A Paris native who fell into hockey alongside his two older brothers, Da Costa moved solo to North America at the age of seventeen, an intrepid decision that fast-tracked the skilled forward’s career. After a few seasons between the Ottawa Senators and their AHL affiliate in Binghamton, Da Costa returned to Europe as a member of Dmitri Kvartalnov’s red-hot Red Army. He spent three seasons in the Russian capital before a one-year stint in the Swiss league, returning to play for Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg, and most recently, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. Da Costa will kick off his sixth KHL season at conference-topping Ak Bars, and reunite with former CSKA head coach Kvartalnov.
I touched base with Da Costa upon arrival in Kazan. We looked back on his colorful international career, and ahead to a challenging preseason for Ak Bars.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): This might sound facetious, but how did you get to Russia this week? International travel is no easy task this summer.
Stéphane Da Costa (SD): The Kazan organization made my visa really quick. As soon as they had the authorization to get the invitation and the visa going, within two days I got it. And then two days after that, I hopped on a plane to Frankfurt. There was a [charter] flight made for forty of us imports in the league to go to Magnitogorsk, and then we had another plane going to Kazan. It was honestly a long journey, but it was well-organized.
GK: Poland, Germany, Magnitogorsk, Kazan. You took the scenic route.
SD: It was a day where you woke up at six in the morning and got to Kazan at four in the morning. It was long, but I’m here now.
GK: Have you had your first practice or a look around home base yet? What is the coronavirus protocol?
SD: I’m stuck in the apartment all day. Tomorrow we have to test for the virus. Within a day or two, we're going to find out the results—and then if we're clear, I think we're good to go.
I can't even go to reception or to another guy's room. They're being really safe and I'm actually really happy about that because this is a serious issue.
GK: Staffan Kronwall put us in touch, your former captain at Lokomotiv. As you know, he is making his coaching transition this year. How do you think he will fare?
SD: He's really good at talking with younger guys, and talking in general. He's really mature—you can see it. And I think he'll do a fine job, but then again, I don't really know what kind of coaching position he's going to get.
GK: He doesn't either, but it sounds like it's going to be something youth development-related. He is also hoping to bridge the gap for future imports.
SD: Professional hockey in general—from juniors to pro—is a big step, not just in the KHL. Some kids do well in juniors and they expect it to be easy, but then they go to pro and they can't make the transition. You need guys like [Staffan] that have experience to explain it to them. It’s a different game and you can’t be cocky. You have got to work. The Russian coaches, a lot of them are really strict. There’s a reason for that, and it’s especially to keep the young guys in check.
GK: Have you had much time to reconnect with [Ak Bars head coach] Dmitri Kvartalnov?
SD: No, I haven't really talked to him yet. I'm sure we're going to talk in the next few days, but I know him. I had him in [CSKA] Moscow, so I know what he wants and I'm pretty sure we want the same thing. Kvartalnov and [Igor] Nikitin came in the same year I got to Moscow. After my third year, Kvartalnov and I left, and Nikitin was appointed head coach.
GK: In watching Kazan play the previous seasons and speaking with members of the Ak Bars squad, Kvartalnov seems to play a more aggressive game than some of his Russian counterparts. Did you witness this at all at CSKA?
SD: When I played in Moscow, it was kind of a mix. I'm pretty sure the defensive part was Nikitin pushing on it. We were aggressive—really aggressive—and that was probably Kvartalnov. I believe it’s going to be very much the same. We'll see how it goes because Kazan was really strong last year. They were in shape. For sure we're going to be in shape this year because Kvartalnov demands a lot of hard work. It’s going to be fun to watch.
GK: Have you gotten any sense yet of what your training camp will entail?
SD: Not really, but I know we have some really good games in the preseason. Hard games. I'm pretty sure the preseason is going to be tough like always. I've talked to [Justin] Azevedo a little, but not much really. I think I know how it's going to be.
GK: You were part of a CSKA squad that consistently won the regular season, but never the postseason. I've heard a lot of theories floated about why the team could not finish the job. Looking back on those years, why do you think it took so long to lift the Gagarin Cup?
SD: Well, the first season was a tough one. SKA was really good and we were up 3-0. It was a tough one to swallow, really. It was a really good series and some circumstances made it that we lost that one. And the second time, we went really far. I really thought we were the better team over Magnitogorsk. We were outshooting them every game, I would say dominating the whole series, but we somehow found a way to lose. I don’t know the theories that you heard, but I don't really know what to say. We had a pretty average age team too. It wasn't that old, not that young. So I don't really have any reasons—it just happened like that.
GK: Nigel Dawes suggested to me at the beginning of last season that CSKA had run out of gas in years past. Perhaps the team had not managed its load or taken enough rest.
SD: Yeah, maybe we ran out of gas. I'm not sure, honestly. When you re-watch the series, we looked fine. It's just that [Vasily] Koshechkin, the goalie, stood on his head the whole series, and good for him. Then they won. That's the only thing I could say because you could watch the goals. Mozyakin scores from behind the net in overtime. There's one goal—it’s a 1-0 game—there’s a slapshot, broken stick, goes right back door for an empty net. Just some bad luck, I would say. Sometimes that's the difference between winning and losing. That's it.
GK: Nigel Dawes recently inked a one-year deal with Ak Bars, and had one of his best playing seasons alongside you at Avtomobilist. What was the magic behind that partnership?
SD: We have a good relationship in and out of the locker room. We got to know each other pretty well. There were a few imports in Yekaterinburg, and we had a really good relationship. I don't know if I can say we had a connection, but we could talk about plays and we understood each other. There was no screaming at each other, and that’s how we got better. We got along and we worked hard in the preseason to get good during the season.
GK: You are one of the imports who has stood the test of time alongside Dawes. What are some of the changes that you've seen in the KHL?
SD: I think it's more equivalent now. Anybody can beat anybody, and that's a good thing, because five years back there were a few big teams and a few bottom teams. The best teams were mostly winning all of the time, you know what I mean? Now they’ve gotten rid of a few teams that were struggling with money and with playing-level. With the [salary] cap too, I think it's going to be fun to watch this year. All of the teams are going to start at the same level.
GK: Did you see the introductory video that Ak Bars made when you signed? You were hopping around Paris with baguettes under your arm and a monocle. Was just wondering if that was an accurate representation of your life in France…
SD: [Laughs] I've seen it and I definitely smiled at it. It was funny. Every morning, I used to have a little baguette for sure.
GK: How does a Parisian boy wind up in ice hockey and not in the halls of Paris Saint-Germain, for example?
SD: My brothers. My brothers started before me. We had a small rink about 150 meters away from our apartment. My brothers were three and five years older than me, and I always wanted to be like them and do the same thing. [Hockey] just grew on us and my parents were fully into it. They organized a lot of things for us and camps in the summer.
GK: And then you picked up and moved to America to further your career without speaking English. I cannot imagine that it was “happily ever after” right away.
SD: I had just turned seventeen. It was somewhere in July when I went to the U.S., and after a month, I told my parents that I was done. My brothers were playing in Poland that year, and I was like, "I'm going back with them. I have the level to play in the Polish league and I'll just play with them. I don't care. I don't want to be away from the family.” It's tough when you're young.
GK: Of course, so what convinced you to stay?
SD: My parents pushed me and they were like, "No, just trust us. You'll be fine. This is just the start. You're going to get used to it." And they were right—I did get used to it. Because of that, I did decent.
GK: That’s an understatement. If you had grown up now versus ten to fifteen years ago, would you have made the same decision? How have you seen the domestic pathways evolve for French hockey players?
SD: I would say that it's getting better. The clubs are focusing more on the progression of kids, but I think still it's not there. And as a French hockey player, if I were in that position again, I would leave the same way, I think.
GK: Who did you idolize growing up?
SD: Jagr, Fedorov, Forsberg—all of those skilled, old-time European hockey players. Guys like that.
GK: Sergei Fedorov, of course, came from Red Army. Did that make his CSKA offer more enticing?
SD: I was a little overwhelmed when [Fedorov] called me at the World Championships in Minsk, and yeah, it was really exciting. I wasn't expecting it and I was kind of nervous! It was really intimidating, but it was also nice. I wouldn't say that his call made my decision, but CSKA is a big club and I was ready to go back to Europe and go to Russia. Personally, I don't think I had the greatest experience in the U.S. as a professional. But that's how it goes.
GK: Do you chirp in French, English, Russian or Polish?
SD: I don't chirp at all.
GK: Why not?
SD: [Laughs] I do get chirped a lot because first of all, I'm terrible at chirping and at responding to chirps. And second of all, I'm not that kind of guy. I just laugh at the guy and leave usually.
GK: How did you prepare for this upcoming season in light of quarantine?
SD: That was a bit of a problem. There were no gyms open, no rinks open the whole summer. Only the last few weeks in Poland. So yeah, I did a lot of stuff at home. I bought one of those CrossFit bikes—the Assault Bike. I was doing that a lot, and a little CrossFit, bodyweight stuff. I think I'm ready. That bike is a killer. I worked on it a lot, and I think I'm ready to do a normal camp. I hope so.
GK: Will your family come with you to Kazan?
SD: Not yet. My wife wants to stay and do all of the vaccines back home for the new baby because we have a newborn, just one month old now—Alexander.
GK: Congratulations! Is your older son tutoring you in Russian yet?
SD: In Yaroslavl, he was going to a Russian-English school, but they were speaking to him in Russian all of the time. One of his first words was actually пока. They were always saying that to him, so he repeated. It was cute. He'll go to school [in Kazan] too, so maybe one day he'll teach me better Russian.