Salavat Yulaev Ufa features some of the top international players in the league. Its trio with Sakari Manninen, Markus Granlund, and Teemu Hartikainen is currently one of the best in the league. In this interview with KHL.ru, Manninen talked about the recent Euro Hockey Tour pause, described how the season is going in Ufa, and estimated the franchise’s chances for the Gagarin Cup.

“I thank Salavat Yulaev and the KHL as they did a terrific and complicated job just to make us happier”

“The pause was useful for us; we could rest and study our game before four difficult matches. I think we worked well, and we’re ready to move on with the season.” At the Karjala Cup tournament, Ufa players on Team Russia’s roster — Rodion Amirov, Shakir Mukhamadullin, Danil Alalykin, and Danil Bashkirov — played well for the national team. “Yes, I managed to follow the tournament,” Sakari Manninen said. “Our young Russian players played very well and have shown courage. I enjoyed the speed of the games and the high level of play. And the most important things — our guys played without worrying.” The tournament’s top goalscorer was Amirov, but Manninen declared himself not surprised with the youngster’s game. “He’s an incredibly talented player,” Manninen explained. “He’s very good with the puck. And now everyone had a chance to see it at the Karjala Cup. Rodion scored key goals for Russia and showed confidence.”

Recently, finally, the families of Ufa’s international players could fly to Russia. “It wasn’t easy being alone,” Manninen said. “I thank Salavat Yulaev and the KHL as they did a terrific and complicated job just to make us happier. We’re now with our families, and I’m glad about it. We waited for this to happen for a long time, and so we’re delighted. No one thought about leaving the team; we understood that getting our families in Russia would have been complicated due to the international borders situation. We are professionals, and thus we can’t allow ourselves to have our game influenced by these factors; I don’t think anyone did. When you hit the ice, you are just focused on hockey.”

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“I think we only had a good start, and then the pandemic halted our path”

Salavat Yulaev’s season so far has been a bit of a roller coaster, and the team is now the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. However, the team had a good start — actually the best in its KHL history. “I am not sure about it,” Manninen says. “I think we only had a good start, and then, not so good. The pandemic halted our path, and we started losing games. However, we had three good games before the pause, which means that the worst is behind us. We understand that we can do better, but I’m sure that we’ll manage to do a further step forward.”

This summer, the Bashkortostan franchise changed its head coach, moving on from Nikolai Tsulygin to the Finn coach Tomi Lamsa. “Under the new coach, we started playing faster and more aggressively. We try to move more to create more chances. Naturally, having a Finnish coach is easier for me, but I have to say that we had no problems communicating with our staff last year. Simply Tsulygin and Lamsa have a different approach to team management. Lamsa knows a lot of stuff about hockey, and it’s a tactics magician. Our practices are very intensive, and it shows that our staff built a good collaboration.”

Moreover, Salavat Yulaev’s powerplay improved significantly since last season. “Viktor Kozlov gives us excellent advice. He’s got a ton of experience, including several hundreds of games in the NHL. He definitely knows how to run a powerplay.” However, the team suffers from the opposite problem: Salavat Yulaev is one of the worst teams in penalty killing. “Yes, unfortunately, we have this issue...” — Manninen admits. “We improved lately, but we still have to work. We practice our box play, watch videos, and try to analyze all the details. We need to play smarter. I think that we started playing well also in this aspect, but we need not stop working on it.”

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“Granlund and I aren’t big, but we are fast, and Hartikainen adds intensity to our line”

Salavat Yulaev’s trio of Sakari Manninen, Markus Granlund, and Teemu Hartikainen is one of the best in the KHL. “I don’t know what’s the key to our success. All I can say is that I have fantastic linemates, and I enjoy playing with them. Granlund perfectly completes Hartikainen and me. Granlund and I aren’t big, but we are fast, and Hartikainen adds intensity to our line with his power and creativity.” Many were worried as this summer, Linus Omark left the team, but currently, Hartikainen is one of the league’s top scorers. “I think that without Linus, we started playing faster, and this probably helped Hartikainen,” Manninen explains. “Naturally, we also have great chemistry. Granlund is a fantastic player; he can play any kind of hockey. He’s also a great guy, and we spent a lot of time together.”

The 28-years-old forward spent most of his career in the Finnish Liiga; then he played on year in Sweden, followed by a season with Jokerit. After the successful experience in Helsinki, Manninen moved to Ufa. “Naturally, there’s a big difference between Finland and Russia. At first, the other Finn guys helped me a lot. I’m truly grateful to them. I needed a couple of games to adapt to my new team. This year I’m feeling much better, and now I’m completely focused on hockey.”

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“Youngsters played very well and successfully replaced us when we were out”

The complicated pandemic situation is also felt in the hockey world. “Players are also required to go to quarantine, and then it’s needed to start practicing again and gain shape back. Exactly how we did. When you’re sick, it’s hard to sit at home and do nothing. However, I want to say that our team features plenty of good, young players. They played very well and successfully replaced us when we were out. I watched the games on television and was very happy for our guys.”

Sakari Manninen picked up COVID himself. “I was so disappointed. I had a bit of a headache; I didn’t have a high temperature. In general, the sickness hasn’t been harsh on me. The problem is that you’re going to lose your shape. But I was sick not for long. Some guys for three weeks and they felt bad. I was lucky.”

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“I like having walks by Ufa”

The Finn player confirmed that the locker room atmosphere is excellent and that he enjoys his time in Ufa. “I like it,” he replies when he is asked about the city. “Now my girlfriend and I are together, and it’s great. She also likes Ufa. A few days ago, we had a little excursion in the city and visited the Salavat Yulaev monument. I like having walks by Ufa, and there are a lot of great places around.”

The pandemic situation also means that many teams have to play with a limited number of fans allowed and play in front of empty stands in some cases. “Salavat Yulaev has incredible fans, always ready to support us. It’s always pleasant to play in front of a good home crowd. But now the situation is this one, and what can we do?”

Among the Ufa’s international players, Hartikainen loves fishing, while Granlund likes golf and nature. “I won’t be original,” Manninen jokes. “I also like playing golf. I play it in the summer. I enjoy spending time with my girlfriend and our dog. I like listening to music, and recently I’ve read a book by Tiger Woods, the famous golfer. He’s such an interesting personality.”

In 2019, Manninen helped the Leijonat winning a gold medal at the IIHF World Championship in Slovakia. “Sometimes I remember about it. It was a great party after the finals. Probably I’ll remember about it when I’ll be older, and I’ll retire. The WC tournament in Slovakia was a great one, and we had a fantastic team.”

However, the question is always one. Does Salavat Yulaev have what it takes to return to the Gagarin Cup after the 2011 triumph? “If we work hard and help one another, we’ll have a good chance. We’ll try!”

KHL.ru dossier

Sakari Manninen

Born on Feb. 10, 1992, in Oulu, Finland

Club career: 2007-2012, 2013-2016, Karpat; 2012-2014, Hokki; 2014, KalPa; 2015-2017, HPK; 2017-2018, Orebro HK (Sweden); 2018-2019, Jokerit; 2019-today, Salavat Yulaev.

Achievements: 2019 IIHF World Championship gold medal

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