Bragging rights. For at least twenty-four hours.
“Actually, I beat him at it today,” Amirov boasted with a sly smile. The pair joined me on Zoom after practice last week to discuss the upcoming World Juniors tournament, but the euphoria of victory from their latest backgammon clash had not quite worn off. While dispositions and on-ice positions differ, Ufa’s talented youngsters share a great deal. They are 2020 NHL first-round draft picks, National Team cohorts and Bashkortostan natives who rose the ranks to play for their republic’s beloved hockey powerhouse—Salavat Yulaev.
When I last caught up with head coach Tomi Lämsä, both Amirov and Mukhamadullin had been asked to step into elevated roles due to COVID-19 departures on their club roster. “When Philip Larsen was out, we used Mukhamadullin in our first powerplay unit,” Lämsä said. “He has great character and he’s not your typical Russian defenseman. I think he has more skills, and he’s also a really good skater. He can play offensively really well.” These strengths will undoubtedly be utilized on Igor Larionov’s World Juniors team—a squad expected to play the up-tempo, possession-based game that once made the Soviets indomitable.
Amirov notched three goals in his first three appearances for Red Machine at the Karjala Cup, a new record among National Team debutantes. Despite the youthful composition of the roster, Russia’s U20s played against senior national teams and swept the tournament. Amirov was named man of the match in the third and final victory against the Czech Republic. “During practices and during games, he can do things that make you say, ‘Oh wow, what was that?’” Lämsä described of his flashy forward. “He can think for himself, and he wants to improve.”
When the puck drops in Edmonton at the 2021 World Juniors, the world will get to know Team Russia’s youngsters as players. Their every move, decision and indiscretion will be dissected in an attempt to divine their futures. In contrast, I had the immense opportunity to get to know Mukhamadullin and Amirov as people—a pair of teammates with a lovely sense of humor and mutual respect writ large—except, of course, when it comes to backgammon.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): Let’s start from the very beginning. Who bought your first pair of skates, and what is your earliest memory of hockey?
Rodion Amirov (RA): I believe it was my parents who bought me my first pair of skates. As for the earliest memory, it’s difficult to recall it now—but, I guess, it’s something positive. It has to be. It was fun to put the skates on for the first time. I must have been about four or five years old at the time.
Shakir Mukhamadullin (SM): My parents bought my first skates, but they didn’t buy them for me. They bought a pair for my older brother because he also played hockey when he was a kid. So I got the skates as hand-me-downs from him. It’s a pretty happy memory because those were my first steps in hockey.
GK: Is there a strong hockey tradition—or sporting tradition in general—for either of your families?
SM: I don’t think we have any traditions, per se. Although my mom and dad played a bit of sports growing up, they weren’t professionals for long. My whole family, mom and dad included, follow hockey, of course. They follow me personally as well as other young players. So my family is not athletic in the sense that we’re all athletes, but in the sense that everyone follows hockey.
RA: My family doesn’t have a long-running athletic background either. My father used to be in professional speed skating, but he had to retire early because of a minor back injury. He was also in boxing. As for my mom, she didn’t really have any ties to sports. They also follow my career and cheer for me. They watch every game. There’s huge support coming from my family.
GK: I noticed, Rodion, that you posted a photo of a little boy during the Karjala Cup. He had baked a cake with your number on it!
RA: His name is Sanyok [a diminutive of Alexander]. He’s the son of my mother’s brother—so he’s my cousin.
GK: Why did hockey ultimately capture your imagination? Either of you could have succeeded in any sport.
SM: Personally, I think it was the fact that my older brother started playing hockey. He had started before me, and that’s why our parents probably decided to sign me up for the sport as well. When I was very little, I would go to his practices and watch them from the stands. Perhaps that’s how I got interested.
RA: My story is this: they built a huge rink in my hometown of Salavat. It was my father’s good friend who built it. My father liked hockey and he used to play it himself as an amateur. It was a combination of the two that brought me into hockey.
GK: You know, I don’t often get to interview two teammates together. Shakir, tell me something interesting about Rodion. And Rodion, do the same for Shakir.
SM: Rodion is a pretty fun guy. He’s caring and a good friend. As an athlete, he’s pretty good too. I believe that both of us have room to grow. He has worked so hard that he’s far ahead of some of his peers. That’s just my opinion. He’s a fun guy to talk to as well. Or rather, have a laugh with (smiles).
RA: (Exhales with a laugh) Shakir Mukhamadullin…he’s also a great guy. We like having a few laughs. We often play backgammon together. Actually, I beat him at it today (smiles). He’s also a great athlete. He works hard, he has a great work ethic and we often stay together for extra practice. He has everything it takes to play in the NHL and to be one of the best players. But then again, we have a lot of work ahead of us.
GK: Shakir, your strength coach mentioned to me that you won all of the fitness tests ahead of this season.
SM: We came back from Team Russia…oh, wait, no, that happened even earlier. We were called up from the junior team. We practiced for a couple of days, and he put us through probably the hardest tests I’ve endured in my lifetime. It took a lot of effort to complete them. As for [Matias Sarvela] as a coach, he’s one of the best in the league. And it’s not just my opinion. That’s what a lot of people on our team think as well.
GK: Rodion, where on earth did those hands come from?
RA: I think it’s just something I’ve done since I was a kid. I’ve always worked hard on my skating, stickhandling and shooting. Back when I was in my hometown of Salavat, I did my best to go to extra practices and camps. I also did a lot of extra work with my father. Of course, I don’t believe myself to be a skilled player because I still have a lot of work to do in that regard.
GK: How do you contrast the style of play at Salavat versus Russia’s U20 team?
SM: The first difference is that over here in Ufa, we probably play a more systematic brand of hockey compared to Team Russia. On Team Russia, we’re trusted to improvise and we’re given more freedom on the ice. There isn’t a certain objective that you’re given and have to stick to. You feel more freedom [on the National Team], whereas in Ufa, the focus is on tactics and team-play. That’s probably one of the main differences.
RA: I don’t think you can compare what Igor Nikolayevich [Larionov] gives us on Team Russia to Tomi Lämsä’s instructions on Salavat Yulaev. I believe these are two different tactics. Igor Nikolayevich trusts us more. There’s more room to be creative. We’re allowed to do more. Unorthodox decisions are welcome. In my opinion, it’s really great for a young player’s development. On Salavat, we play more systematic hockey. Arguably, it’s more defense-minded. So it’s difficult to compare the two styles of hockey. The biggest difference is the approach to improvisation. Say, breaking out of the zone – [on Team Russia] we’re encouraged not to bang it off the glass, but to look for a way to exit the zone with a pass.
GK: Igor Larionov has stated that he wants to revive some of the principles of Soviet hockey. Were you able to feel that connection to your legacy at Karjala?
RA: Of course. I believe we played more of a passing brand of hockey at the Karjala Cup. No dump-and-chase. We tried to gain the offensive zone and exit our defensive zone via passing. It was all about passing. Give-and-go, give-and-go. That’s what makes Russian and Soviet hockey different. That’s the way the team used to play, and that’s what Igor Nikolayevich tries to teach us.
SM: Yes, I agree with that. We tried to play the possession game. We controlled the puck, avoided dumping it in and focused on the team play. Our forwards didn’t just play in the offensive end – they also backchecked. Same goes for our defensemen—they had the right to join the rushes. Five-man units played at both ends of the ice. It was all about passing.
GK: Did Larionov review footage of those old Soviet teams with you?
RA: He did show us footage – back at the camp in Sochi and also at the Karjala Cup. He showed us the way the game was played, and how he wanted us to play. He gave us examples from his own experience. He showed the way he played, and did his best to explain to everyone on the team that it was the way we should aim to play. Because it’s the right way, and I agree with that.
SM: He didn’t show us entire games, but he did use clips. It wasn’t that they told us specifically that they wanted us to play exactly like that. The coaches just explained how they see hockey, and what they want to see from us. Sometimes they would use examples from their own experience to show us a thing or two on the ice. They would actively participate in practice and show us how certain things are done. They would give us advice – don’t dump it in, just curl back and reset the rush instead of chipping it into the zone and going for a line change. [Larionov] used video and his own examples to teach us.
GK: Were you nervous when you found out that you were going to play against senior men’s national teams at the Karjala Cup?
RA: No, nobody was nervous. On the contrary, everyone was happy that our junior team would compete at the tournament. A lot of us have played together for many years on Team Russia, so we were really happy to hear the news. We were happy to face older teams to gain experience. It was a great test before World Juniors.
SM: I agree. It was a great chance and a challenge for everyone who went to the tournament. We were lucky to get such an opportunity. Due to coronavirus, we missed almost all other tournaments prior to the World Juniors. We didn’t have much of a chance to work on the team-play and improve our chemistry. Nobody was anxious or nervous. Everyone went to the tournament with fire in his eyes. Everyone wanted to prove not only that he was able to play at the men’s level, but also that he deserved to make the cut for the tournament. It was a successful tournament for us, and everyone proved his worth.
GK: Did winning the Karjala Cup bond your group in a new way?
SM: Of course, it bonded us. Winning any tournament bonds the team. Winning a tournament of such caliber and playing against older and experienced opponents was a great step for us en route to the World Juniors. It was a step up the ladder. But now we have to get together again for a camp and begin getting ready for the tournament. All of our thoughts should be focused on the tournament and getting ready for it. It’s the only thing that should be on our minds right now.
It’s always easier to play on a team if you personally know other players. Even if someone new shows up, the team has to help him to get adjusted as quickly as possible. I don’t think it takes longer than a day. You get to know a few guys, then the whole team and it works out just fine.
GK: Anything to add, Rodion?
RA: Nope. That pretty much summed it up.
GK: Inside the locker room at the Karjala Cup, there was something akin to a tree with the names of your competitors nailed to it. What exactly was that?
RA: It wasn’t exactly a tree. It was more of a log of wood. The player of the game would be selected, and whoever it was would nail the name of the team we had defeated.
GK: Do you remember who nailed each one?
RA: I think, after the first game it was…
SM: [Zakhar] Bardakov.
RA: Right, Bardakov. After the second game it was…
SM: [Yaroslav] Askarov.
RA: Right, the goaltender.
SM: And after the third game, it was Rodion Amirov from Ufa.
GK: Oh, I’ve heard of him! Do either of you have any superstitions or rituals of your own?
SM: Even if we have them, I believe, it’s personal. Let’s keep it that way (smiles).
RA: I don’t have anything of the sort.
GK: Who were some of your hockey heroes growing up, and how did you pick your numbers?
RA: I had number 7 when I was a kid. It’s my favorite number. I’ve always liked it. When I joined Ufa, the number was already taken—so I had to take 27. It’s also rather beautiful. As for hockey heroes growing up, I didn’t have any, but I did follow several players. For instance, these days I follow [Nikita] Kucherov, [Auston] Matthews and [Patrick] Kane. I just look at the way they play, what they do with the puck and how they think on the ice.
SM: I can’t say that I had a specific player I looked up to either. I just sort of followed everyone. When I was a kid, I wore number 39. I don’t really remember why. It might have been my parents who told me to choose it because I think someone in our family had played hockey under that number. On Ufa, I wear 85 because I joined the team after a camp and a tournament with Team Russia. Pretty much every number was already taken by then. I only had a few options available, and from them I chose 85.
GK: Winning World Juniors would be the ultimate prize, but is there another benchmark that will constitute personal success for you in Edmonton?
SM: I don’t think there’s anything else. Every team goes into the tournament looking to win. Everyone has just one goal – winning the cup and finishing first at World Juniors. That’s why every team has a camp four or six weeks prior to the tournament to prepare well, hone team chemistry and get ready to go.
RA: I agree. There won’t be any excuses. We aim only for first place. We’re going there to win. Second or third place won’t do. Hopefully, with God’s help, everything will work out for us.
GK: What is the funniest thing that you have ever witnessed in a hockey context?
SM: I’m not sure if it’s a funny story, but it is interesting. I travelled with the U18 National Team to Canada for a tournament. Our first game there lasted for pretty much two days. The lights went completely off at the arena halfway through the third period. They couldn’t find a way to fix it, and the water shut off as well. There was some water left in the pipes and some of us had a chance to take a quick shower, but just barely. The following day, we gathered around noon and played the remaining ten minutes of the game. We won that game, went to the locker room, got changed and went back on the ice to practice!
RA: I don’t really have stories like that. Although, it was kind of funny when I went on the ice for a warmup with my skate guards still on. I wiped the ice, so to speak.
GK: Your hockey careers have only just begun, but can you think of any element of the sport that will stay with you when the curtain goes down?
RA: I think it’s going to be one lesson: never give up. Hockey always requires you to have guts, and to be of strong character. It’s something you can take with you to life after hockey. Character, will and persistence.
SM: I agree with Rodion. You can’t take away character, or the motivation to always look for a win and to achieve your goals. If you set a goal, you have to move towards it, getting over any obstacles you may come across.