Boucher’s reputation as a producer began as early as his junior hockey days, when he topped the OHL in goals in his second season of play. A 2011 draft pick for the New Jersey Devils, the Michigan native spent time on several NHL rosters and averaged over a point per game during his final two AHL seasons with the Utica Comets. Boucher opted to move his career to Europe against a backdrop of pandemic-fueled uncertainty, landing in Moscow on August 23rd and immediately departing for a preseason tournament in Saint Petersburg.
I spoke with Avangard’s rising star from Ufa, where we discussed—among other things—his “fast and furious” first twenty-four hours in Russia.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): You were named the KHL’s “Man of the Week” in your first-ever week of play. Talk about an entrance. Did you expect to roll into the league like that?
Reid Boucher (RB): I don't know. We have a really good team here, and it's easy to step in and play with really good players. I mean, a lot of those points—they were just handed to me. It's basically just the factor of being on a good team.
GK: I can imagine worse linemates than Jiri Sekac and Corban Knight.
RB: They’re very smart hockey players, both very good players, lots of skill. I mean, they've played NHL games and I think they're used to the way I play, and we're all used to the North American style. We use that as a source of chemistry, I guess. We kind of know what each other is going to do at certain times, and when they get the puck in certain situations. I think it has been a nice transition.
GK: The season began on September 2nd. When did you land?
RB: I’m not sure, maybe the 23rd? It was the day before we left for the [preseason] tournament in Saint Petersburg.
GK: So you had virtually no preseason by KHL standards, and then tallied four points in three games. Take me through those first twenty-four hours in Russia.
RB: I got off the plane really late, like one or two-ish in the morning Moscow time. I dropped my hockey gear off at the rink, went to the hotel and didn't get much sleep. I woke up the next morning and had to do some medical tests. Then I went to the rink to watch the guys practice before we headed to the airport to jump on the plane. It was kind of a quick turnaround. Once we got to Saint Petersburg, I had to do more medical tests and stuff before I could practice. Obviously with the plane ride and everything, I wasn't feeling very good the first couple of days.
Once you get on the ice, everything calms down around you—hockey’s hockey. I started to settle in a little bit and got to know the guys a little bit better, had more conversations. So yeah, it was fast and furious ever since I touched down in Russia. I feel like I'm starting to get adjusted now—the more games I play, the better I feel.
GK: What was it like, walking into a Russian-speaking locker room for the first time?
RB: It was a little scary, but there's a lot of guys that speak pretty good English here. And the coaches are from North America, so that helps out a little bit. It's obviously a big culture shock—first time in Russia, first time in a Russian locker room. It has been a lot of sitting in my stall and looking around, just trying to get acclimated.
GK: What are your early observations on the style of play in the KHL?
RB: It’s the same and different. Coach [Bob] Hartley tries to push a North American style of play here, which is a very aggressive, fast-paced game. The main adjustment is to the size of the rink—some spots you kind of get lost out there with how big the ice surface is. That’s been the biggest difference for me, adjusting to a couple of extra seconds here and there, or being in the wrong spot and adjusting to the different sizes of ice.
GK: The KHL has largely normalized to North American or Finnish-sized ice. It’s clear that the hybrid size still makes an impact on adjustment.
RB: You get maybe an extra second or two in certain spots where you normally wouldn’t. The first couple of games I played, I found myself throwing pucks away thinking a hit was coming, when I actually had a little time to make a play.
GK: How did you stay in shape during quarantine? I’ve heard all kinds…CrossFit bikes, roller hockey leagues, Mars Blades…
RB: I didn't do any of the roller blades or anything. All of our gyms are closed back home, but we were able to grab some barbells and equipment and drag it out into the parking lot. We ran through a semi-normal workout schedule in terms of lifting weights and stuff. A lot of it was bodyweight conditioning, lots of running, sprints and stuff like that.
GK: How would you describe Bob Hartley as a head coach?
RB: He was one of the first people that greeted me and gave me a nice phone call right when I signed to welcome me to the team. As a coach, he's very fair and he demands the best every night from guys. He's hard on you, but he's also very fair at the same time. It doesn't matter who you are in the lineup, you're going to get the same amount of grief as anybody else. I really like that about him.
He told me that he tries to run a North American program, which, so far, has been pretty close to what I'm used to. Other than that, he didn't really give me a whole lot of advice before I arrived. He just said to come over and play my game, and that I’d fit in well.
GK: Even as the goals multiplied versus Magnitogorsk this week, Hartley never took his foot off of the gas.
RB: Yeah, and I love that. I think a lot of teams, when you build up a lead early, start to sit back and play on their heels a little bit. I love that we try to take the game to the other team throughout the whole game.
GK: I am sure you are already well-acquainted with the hefty focus on defense in the KHL.
RB: Absolutely. I mean, everybody over here is a really good skater, so it makes it a little easier for them to play defense. They definitely try to get you into bad spots, make you turn the puck over and try to counter on you and go the other way.
GK: Have you gotten much intel from Hartley or your teammates on who the toughest competitors are in the league?
RB: When I signed, I had no idea about any team in the KHL basically. It's not something that I really followed a lot throughout the years. I'm taking each game as a blank slate and trying to worry about myself and the team, and how I can help the team with success. It's weird to say, but I think its been helping me—not worrying about guys on the other teams, and who I should be aware of on the ice. I think it helps when you're not sitting there and thinking the whole game.
GK: There was speculation that you may have had another chance in the NHL. How did the opportunity with Avangard present itself to you, and why did you take it?
RB: Our season ended in the American League and there were talks of the NHL starting the playoffs and all that stuff. My agent came to me with this offer from Avangard and he said, "It's something you should really think about." My wife and I talked to my parents about it, we probably mulled it over for a week or two before we came back with a decision. It just felt like it was the right thing to do for myself and my career.
GK: Justin Danforth was told throughout his career that his strengths were well-suited to the European game. Was it a move that was always on your radar too?
RB: This was the first time, I think. I had gotten some interest throughout the last regular season, but it wasn't something that I would ever think about leaving in the middle of the season to go do. Especially with the uncertainty of what's going on in North America right now, if they're going to have a season or when they're going to start and stuff, I just wanted to get over here and play hockey. I didn't want to be sitting in the gym, working out, waiting for a season to come.
GK: Have you tried any of the Russian cuisine yet?
RB: I don't know if it's Russian cuisine or not, but I mean, I've just been trying to eat what looks good at the buffets and stuff. I'm not a super adventurous person, but I mean, if I'm going down the buffet line and something looks good, I'll usually just slap it on my plate and give it a try.
GK: Corban Knight is into the borscht. You haven’t given it a try yet?
RB: [Laughs] No, I haven't mustered up the strength to go after it yet.
GK: Talk us through your start in hockey. Was playing pro always the goal for you?
RB: As a kid, I grew up playing in Lansing. My earliest memories are going to the rink and playing House League, just having fun playing. It was just something you did for fun—I never knew that you could turn it into a living.
GK: Do you come from a hockey family?
RB: I have an uncle that played when he grew up. My dad played basketball, football, and baseball, never played hockey or anything. My brothers never played. It was just something that he introduced to me, playing street hockey or playing knee hockey in the house. I really fell in love with it and started getting on the ice and ended up becoming pretty decent at it.
GK: Michigan kid in the 90s…you had to be a Red Wings fan. Who were your favorite players?
RB: Yeah, huge Red Wings fan. It was great to be a Red Wings fan, too, at that time. I loved Darren McCarty. I loved all of his fights and the way he played, obviously a big Steve Yzerman fan too. When Brett Hull came to the Wings, he became my favorite player right away. Just the way he shot the puck and thought about the game—he was one of the best goal scorers ever.
GK: Who were the coaches or mentors that had a strong influence on your career?
RB: I've had a couple. It started out with John Bowkus. He was my skills and shooting coach and everything through basically when I started up until a little bit ago, then he moved away to coach. When he moved away, a guy named Dean Dixon came in, who actually became my agent. He had brain cancer and passed away a couple of years ago, so that was sad. Lately I've been working with a guy named Ron Gay, who works with guys like Jason Zucker and Jeff Petry in Michigan. So I linked up with him and he's really turned my game around. He's helped my skating out a lot.
GK: What is one life lesson that hockey has taught you?
RB: Hockey’s a very humbling sport. Some days you feel like you're on the top of the world, and then others, you feel like it's your first time playing. So, I mean, just trying to keep an even keel throughout everything and go about your business one day at a time. You’re only as good as your last game. That's a thought that goes through my mind before I play every game. You try to make it count whenever you're on the ice.
GK: The KHL recently ventured into Spotify…so give me one song on your workout playlist right now.
RB: I listen to a little bit of everything. I don't really have a playlist, I just kind of throw my phone on shuffle and see what comes up. I don't really have any specific workout songs that get me super pumped up or anything, but I like a song called Sunday Best by Surfaces.
GK: Lastly, what will you be doing on the long plane rides this season?
RB: I like to play games on my phone. I play Euchre on my phone, and if the guys get a card game going, I like to play in that. Maybe throw on some music. I'm not too big on reading and podcasts.