Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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There are two great storylines emerging from Dinamo Minsk this season—tales of immense hardship and the associated rewards. The first is the team’s whirlwind reversal of fortune. Craig Woodcroft’s squad emerged from their worst-ever season to contention for the Western Conference top spot, chasing SKA and CSKA within a margin of four points. The second—albeit less celebrated—was Ryan Spooner’s successful import of his Rottweiler Koda to Belarus, in spite of travel hurdles that most humans cannot surmount in 2020.

A 2010 draft pick for the Boston Bruins, Spooner logged 37 points in his first Russian season—the top producer for an ailing Belarusian squad that fortified itself with young, domestic talent in the offseason. His production has shown no signs of slowing down, as the Ottawa native stands tied with Pavel Datsyuk for most assists and has averaged more than a point per game. Prior to his departure for Europe in 2019, Spooner logged time with the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks in over 300 NHL appearances. He made a brief visit to the Swiss resort town of Lugano before departing the National League for the KHL last October.

I caught up with Spooner (and Koda) from Belarus. We discussed Dinamo’s hot start, his impressions of the K, and much more.

Ryan Spooner. Credits: Yaroslav Neyelov

Gillian Kemmerer (GK): Dinamo Minsk had its worst season in history last year—now, you’re hot on the heels of SKA and CSKA. What has driven the change?

Ryan Spooner (RS): We got a lot of the younger Belarusian players from the American League and from the junior leagues in Canada this year. Having these young guys has been a driver to want to win—you can see that they want to get better. That’s made a huge difference for our team. I think we are up to nine imports now, so that helps a lot too. Last season, we were playing in some games with three or four imports.

It just seems like a fresh start here. We changed up the team a lot. Many of the older players that were on our team, they are now playing in the Belarusian League and stuff like that. I just think that the younger kids on the team, they want to win more. They're in the upswing of their careers and want to prove themselves as players. It has been really good so far.

GK: Is the experience gap on this team an obstacle, or has the mentorship opportunity fired up some of your veterans?

RS: I think for the guys that were on the team last season, we had enough of all of the losing. It wasn't a fun year. Just going to the rink was kind of a battle, and we were all a bit down. We were going into games, and you could tell that the whole team knew that we were going to lose. It was just one of those seasons. Among the guys who were on the team last year, we came back and were like, “We can't have that happen again.” We've been playing hard.

The young guys too that are on this team, they all listen well and they definitely want to learn. They want to be the best players they can be. That goes a long way when you're an older guy and you're trying to help out a younger player who wants to get better. It makes the team better—it makes all of us better. I think it has been a good mix of everybody trying to be a good teammate and wanting to be part of a winning team.

GK: Rob Klinkhammer and Brandon Kozun are new to Minsk, but certainly not new to the KHL. What have they brought to the table?

RS: They have both been in league for, I think, five or six years, and that kind of experience is huge for a team. If you look at Klink, he's a good two-way guy. I think that last year, we were missing that. I was playing as a first-line center, and I think I'm probably more of a winger. I wouldn't say first-line center in terms of my face-offs and my defensive game and stuff like that. [Klinkhammer] is 6'3, 220 pounds, so it's definitely hard to play against him in his own zone. That just adds a different layer to our team.

Then you have Kozun. He's probably one of the most competitive guys that I've played with. He wants to win. He wants to be the best. I think that he rubs off on the rest of the team. He's very intense with his game, and if guys are slacking or guys aren't playing their best, he usually tells them. I think that that's good for the team. Sometimes you need a guy like that.

GK: How do you feel that Craig Woodcroft has adapted his North American background to the KHL style of play? Have you seen an evolution in his approach?

RS: He definitely has more of a North American coaching style. He likes to have possession of the puck. A lot of teams here like to rim the puck, and he likes to make some plays to the middle, which is more of a North American thing. I find that the teams here try to rim it and limit the risk. We've been doing that a little bit more this year—and it depends on the team we play against—but he's definitely not a fan of when we rim the puck, so I'd say that's probably the biggest difference about [Woodcroft].

This year, he's been good on the details and the finer elements of the game. I think when you have a team that's younger, you need to be hard in that kind of stuff because it's easy for them to go out and forget all of it. He’s been on top of them for that. We've been watching some video and fixing stuff, and he has done a good job.

GK: There is a lot of pressure on imports to produce. Do you feel the weight of that pressure, particularly from such a passionate fanbase?

RS: I don't really feel any pressure—I mean, it's kind of what you sign up for. It's part of the gig. I just go out there and play my game. I just play the best I can. There are going to be some nights when it’s not good enough, but that's hockey. You move on to the next one. There are going to be some nights when you play great, and you can’t get too high on that either.

In terms of the fans here—yeah, there were times last season when we were feeling the wrath of the fans a little bit, which, I mean, was to be expected. We didn't win a lot of games, and they expect a lot out of us, and it wasn't acceptable. But that being said, they're back at the games this year and they support us. That's the most important thing. The fans here are definitely great.

Ryan Spooner. Credits: Vladimir Bezzubov

GK: Having passionate fans goes both ways—but I am sure you wouldn’t trade that.

RS: For sure. I've played games in Florida and the rink's empty…that’s not fun. Then I played in Boston, and their fans are probably some of the most passionate. It's definitely better to have fans that actually care and that want the team to win.

GK: What were some of your personal adjustments to the KHL? A lot of imports talk about the need to polish their skating.

RS: Skating’s probably always been one of my better assets. I don't think that was necessarily the problem. When I first came over here, it was the size of the ice because I went to the Swiss League and I played there, and I had a hard time with playing in my own zone because on the smaller ice, you're used to closing quickly. On the bigger ice, I just found it hard and I was kind of lost.

I've learned that if you can't close on a guy, you just contain him and you play in the middle. That's another reason why the big teams, they seem to not give up a ton of goals because they don't really chase in their own. They keep it to the outside and they clog up the middle. Sometimes they'll let you get a shot from the outside, and then they grab the puck, and they go down and now they have possession. That took a little bit of time to get used to. That, and the face-offs too because here, you're not allowed to use your skate, you're not allowed to tie up, you can't hit their stick first. It's pretty much just a sword battle, so I was having a hard time with face-offs last season. This season I don't take any, so it's great.

GK: You are currently tied for most assists with Pavel Datsyuk. I don’t even think I have a question here—it’s just worth noting.

RS: I used to play against him when he played for the Wings. I remember him and Zetterberg—I would just watch, and it was incredible the things that they did. His face-offs are probably some of the best I've seen. He's unbelievable with the puck. He's so smart. Probably one of the best players to play against. To be in the same spot as him, it's an honor. I can't believe that he's 42 or 43 now and still playing. That, in and of itself, is also incredible.

GK: What brought you to Minsk in the first place, and after such a tough first season, what enticed you back?

RS: Last year I decided to leave Switzerland because I wasn't playing there, so it was best for me to move on. At the time, Minsk was one of the teams that wanted to sign me. There were a couple of teams that wanted to, but they were one foot in and one foot out. Minsk was pretty much the only team that really wanted me to come here, so I talked to the coach, and it seemed like a really good fit for me. Then in the summertime, [Woodcroft] was telling me about all of the younger guys that were going to be coming, he said that we were signing a goalie, more imports and stuff like that. The city is great here too—it’s good for my girl, and it's good for my dog.

GK: Can’t really argue with that last bit, right? The secret to success.

RS: Happy wife, happy life. Yes.

GK: What has been the toughest team that you’ve faced so far, and have you noticed the impact of the salary cap on overall competitiveness?

RS: Last year, we played against CSKA and SKA. I don't think I touched the puck once. It was incredible. It was hard to get shots on net. They came at you—line after line after line after line. They had the puck the whole game too, and then when you did get it, their D were always up and you had to dump it. It just wasn't fun to play against them.

This year, I haven't played against them, but you can tell from the standings that they're definitely not as good as they were last season. That’s something to do with the salary cap. I think it was an important change because you could tell before the season started what four teams were probably going to be in the semifinals in the league just based on the rosters they had. There's a lot more parity, which I think is important for the league.

GK: How did you handle training in this crazy offseason?

RS: It was a weird year for sure—I didn't go to the gym. I just worked out at home and I went for runs. I had a bike in my basement. Then once the golf season started, I was trying to get outside so that I didn't go crazy.

GK: I hear a lot about the ways that playing hockey makes you a better golfer. Do you think there's anything about playing golf that makes you a better hockey player?

RS: Maybe the mental side of things because golf can suck when you're not playing well, so it definitely helps out with that. If you walk, I mean, you burn a lot of calories. It keeps the pounds off.

GK: It’s one thing to bring a teacup poodle in a carry-on…but you managed to get your Rottweiler to Belarus during a pandemic. There has to be a story there.

RS: It was a hassle—my girl did it all. She probably spent a month of nonstop going to the embassy, getting this and getting that. Koda got her one shot, but it had to be after another one, so she had to restart and the vet had to come over. Then we had to find flights for her, but since she's considered a “dangerous breed,” her crate had to be made of wood or steel, so then she couldn't fit on the plane because it was over one hundred pounds. Then we had to hire a pet traveling service that built her a custom wooden crate, and they got her here.

GK: After all of that, I hope Koda likes Minsk?

RS: She seems to like it. We're right in the city center. We usually walk her down to the water because she likes to look at all the ducks and the geese. We've had a couple of times where people have looked at her a little bit weird because the city is filled with smaller dogs. She’s getting used to the apartment. She doesn't mind going in the elevator, which is great.

GK: How did you first get into hockey?

RS: My dad played Junior B for Clarence Creek. Then when I was growing up—I was probably two—he put skates on me, threw me on the ice, and that was it. I was in love with it.

GK: Is Dad your biggest cheerleader, or your toughest critic?

RS: He’s never been much of a critic. He's very quiet. When I was younger, if I didn't have a great game, he would just ask me how I thought I played, and he'd give me a couple of tips. He would never get mad at me, which was kind of nice. We used to talk a lot more when I was playing for Boston because we were on the same timezone. We do try to catch up once or twice per week and just talk about stuff, so it's good.

GK: What is one song on your workout playlist right now?

RS: Anything by Mark Knight. One song from him that I like would probably be Ironing Man. I mean, he's got tons. He's got hundreds of songs. He's been around for a long, long time. He plays in Spain and Ibiza and all of those places.

Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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