A 2017 Edmonton Oilers draft pick, Samorukov tied the knot in Moscow over the summer, uniting forces with another high-profile prospect—his newly-minted brother-in-law, Traktor forward Vitali Kravtsov. While the Chelyabinsk point sniper famously could not attend the nuptials due to Rangers training camp, Samorukov is looking forward to their reunion on the ice—a test of how well the pair got to know one another during quarantine training sessions in Vladivostok.
Samorukov returned to Russia this year after several seasons in the OHL and AHL, hot on the heels of Red Army’s rebuild. Despite the mass-exodus of brand names over the summer, CSKA sits in familiar position at the top of the Western Conference—and Samorukov is among the new faces charged with maintaining one of the league’s most impressive records. I chatted with the Volgograd native about family history, Sherlock Holmes and much more.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): Your father was a professional soccer goalie in Russia during your childhood. What are some of your early memories of his playing career?
Dmitry Samorukov (DS): It's actually hard to say, because when you're young, you don't realize every detail. From what I remember, it was always fun when my dad brought me and my older brother to the camps and stuff, and we would just spend good times with all of the old players. We always tried to play some soccer with them. Especially when you haven’t see your Dad for a long time, you're just happy to spend time with him.
GK: Goalies are a special breed in hockey! Any battles over whose sport is superior?
DS: I hope that in soccer it's a little different, but I feel like he's pretty normal. With my Dad, we have different kinds of conversations though. I’m always saying that in soccer, they're crying too much. He says that I should take my helmet off because hockey players aren’t smart enough…so that’s how I battle with him!
GK: Did anyone in the family choose turf over ice?
DS: My brother took over that responsibility. He played some professional, but when he turned twenty or twenty-one, he said that was enough for him. Then I was the guy who tried to play soccer, but it didn't go well. I didn't like it too much and it was hard for me, because I was the big guy, pretty heavy, so I didn't like to run a lot. We had a hockey rink close to home, so my Mom brought me. She did the job. She was like, “Alright—you’ve got to do something.”
GK: Did goaltending ever cross your mind?
DS: You know what? I probably played goalie four times as a junior in Russia. I did it for fun, let's say at Christmas practice, New Years practice. One time after we had a fun practice, our second goalie was sick. The head coach came to me and was like, "Hey, you've got to go in goal again. Come on, man.”
GK: How did you do?
DS: The first time was terrible because I didn't know how to use the glove. But after I talked with the goalies, I found a better way. But still, it was pretty hard.
GK: CSKA bled talent at the end of last season. Kaprizov, Sorokin, Romanov—to name just a few. Did you feel the pressure of a rebuild upon arrival?
DS: For sure. For me, things were different because I left Russia when I was young. I didn't ever play in the VHL or KHL, I only played three amateur games. I put a pretty good amount of pressure on myself because I wanted to prove that I came here ready to play. That was my goal, to make a team and show them what I can do. CSKA last year had a different team. We probably struggled the first week, maybe two, but when the whole team got together, we started playing pretty good hockey.
GK: Igor Nikitin is the tzar of defense. Did it take a while for you to get used to his systems?
DS: When I first came in, [Nikitin] called me for a talk. We had a good discussion and he showed me the big picture, what he wanted to see. I realized that was the kind of hockey that I wanted to play. It is great that he is the head coach. He can show me some little details, exactly what I need.
He is an awesome guy. He's doing his job, and he’s always trying to help with the little things. If something's going wrong, he will always talk to you, and then you figure it out together and get back to work. I feel like I’m back home. Everything is going really well right now.
GK: What are some elements of North American style that you've brought back with you?
DS: I’ll say that it’s probably a more physical game [in North America]. The little things, the little details—that’s what made me a better player. When I came here to the KHL, that's what the coaches would talk about, and so far it has been good. The difference between North American hockey and the KHL, I don't think it's really big. I think it's just physicality, and for sure there are bigger guys. They have more time with the puck, so you have got to close your gap and play a little bit more aggressively.
GK: Who do you foresee being paired with for the bulk of the season?
DS: I play with Klas Dahlbeck, which is working well because we talk in English on the ice. It's funny—he’s a Swedish guy and we're rolling pretty good. We talk about things and try them. I know he's a strong, hard defenseman with good speed. For me, as a young guy, I am always like, "Hey, let's go do a lap." I know that I’ll probably lose, but it's always fun to have these races with him. It’s easier when we talk in English so I can practice a little bit, and then he doesn’t have to think too much about his Russian vocabulary.
GK: Your English is phenomenal. Did you actively study while you were playing in Canada?
DS: No, I don't think so. When I came to play in the CHL for the first year, I was the only import player. I had fifteen words in my head. I only knew ”hello" and "how are you.” I didn't know what to answer when people were asking"what's up?" because it was too hard for me. When you're trying to translate that to Russian, it doesn’t make any sense. I took a tutor for a little while, and then a lot of players helped me. I try to watch TV shows and movies in English—sometimes it's just more fun.
GK: What are you watching right now?
DS: The last show I liked was Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Of course, The Last Dance too. I watched Sherlock Holmes with my wife. She had never seen it, and I was a big fan of that. I was like, "How did you not watch Sherlock Holmes? It’s a huge thing.” So we watched it all over. Whatever you can find on Netflix, I watch it.
GK: Speaking of your wife—you are very recently married. Congratulations! How did the two of you meet?
DS: We met in Toronto. She was studying there while I was playing. I knew her brother from playing on the National Team. She liked one of my posts, and then we just started to be friends. It didn’t take long for me to text her back.
GK: That brother-in-law you speak of is none other than Vitali Kravtsov. I heard he skipped your wedding for training camp?
DS: Well, we were in Vladivostok [Kravtsov’s hometown] for most of the summer, like three months. We spent a lot of time with him. And then when we set our wedding date, he had to leave a couple of days before that because he was on the Rangers’ short list. He was supposed to come and then he texted two days before: ”Hey, sorry, I’ve got to go."
GK: I am sure that his presence was missed.
DS: Hey, this is the job. You’ve got to do it, if you want to make it. That’s just how it goes. I have a sports family, and my wife has a sports family too. So it’s just part of the job.
GK: Did he FaceTime you during the wedding?
DS: Yeah, he called us during the wedding time. He was pretty emotional. It was fun.
GK: He seems to have found his stride lately, latest injury setback aside.
DS: Good for him, right? He had a rough last year, especially with all of the back and forth. I think it's good for him now—he can really show off what he can do, and show the world that he's the hockey player that you drafted. The one you want to see. So I'm really happy for him, and I can't wait to play against him. We've been practicing all summer, so I know every one of his moves.
GK: Don’t forget, that understanding goes both ways…
DS: Well yeah, maybe he knows every little thing about my play too. I probably don't want to see him…but a game is a game!
GK: It must be a nice feeling to play in front of family again—including your new extended family in the Far East.
DS: Yeah, my father-in-law came to see me play [versus Amur]. It was a five-hour drive, I think, but he came to watch us in Khabarovsk. My father-in-law always played beer league hockey, so he was like, "Alright, I will come to see you play."
GK: Given the family preference for soccer, did you watch a lot of hockey growing up?
DS: I never watched the NHL when I was young because it’s on a different timezone. I'm not a fan of watching hockey because it makes me bored—especially now that I can only watch my games and make notes. I prefer to watch soccer or something else because I'm putting everything on the table when I'm playing hockey. I want to stay away for a little bit and then regroup, go back to work.
GK: Do you have any rituals or superstitions before games?
DS: I think that most players have it, I don't know. Maybe the one thing that I always say to myself every game is to try to keep it simple. And probably stepping onto the ice with my left foot.
GK: I feel like every player in Russia wants to be last out on the ice. How does Red Army determine who really gets to go last?
DS: Well, that's pretty funny to see—especially with the young guys who want to be last and then you come into the pro team with a lot of Olympic Champions. They’re like, "We have five guys in line, you’ve got to wait for that." When I started off, I was like, “Nope, that’s not going to be my thing.”
GK: You’ve represented Team Russia on a number of occasions. What did that experience mean to you?
DS: It’s always a highlight to put the national jersey on. The first time, I put a lot more pressure on myself, especially because it was after my draft year and I wanted to show the people that I can play. It was pretty unlucky because we lost in the quarter-final, but overall that was a fun experience. I was playing with all of the older guys. The second year, I knew what I should expect and we just tried to help the young guys build a family. The semi-finals didn't go well, but I think we had a pretty good tournament overall. We won bronze. I feel that bronze is a massive achievement because you're winning your last game.
GK: Who is the toughest forward you’ve faced so far?
DS: I probably haven’t seen a forward yet that really surprised me. Especially when you're playing pro hockey, they're all good players. [On CSKA], Slepyshev is a good kid—big, strong. When I played in Canada, we had Suzuki on the team. Yamamoto is a small guy, but he can really make some plays. And that just makes you a better defenseman, practicing against the best forwards that you have.
GK: The KHL is making Spotify playlists for every team. What’s one song on your workout playlist right now?
DS: I really like a Drake song that came out this year, but it's probably not a workout song. Chicago Freestyle. It’s more like a pre-game song—gets you focused.