“When I played in Toronto, my first year, I met a really great family from Italy,” Chayka shared from Team Russia’s World Juniors camp. “They knew my coach from my other midget team. Sometimes I stayed with them, and my hockey equipment was always stored in their garage. Before my first game in Canada—I think it was an exhibition game in the summer—I saw a golden horseshoe on the wall between the two floors of the garage. I touched it, and I scored a goal in that game.”
Unwilling to tempt fate, Chayka touched the horseshoe everyday and continued to find on-ice success. When he finally revealed the ritual to his host family, Chayka’s host father gifted him the horseshoe. It has since logged major miles from Toronto Pearson to Sheremetyevo International, and will soon make its way to Edmonton, Alberta. If we can glean anything from the horseshoe’s track record, Chayka is well-placed to return home with additional hardware.
A Moscow native who began his career at the Red Army hockey school, Chayka moved to Canada at a young age to fast-track his North American aspirations. After several successful seasons on Guelph Storm, the promising defender returned home on loan until the OHL season start, quickly earning a spot on Igor Nikitin’s first-place CSKA. It was no small feat for a young defenseman on a roster that boasts Gagarin Cup and Olympic Champions.
I caught up with Chayka ahead of his hotly-anticipated World Juniors debut. We discussed his experience of Larionov, family background and a touch of magic from Novogorsk.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): You scored in your debut match at the Karjala Cup, technically your first cap for the Senior Men’s National Team. Describe that experience.
Daniil Chayka (DC): It was a crazy, crazy feeling—but we had a really good opening match versus Finland. I had a good start, and the team scored a few goals quickly. I think we were playing very good hockey during that game. I scored a goal on the powerplay, and I was pretty happy after that.
GK: Representing your country is an immense privilege, but it comes with added pressure. Did your group feel intimidated about facing off against the older senior national teams?
DC: It was a huge honor. We didn't really think about the other teams. Yeah, everyone knew that they were older and had more experience. Maybe they were physically better than us, but we were just concentrating on our hockey—how we were going to play. We knew that if we were going to play well, we were going to win. If we didn’t play well, then of course the games wouldn’t go our way.
GK: Igor Larionov spoke highly of you and your teammates, but of course he noted that there was work to be done before Edmonton. What are some of the things he's asked you to focus on since Karjala?
DC: Probably my game in the D-Zone—playing harder, quicker and more confidently, being more physical in the corners. And, of course, I’ll be working on my offensive game, joining the rush and helping my forwards.
GK: As the team reworks lines ahead of World Juniors, who have you been paired with at camp?
DC: Right now, I'm with Yan Kuznetsov from the University of Connecticut. I feel really good about him. The coaches have been trying new pairs and new lines. Every single player on that team is a highly-skilled player and very good. Everyone can pass, can shoot and stuff like that. I feel comfortable there.
GK: It must be interesting to transition from Igor Nikitin at CSKA to Igor Larionov, because they play two different brands of hockey. How has the adjustment been for you?
DC: It’s two very different styles of the game, for sure. At CSKA, we play a more defensive style of hockey. On Team Russia, it's more focused on the O-Zone, creating some offense—the defensemen are joining the rush. Both styles of the game work well. CSKA is playing really well and is sitting in first place, and I think Larionov's vision of the game is working too.
It has been very good for me [to adjust between styles], I think. I can say that I'm good in the D-Zone because that's a focus I’ve had in the KHL. I feel progress in a short amount of time—I’ve gotten better playing one-on-one, trying to win more battles in the corners. I think that experience has helped me a lot, and will help me at the tournament. The transition to the offensive game in Team Russia, it’s not hard for me. I usually play in the OHL and try to create more offense during the rush, so it wasn't something new.
GK: How would you describe Larionov’s demeanor in the locker room?
DC: I think he's just a great example of the kind of coach everyone should be. He is the nicest guy every day. Always a smile on his face, fist-bumps everyone when he sees them. Always making jokes with the boys. It's an amazing feeling when you have a coach like that. We feel very close to him. You can talk with him about anything—life, hockey and stuff like that. I think every single player feels super comfortable on the team.
Everyone knows about the history of Soviet hockey. Whether it’s those series against Canada, or the Russian Five in Detroit—it’s amazing. Everyone wants to reach that point or to have something like that, because people talk about them even now. But yeah, it’s an honor to have a coach like that.
GK: I heard that he showed you some clips from his playing days.
DC: He showed us a few clips in Sochi. I think it was a five-minute video about the Canada-Russia series. It was an amazing video. When you watch it, it’s hard not to have goosebumps—especially when one of those guys is sitting right beside you.
GK: What is it like to defend Yaroslav Askarov's net?
DC: Oh, that is just a really good question. I think I have played around ten tournaments with him. And what I can say? He’s one of the best goalies I have ever played with. You know what you have, when you’ve got this kid behind you. If you make a mistake, he'll save your ass. He will do something crazy.
GK: And what can you tell me about your captain, Vasily Podkolzin?
DC: This guy was born to be a leader. You can see his leadership in the locker room. He has earned a huge amount of respect from every player, and everyone will listen to him. He helps the whole team a lot, just a really good guy. I think he is someone who should be a captain anywhere that he plays.
GK: There is another defenseman from Guelph Storm in the Red Army locker room this season—Dmitry Samorukov. I am sure it was comforting to see a familiar face in the KHL.
DC: Yeah, we have good chemistry together. We were kids together at CSKA [hockey school] in Moscow, and went to middle school together. When I got drafted to Guelph, he was already there. He helped me during my rookie year, supported me along the way for the whole season—in the locker room, on the ice. We had an older team, almost everyone was born in 1999 or 2000, and I was the only ’02. It was hard for me, but he helped me with that too.
I always feel support from his side. He can speak to the coach for me, or say something to the guys to help me. He points out what my mistakes are, so I can think about them and not make them again. He helped me a lot before the first [CSKA] game, just saying the right words about what I have to do. I offer a big thank you to him for that.
GK: Who are some of your favorite defensemen to watch? Do you model your game after anyone in particular?
DC: Talking about the past, it has to be Bobby Orr—one of the greatest defenders of all time. If we’re talking about the NHL right now, there are so many good players. I like watching offensive defenseman such as Victor Hedman, Erik Karlsson. Then there are the young guys like Miro Heiskanen, Rasmus Dahlin, Quinn Hughes, Cale Makar. I try to watch them every game, concentrate on one player and learn something new about them. I’ll read about their history and how they started.
GK: Who first introduced you to hockey?
DC: It was my parents. They were choosing between soccer, basketball and hockey. I think they said no to basketball because it was not so popular. So then they were between hockey and soccer, and my dad said hockey. It had to be hockey. We tried it when I was five years old, and I liked it. I was just trying to learn how to skate and stuff like that for my first few years, and then I had my first games when I got to the academy. That's how it started.
GK: Does your family have a sporting background?
DC: My mom was into swimming, and my dad did boxing, but not at the pro level. They finished around eighteen when school started. My brother played water polo for a while, but he's a skinny guy like me. You have to be a heavyweight to play that sport, because it's actually super hard. The battles in the water sound so crazy. He didn’t go to the pro level.
GK: Are they planning a big watch party together for your World Juniors debut?
DC: Yeah, I think my parents are going to be outside of the city watching those games in the morning, Moscow time. It’s just an amazing feeling to know that back in Moscow, so many family and friends from school, from the teams where I played, and my friends in Canada, my host family, will be watching. You have so many people who support you in that moment. When you think about that, it just helps you, pushes you to play better.
GK: Are you superstitious?
DC: Yeah, I’m a superstitious guy—I'm always trying to do exactly the same thing every gameday. I get to the rink with a coffee, get my shirt on, tape my sticks. Do the stretches, play soccer with the boys, listen to music. Only then can I go on the ice.
I will tell you a story about one of my superstitions. When I played in Toronto, my first year, I met a really great family from Italy. They knew my coach from my other midget team. Sometimes I stayed with them, and my hockey equipment was always stored in their garage. Before my first game in Canada—I think it was an exhibition game in the summer—I saw a golden horseshoe on the wall between the two floors of the garage. I touched it, and I scored a goal in that game. I played well. After that, I started touching it every time I left the house, and I had a really good season. We won the most important tournament in minor midget hockey, the OHL Cup. I played really well there.
I never told [my host dad] about touching the horseshoe. One day before I went to the OHL from his house in the summer, somehow it came up about the horseshoe, and he just gave it to me. Now I keep it in my hockey tape bag, and I touch it before every game.
GK: It sounds like you have another family that will be rooting for you at World Juniors.
DC: They are just an amazing family. I feel like I’m their kid too. The way they treat me is just crazy, I never thought it could happen to me. Every time I come to Canada, I try to stay with them for one or two weeks. I have two families—one in Russia, and one in Canada. They were planning to come to [World Juniors], but at this time, fans can’t go anywhere. They were saying that if I made it, they would go. Maybe next year.
GK: What’s the funniest moment or prank that you've witnessed on the ice?
DC: When we were kids, we used to do some funny things to each other. I remember me and my buddy put hockey tape on someone’s skates once. He fell on the ice as soon as he stepped on it. What's funny is that he didn't understand what we did because we were kind of new to pranks. At first he thought he had forgotten to take off his skate guards, but then he saw the skate guards on the bench. He tried to stand up and fell again a bunch of times. Finally we told him that we put hockey tape on his blades!
GK: What is one lesson that hockey has taught you about life in general?
DC: Just work hard, and never cheat. You're not doing this for your friends, family, or coaches—you’re doing everything first for yourself. You need to get better everyday, and it’s bad if you're cheating on yourself. You won’t get better after that. So work hard, and don’t cheat.