumpy when I was in all my gear.
SB: And I'm telling him what to do.
NB: And getting bossed by my director.
GK: I’ve seen some Cirque du Soleil level acrobatics from the two of you. You can't tell me that there hasn't been a questionable outtake where you were like, "Okay, that could have been a season-ending injury."
NB: Yeah, I have a couple of scars on my leg right now from an incident during one of those filmings. I think I'll have scars for the rest of my life.
SB: There was one where we were doing cartwheels attached to one another at the same time. We both busted our necks doing that one a few times.
NB: Yeah, Shelby almost got decapitated because we forgot to turn the fan off. I did one where I was picking her up, and her head almost got chopped off in the ceiling fan.
SB: We should've signed a waiver.
GK: Wow, that was a close call. I am relieved that both of you still have your heads. Shelby, you were a professional hockey player and National Team member. Do you miss your playing days?
SB: I definitely do miss playing, but I think it will be harder when Nick retires because I get to watch him play two to three times a week. So I'm kind of getting my hockey in, but it's probably not good for him. A lot of wives don't really know what happens, so they’re like, "Oh, good job, hun." And I'm like, "What the hell were you doing on this play?” Some days I step away and let him cool down from the game, but it's also good because he always asks me, "How did I do? What could I do better?”
GK: You know, Russia’s WHL is doing great. You could lace up again, if you wanted to…
SB: If we played in a city that had a team, I think I would play! It's just that our closest team is maybe Ufa. One of the things I probably miss the most are the girls in the locker room. They're basically your best friends all year and you build a close relationship with them. But I guess I have the same thing with the wives that we have now.
GK: I think many would be curious about expat life in Chelyabinsk. What is your average date night?
NB: We puzzle! I don't know, this past year was maybe different. My first two years in Traktor, our best friends, Paul and Sandy Szczechura, were on the team. I played with Paul for five years and I was his roommate my first year in Minsk. He and his wife didn't have a kid yet, so I was basically their kid. I was literally with them every minute of every day. And then when I got bought out from Minsk and went to Sweden, Paul was in Traktor and their GM at the time had asked Paul, "Hey, we need a right-handed offensive defenseman. Do you know anybody?" And he was like, "Just go sign Nick."
So the first two years in Chelyabinsk, date night was double-date night. We went everywhere together. We lived across the street. This past year, it seemed liked us imports always ate together. But other than that, it was a lot of puzzles. I think we did ten or fifteen puzzles this year.
GK: What’s the most impressive puzzle you completed?
SB: We actually bought another table just to do puzzles on, which is sad. I think 3,000 was our cut off, because that was as big as we could go on our table without it falling off.
NB: We have a good technique. I’m a sorter, she's a placer.
GK: Have you guys gotten into the Russian cuisine?
NB: This past year, our team took us to an old school Ural Russian restaurant and had us imports try all of the different foods. I'm not trying to be rude, but I couldn't stomach half the things that I ate. Some things were smoked salmon, trout with mayo and potatoes. I don't know. I just couldn't do it. I’m a meat and potatoes guy.
SB: We are basically borscht and pelmeni. Pelmeni, those are my favorite.
NB: Yeah, she's a pelmeni queen.
GK: What do you do for fun on your long-haul flights during the season?
NB: I think I'm the only person I've ever met who doesn’t have one song on my phone. I don't have any music on my phone. So I'm terrible with music. I've been trying to read a lot more. I liked the Bob Iger book—he’s the retired CEO of Disney World. It laid out the struggles and the achievements that he had during his time there. And then I was reading a macroeconomic theory book…
GK: All of Kunlun is on the real estate investing train because of Victor Bartley, but macro theory…that’s a new one.
NB: I was an economics and finance major in college, so that stuff interests me and informs the way that I do my investing. I think a lot of people don’t know that about me— I'm actually a giant nerd.
If we get a guy on our team that likes to do investing, he becomes my best friend. When Paul and I were on a team, all we would do is talk about what's happening in the world of global markets or forex trading or the stock market. And then I remember Ryan Stoa would be like, "Man, you guys need to shut up. This is all you can talk about." I was like, "I don't know, we don't really like to fish, so I'm sorry but this is just what we both enjoy!”
GK: That’s right - Ryan is Captain Bigfish on Instagram! Okay, last question. What is the next TikTok attempt we can expect from the two of you?
NB: We’re doing a lot of home renovations right now. At 10:30 at night, we realize we haven't even checked our phone and that we've been doing housework for like nine hours, so I feel bad for our followers. We have a couple of videos saved, but Shelby's normally the one who comes up with everything and I'm just an actor. We also just realized that both of our dads are addicted to TikTok.
GK: That is a shocking revelation.
SB: They’re on it every day, and both of them don't follow us. I'm like, "Are you kidding me?"
They don't have Facebook, Instagram, or anything…and then my dad has TikTok. I was blown away when he told us. Yesterday he goes, "Oh, you’ve got to follow this. There's gardening tips on there from this guy I watch…”
NB: My mom is like, “Jim, are you watching that damn TikTok again?" And he’ll just be watching the same dance videos. I didn't even know he liked dance!