Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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When Yaroslav Askarov was six years old, his team played without goaltenders. The effort required to skate up the ice and score felt thankless when the opponent swiftly equalized. Unwilling to see his team’s lead squandered, the future SKA St. Petersburg netminder dropped to his knees and blocked shots in skaters’ pads. Noticing his courage in front of the puck, the coach offered Askarov an opportunity to step between the pipes—and perhaps you could say the rest was history.

Well, not quite. For a rare right-gloved goalie, the equipment on offer was ill-suited. 

“They had the pads, a blocker and a glove – but they were for the other hand. They offered me to try and I agreed,” Askarov shared from Team Russia’s camp at Novogorsk last week. “But since the equipment was for the wrong hand, I practiced with it just a few times and it felt uncomfortable. So I went back to regular gloves and for a time I stopped shots with them.”

Askarov’s childhood desire to protect his team’s lead never faded. In fact, the position that called to him in the dead of Siberian winter has been forever shaped by his answer. In October of this year, Askarov became the highest-drafted Russian goaltender in NHL history with Nashville’s pick at No. 11, surpassing reigning Stanley Cup champion Andrei Vasilevskiy who was selected nineteenth in 2012.

Askarov will make his second appearance at the World Juniors tournament this December, eager to display the confidence and poise that categorized his performance at Finland’s Karjala Cup. The eighteen-year-old vanquished Sweden in a tense shootout and registered a shutout against the Czech Republic, holding his own against the senior men’s national teams that battled Russia’s U20 squad.

I caught up with Askarov ahead of Red Machine’s departure for Edmonton. We discussed, among other things, the forces that conspired to make him a goalie, and some of his favorite netminders to watch.

Gillian Kemmerer (GK): Let’s jump right to the most burning question. What is your pet hedgehog’s name? 

Yaroslav Askarov (YA): There’s no more hedgehog (smiles). We had him over for a while, but he’s gone now.

GK: I was not expecting this news and I am devastated. 

YA: He didn’t die. He’s alive. We just gave him to people who can take better care of him. I didn’t have much time to take care of him. But his name was Rex.

GK: Poor Rex. I hope he has a cable package to watch World Juniors. You were named man of the match after the shootout against Sweden at the Karjala Cup. Was it your toughest game of the three? 

YA: The game against Finland had been more emotional and tougher physically-wise because it had been the first game of the tournament. And I had been coming off a long pause, too. I had played one game against Kunlun Red Star and then I got sick and was out of action for a long time. So the game against Finland was tough, but it was easier to play against Sweden. Everyone realized it was a good tournament. Of course, it was a little worrisome because that’s just the way it is. But it morphed into confidence.

GK: Do you dread shootouts as a netminder? You looked quite relaxed. 

YA: The shootout always makes me anxious. Not matter what team you’re up against in the shootout, it’s always worrisome. It’s roulette – is he going to score? Is he going to miss? You just do your best to beat the opponent. It’s a head-to-head. Either the goaltender or the forward prevails. It’s never easy.

GK: How much of a tailwind did Karjala provide to your team ahead of Edmonton?

YA: It was 100% an emotional uplift for the whole team. It was a confidence boost for everyone. We realized that we could play, and that we’re a team – a good team at that. We have a great group of guys. If we take the right approach, the team can play well. We just have to approach the [World Juniors] the right way. It was a good tournament to put our team to the test. It was a big event for us ahead of a serious tournament. It’s fair to say it was a serious tournament ahead of a serious tournament. It was good preparation.

GK: Several people I spoke with after the tournament commented on improvements to your glove hand. Was that an area of particular focus with any of your coaches? 

YA: You always have to keep working. I have several goaltending coaches, and we dissect the games together. We work on everything and improve every aspect. I take something from every goaltending coach I work with – Nikolai Khabibulin and Dmitry Mezentsev here at the camp, Pavel Valerievich Orlov earlier this year on SKA-Neva, and Rashid Davydov on SKA. I don’t want to single anybody out. We all work together. We work hard and improve every aspect of my game, including the glove hand, of course.

GK: On that note, you are a rare right-gloved goalie. Khabibulin and I once discussed whether or not this offers an advantage to you. What do you think? 

YA: I don’t know. I’ve always played as right-gloved. Does it give me any advantage over skaters? I don’t know. I always answer the question that you’d be better off asking the skaters about it. It’s just the way I’ve always been. Had I ever played as left-gloved, I might have been able to tell you if there’s any advantage in it. But I haven’t, so I don’t know. You tell me!

GK: Jonathan Quick was your idol growing up. Is that still the case?

YA: I was saying that regarding my first steps in hockey. It’s not Jonathan Quick anymore (smiles).

GK: Update us, please. 

YA: It’s a number of goaltenders. I don’t have an idol. There are a few guys that I follow. I hold them in high regard, and it’s not just my opinion. Sergei Bobrovsky, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Igor Shestyorkin…we have a lot of awesome goaltenders out there. Alexandar Georgiev, for example. It’s really exciting to follow those guys. Pekka Rinne, Juuse Saros, Marc-André Fleury…it’s just really fun to watch them. These are some really strong goaltenders. The list can go on and on. I named only a handful.

GK: Why did you choose to become a goalie in the first place?

YA: Back when I was a kid, there was no division for forwards, defensemen and goaltenders. Everyone skated up the ice and everyone skated back. You do a lot of hard work to score a goal, only to see the other team easily get it back. So I used a lot of energy to score a goal and then we allowed a goal right after that. I didn’t like that. I did my best to be the first man back and tried blocking shots – in my skater’s equipment. I would fall down on my knees and try to get in front of the puck. The coach noticed that and offered me to try out to be a goalie. They had the pads, a blocker and a glove–but they were for the other hand. They offered me to try and I agreed. It was exciting. But since the equipment was for the wrong hand, I practiced with it just a few times and it felt uncomfortable. So I went back to regular gloves and for a time I stopped shots with them.

GK: So no one played in net until you came along?

YA: Of course. That was back when I was six. What goalies could there be?

GK: I don’t know - little ones! Does your family have any sporting connections? 

YA: My family isn’t really athletic per se. There are no professional athletes in my family. But we are a family that loves sports. I have a brother who is eight years younger, but I don’t have a chance to take him to practice. I began playing hockey in Omsk, and my grandfather would take me to practice there. And since my grandfather is still in Omsk, there’s no one to take him to practice.

GK: It sounds like Omsk was more than just a backdrop for your beginnings in hockey.

YA: I guess I can consider myself lucky to have been born in Omsk. There’s not much to do in the winter (laughs). It’s real winter out there. Unfortunately, you don’t get as much snow and as many rinks in St. Petersburg. Back in Omsk, I had an outdoor rink right in front of my building. And since there wasn’t much else to do around, I would just go there. At first, I would take a stick and play with my dad and granddad. And then I got my first pair of skates. I started skating at the outdoor rink.

GK: I called a bunch of netminders during the pandemic, Khabibulin included, and asked one question: what is your least favorite goal that you have ever let in, and why? 

YA: There were a lot of those (laughs).

GK: That’s what they all say. 

YA: There are goals like that, but I’m not going to name them! I guess, it’s just the way it was supposed to happen. Because after letting in some frustrating goals – and some of them decided the fate of tournaments or getting to the final part of tournaments, it happened a number of times – you’d feel the sports anger arise within and you begin to work even harder. It gets you motivated and you go on to win. It did happen several times!

GK: Come on, give me one. 

YA: I really don’t want to go back to that (laughs).

GK: Пожалуйста! 

YA: Пожалуйста? Ok, there were a few of those. The goal at the U18 World Championships when the Swedes scored in overtime. The one in the semifinal at the [Hlinka Gretzky Cup] when I played for the 2001 team – we didn’t make the gold medal game because of it. It was a really frustrating goal and got stuck in my head. It’s not even that I worked on correcting the error per se, but it was something that I couldn’t get rid of. Next tournament we had was the World Junior A Challenge with the 2002 team and we won it. Then came that overtime goal in at the U18 World Championships from the Swedes. And after that we went to the Hlinka again and we won. This stuff happens. That’s what life is like. You have a negative tournament and then you have a positive tournament (smiles). Like I said, it works as a motivational tool.

GK: Do you have a specific strategy for coping with tense moments during games?

YA: It comes with experience. You just have to get it out of your mind. So you allowed a goal, big whoop. We still have more minutes and anything can happen. Even if you allow a goal and your team starts trailing, you just do your best and play till the end. You just don’t pay attention to it. Same goes if your teams scores. You don’t celebrate it too much, because there’s still 60 minutes to be played. After that final buzzer goes off, you can analyze things the next day. But during the game, you have to keep your head in the game whether you allowed a goal or not. You got scored on? It’s nothing to worry about. Your team scored a goal? Same thing – it’s nothing to worry about or celebrate (laughs). 

GK: Are you superstitious or ritualistic at all? 

YA: Actually, I’m not the superstitious kind. I don’t have any rituals. I just follow a certain set of actions every time. But I wouldn’t call it a ritual. I listen to music, get to the rink, get my equipment ready, get my sticks ready…do the same stuff at the warm-up. And that’s it. You just get your head in the game, but I don’t think it’s a ritual.

GK: What are some of your passions outside of hockey? 

YA: I like to play tennis. I like soccer, and I mean playing – not watching. Back before coronavirus came, I enjoyed going to the movies, dining out at restaurants…just something to get you mind off hockey for a while. It’s nice to reboot when you have the time. You can’t live your life thinking about hockey all the time. You need to keep your mind fresh. I don’t know if movies and restaurants qualify as hobbies, but they’re something I enjoy.

GK: You’re going to have to learn to play an instrument because your captain plays the piano. We are starting a band. 

YA: Vasya plays the piano? Wow, what hidden talents our captain has. I haven’t heard him play. I should ask him to play me something sometime.

GK: What is the one lesson you will take away from hockey for the rest of your life, even after you retire? 

YA: Whoa, what a question. I mean, my hockey career has just begun. Let’s leave the question for later. I just want to play hockey. Hopefully, I can stay healthy and have fun. Then I will answer your question.

GK: Okay, we will regroup in twenty years. What is the funniest moment you have witnessed in hockey? 

YA: I think the funniest thing was this. There was an equipment manager and skate-sharpener on our 2002 Team Russia. He didn’t speak a word of English. But wherever we might travel, he just loved talking to everyone around. He just loved talking and he still does. Anyway, one time he got lost. We just couldn’t find him anywhere. And later we found out that he got invited to someone’s house and he went. It happened somewhere in Canada. That was pretty funny. The man spoke no English whatsoever and yet somehow he was invited to come over to some Canadian family’s house. He did come back. Everything was fine.

GK: Did his English improve from the excursion? 

YA: Nope. It didn’t get any better.

GK: Some people say that goalies are weird. Goalies say that they’re normal and everyone else is weird. Which is it? 

YA: I don’t think it’s likely that anyone would call himself weird. But I’ve heard people say that. There are always exceptions to rules, though.

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