Shinkaruk joined Kunlun Red Star last season, just ahead of their never-ending final road-trip when COVID-19 closed borders and rendered the team homeless. After an extended and unorthodox off-season, he returned to a number of new circumstances—including a largely unfamiliar coaching staff and a temporary home base in Mytishchi, Russia. He credits the personalities on the team for navigating last season’s challenges with a sense of humor, and is excited about the glimmers of brilliance Kunlun has shown against formidable rivals including Salavat Yulaev and SKA.
The Calgary native caught up with me from Saint Petersburg to discuss Kunlun’s dramatic reversal of fortune, newly-minted head coach Alexei Kovalev and much more.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): Kunlun was operating with two different teams at one point—a fully Russian squad, and later, a familiar import roster. How have you found the integration process?
Hunter Shinkaruk (HS): Yeah, it was definitely a little strange at the start. I think it was tough for all of us imports when we were watching our team play, but we were still stuck over in North America just waiting until we could come. So that was definitely tough, but since we've gotten here, the coaching staff and all of the guys that were here prior to us—they’ve been great. It has been a smooth process, but weird. And then a lot of us got COVID when we came, so we missed time even though we were in Russia. It has been nice to have our full team now, and we can focus on trying to win some games.
GK: Despite the team’s early struggles, you have consistently put up points. How have you found personal success in uncertainty?
HS: It has been a decent start for sure. I just tried to stay in shape to be as ready as I could once I got back on the ice. I played two games, and then with the fourteen-day quarantine, I had to sit in the apartment for two weeks. Our strength coach has been great in helping us to maintain our fitness through all of that. It has been fun to be back on the ice playing hockey, and I am excited to see what we can do now.
GK: Your first on-ice win came versus a tough opponent: Salavat Yulaev. I cannot imagine the sigh of relief in the locker room that night.
HS: Yeah, it was awesome. I think that we all felt the pressure to try to turn the season around after a bit of a tough start. Everyone was feeling it—the players, and the coaches too. I think that we got to know our systems really well and came back to working hard. We have a great group and we all just tried to keep our heads up. We knew what we could do once we got our lineup together. It has been rolling since then.
GK: Alexei Kovalev has stepped into his first head coaching role this season. How do you like playing for him?
HS: It’s pretty cool to have him as our coach. I guess pretty much every player on our team grew up watching him and seeing the things he could do with the puck, and the impact he made in the NHL. Along with all of our other coaches, we have a really good coaching staff to learn from. When they tell you something, to change this or that up, you definitely respect that and you listen to them because they've been through great careers and they've seen the ups and downs. It’s pretty awesome for us that we can learn from them every day.
GK: Russian coaches in the KHL have a tendency to play more defensively with iron-clad systems. Import coaches trend more toward a North American style. Given that all of your coaches logged time in the NHL, would you say that Kunlun borrows from both hockey cultures?
HS: Yeah, I think it's a little bit in the middle. For us right now, we've really focused on our systems. With everyone coming in at different times, it has been a struggle to teach us because we haven't all been at the rink at the same time. Right now it's a lot of systems and figuring out what kind of team we're going to be, and the style that we're going to play.
Obviously our systems are big, but our coaches were all great players, and they understand that when you get on the ice, you have got to trust your instincts at some points in the game. So it has been good. I think we're all really excited for how our team is going to keep playing.
GK: On the subject of coaches—several were absent for a significant period of time. How did you navigate missing leadership behind the bench?
HS: It has definitely been strange. When we first came in, Kovy had COVID and we didn't see him for the first fourteen days of play. Then a few of us got COVID, and we were out. It has definitely been weird, but at the end of the day, the world is the way it is right now. I think that we're all just trying to do what we can to make sure that when we go into each game, we're as ready as we can be. We're lucky with how hard our coaching staff works even when they're not there to make sure that we are prepared before we get on the ice.
GK: Despite the narrow loss to CSKA, I would imagine that there were positive takeaways from that game. Over the history of that matchup, Red Army had outscored Kunlun by a factor of three.
HS: There were definitely some positives. Obviously it's tough when you lose to hold your head up and try to find the good things. But yeah, I thought we started really well. We played our systems, and at the end, it fell apart a little bit. There's a lot of good things for us to look at and build upon. I think for us, it gained a lot of confidence in what the coaching staff has said because we were playing the way that they dialed up for us. I thought we looked really good. So even with the loss, I think a lot of good things came out of that for our team. It definitely did add confidence to our group and we'll go from there.
GK: Why did you decide to move to the KHL?
HS: Things were not really moving in the direction that I had envisioned or wanted [in North America], so when I got the opportunity to come over to the KHL, it was great for me. It was a fresh start and a chance for me to show everyone the way I can play and try to recreate myself over here. It's a great league. Our organization treats us awesome. We have a great group too. It has been a really good experience for me so far, and I've really enjoyed it.
GK: Your surname is of Ukrainian origin. Has your family preserved any cultural traditions?
HS: When I would go to my grandparents' place, they'd cook us some Ukrainian dishes and tell us stories about my great-grandparents who came over from the Ukraine. So yeah, it's special that we're close to the Ukraine and that I'm playing on the side of the world where the Shinkaruk family came from. It's definitely something that I find pretty cool. Some of that food is in Russia too, so whenever I can have it, it's awesome.
GK: You spent much of your junior career playing on an injured hip. Why did you opt to play through that pain?
HS: It was a little bit of a weird situation. It happened when I was in Juniors, and a lot of things went into my decision to keep playing—obviously with the NHL draft and everything. My last season after I was drafted, I took a hit and it got to the point where it was pretty tough to skate. It was tough to practice and then get out and play. When you're young, you just want to keep being on the ice and proving yourself, and doing what you love to do. The recovery process was long—I missed a year and then went straight into pro hockey, so that was a little bit challenging. I was with Vancouver at that point, and they really helped me out. They did a good job of taking care of me, setting me up with treatment. It was a tough year and a half, a lot of pain, but that's part of the process. My hip is healthy now.
GK: What are your earliest hockey memories?
HS: My parents put us in all different sports, and I was lucky enough that they took a lot of time with me. I really found that I loved hockey, and was fortunate enough that my dad took a job as the dentist for the Calgary Hitmen, the junior team where I grew up. He took that job so I could be around the rink, see the guys, and have something to look up to, and idolize too. It has been a long process. I guess being from Canada, you get out on the outdoor rinks right away. I think the best memories are just being out there with my mom, my dad, and my sister, for them to take the time to watch me grow and watch me develop, and to see what I've achieved. It's definitely something that I keep with me and that I'm really thankful for.
GK: What are your passions outside of the game?
HS: In the off-season, there are very few days that pass that I don't get on the golf course. I think that's pretty normal for hockey players, but I'm a big golfer. I get out there with my buddies, and my parents and my sister golf too. It's a great sport because it gets you outside and you can work around the workouts and the summer skates, but that's my biggest passion away from hockey.
GK: You lived through Kunlun’s notorious road trip that accidentally lasted for months. I heard stories about washing clothes in the sink and emergency shopping trips…
HS: I guess all you can do is laugh about it. It was pretty wild for me. It started right when I joined the team. I was in China for about a week, and then we left and didn't go back. It was a lot of different time zones, a lot of travel to try to work around and still perform. But I think the main part for us is that we have such a great group. We kept it pretty easy through those times because, yeah, washing your underwear in the sink at a hotel for two months wasn't the most fun thing. But I guess now you have got to laugh at it. COVID came to North America when our season finished, so I feel like it has been about ten years of this, but we’ve just got to do our best to keep safe.
GK: The KHL is making Spotify playlists this year. What’s one song you listen to before a game or during a workout that hypes you up?
HS: Probably the main song is UCLA by RL Grime. It's a song that's played a lot by me and a lot in our locker room. It started last year, but I love the song. It hasn't gotten old yet.