Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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In the late 1970s, a defenseman named Valery Rakov joined Khimik Voskresensk, a club in the top flight of the Soviet League. He played alongside a five-foot-nine center named Igor Larionov, who was barely three years into a professional career that ended with a Hall of Fame induction. Nearly forty years later, Rakov’s nephew Vasily Podkolzin would debut alongside Pavel Datsyuk and Nikita Gusev, becoming the first 21st century-born player to play in the KHL. The SKA St. Petersburg forward would also be named to Russia’s 2021 World Juniors squad—a team under the leadership of none other than Igor Larionov. At the age of nineteen, Podkolzin brings a family connection to his beloved sport full-circle. The brand of hockey that once differentiated Rakov in his nephew’s eyes will see a new dawn in Edmonton. It is a heritage embedded in the psyches of all Russian players, but one that runs through Podkolzin’s veins on another level.

“You can tell that [Rakov] learned to play back in the Soviet Union,” Podkolzin told me earlier this week. “He always had his head up and made crisp passes. That’s what they put the focus on. It’s one of the things I picked up from him. It’s something that really stood out about him.”

Podkolzin captained Russia’s victorious Karjala Cup campaign last month—a strategy centered on puck possession and offensive creativity, two hallmarks of the Soviet system. The 2019 Vancouver Canucks draft pick led beyond his own locker room, notching five points (1G, 4A) to become the tournament’s top scorer. “This guy was born to be a leader,” defenseman Daniil Chayka described earlier this month. “You can see his leadership in the locker room. He has earned a huge amount of respect from every player…I think he is someone who should be a captain anywhere that he plays.”

A veteran of the World Juniors tournament, Podkolzin returns to a familiar and unrelenting spotlight in a few short days. From his Soviet hockey lineage to a 70s-heavy piano repertoire, Podkolzin shared his thoughts on a number of topics ahead of departure for Edmonton.

Gillian Kemmerer (GK): You’ve been living in a bubble in Novogorsk to prepare for World Juniors. Are you getting used to quarantine life?

Vasily Podkolzin (VP): Actually, it’s not that easy. But we do have certain liberties over here. For instance, we can go outside—but everything is strictly regulated. We follow every precaution and constantly get tested. We follow every rule. We were also already familiarized with the rules of the Edmonton bubble, so I think it’s fair to say we’re getting used to them mentally.

GK: Novogorsk is usually teeming with life. Is it strange to be alone there?

VP: It is. We don’t get to meet anybody because it’s just us. We oscillate between our rooms and the dressing room.

GK: Surely you’ve found ways to amuse yourselves. Ping-pong seems to be the bubble staple.

VP: We’re doing well in that regard, and we have a ping-pong table. We have a few ways to have fun, as much as we can have under these circumstances. We play cards and [the party game] Mafia.

GK: Has the ping-pong champion been crowned? 

VP: The jury is still out on that one. Everyone has already faced almost everyone else. Round robin is coming to an end.

GK: There’s always backgammon with the Ufa boys. 

VP: (Smiles) I believe they might be the only ones playing it!

GK: You captained Russia at the Karjala Cup last month—a senior men’s national team tournament. When did you find out that you would get to wear the “C?” 

VP: There wasn’t anything special about [the announcement]. When we got together in Moscow, there was a pre-tournament press conference. Right before the conference began, I was told that I was going to be the captain, and was given the jersey with the capital C.

GK: So essentially you found out at the same time as the rest of us.

VP: Exactly. There wasn’t any talk prior to that. It felt like it might turn out that way, but nobody had told me anything officially. 

GK: Did Igor Larionov share any specific expectations of you? What takeaways from that experience have guided your pre-World Juniors preparation? 

VP: Of course. He said that I was essentially going to be the coaching staff’s assistant. I was supposed to be a link between the coaching staff and the players—so my task was simple: support the boys, help out the team, discuss certain topics with the coaching staff. Just regular captain duties, really.

Our whole team had a decent tournament at the Karjala Cup. As for me personally, I needed to improve my physical conditioning a little bit. That’s what we’ve been working on at camp right now. Hopefully—or rather, I’m certain—we’re going to be in top shape come the World Juniors, if everyone can stay healthy. 

GK: Daniil Chayka said to me last week that you were born to be a leader.

VP: I’m thankful to Chayka for those words. It’s great to hear, but I don’t know what to say. I just want to help my team. I just want to win. If I’m trusted to be the captain, I’m ready to carry out the duties. 

GK: Which captains have you admired over the years? Do you attempt to study or take anything from their leadership styles? 

VP: Going to back to U18 hockey, I made a team a year above my age. [Lokomotiv Yaroslavl’s] Anton Malyshev was the captain there. And then I went to the World Juniors with such players as Klim Kostin, Vitaly Kravtsov and Dmitry Samorukov – they were the true leaders. The following year, I played with Grigory Denisenko and Alexander Romanov. You look at these guys and pick up things. We still keep in touch and I can ask them for advice. I think these are the guys I looked up to. I would also like to add Evgeny Ketov to the list, with whom I play on SKA, as well as [alternate captains] Anton Burdasov and Anton Belov. There are a lot of leaders out there. I see how they act and pick up a few things.

GK: On the subject of leadership, I saw that you were doing community service during the early stages of the pandemic.

VP: SKA offered us a chance to help those in need, and a lot of guys on the team supported the idea. We raised money and bought groceries, which volunteers subsequently delivered to those who needed them. I worked with the volunteers because we were on a rather strict quarantine, and they handled all deliveries.

GK: You play under Valery Bragin in Saint Petersburg, your former World Juniors head coach. How do you contrast his style with that of Igor Larionov? 

VP: I can’t tell you which is better, because you have to be able to play them both. Igor Nikolayevich Larionov’s hockey is more offensively-minded with a focus on the passing game. As for Valery Nikolayevich [Bragin], it’s more of a balance between offense and defense. There is a lot of stress on defense, but I can’t say which style of hockey is more to my liking. I play whatever way I’m told to play.

GK: Given the hefty emphasis on defense in the KHL, did you feel any hesitation when granted more offensive freedom?

VP: Quite the contrary. As Larionov’s brand of hockey just gives you more freedom, there wasn’t much need for adjustment. We just play our game. We play the brand of hockey that Russia has always played. I believe the World Juniors where Bragin and Larionov worked together was great in terms of how balanced our play was.

GK: Despite your age, you’ve had a number of high-profile Russian coaches in your career. Do you seek out anyone in particular for advice? 

VP: All of them have given me advice, actually. I’ve listened to everyone and I still do. Whether it’s Bragin or Larionov or Vladimir Filatov, with whom I have worked on Russia’s U18s– I’ve listened to everyone. Last year, I listened to Alexei Kudashov at SKA. I’m still in touch with my first coach. All of them have helped me and they still give me advice. Of course, I heed their words.

GK: I read recently that you missed playing on a line with Kirill Marchenko and Ivan Morozov. With whom are you finding chemistry now? 

VP: I do miss them, but then again, I get to play with them at SKA. Although it probably would have been even better had we played together more often. I can’t tell you with whom I play now, but there are a few ideas. Everyone on the team is a professional, and we still have time to feel each other out a little better. I think everything is going to work out in the end.

GK: Not many players can say that they made their KHL debut alongside the likes of Nikita Gusev and Pavel Datsyuk. Can that experience even be put into words? 

VP: It was probably one of the most nerve-racking days of my life! And also one of the most memorable ones. After all, I’ve been following and cheering for those two players pretty much my whole life. I was lucky to step on to the same ice with them. It was unforgettable and awesome. The feeling was indescribable.

GK: Roman Rotenberg has compared you to Connor McDavid in the past. Do you follow his career closely?

VP: (Laughs) The comparison was made a long time ago! I just follow all Russian players in the NHL. There isn’t any specific player. I do my best to follow all Russian NHLers. 

GK: You come from a hockey family. What are some of your earliest memories of the game?

VP: My dad has always loved hockey. He used to play when he was a kid. We lived close to a rink – three minutes by car, perhaps, ten minutes walking. My mom and he must have decided to bring me there. I can still remember my first practice. I always wanted to play with the puck. I always wanted to be faster than everyone else. 

GK: You have a family member who played for Khimik Voskresensk. What did you take away from watching him? 

VP: It was my uncle, actually. His name is Valery Rakov. Incidentally, he played there with Larionov too. They were born the same year, and he played for Khimik for a pretty long time. We were always together in the summer. You can tell that he learned to play back in the Soviet Union. He always had his head up and made crisp passes. That’s what they put the focus on. It’s one of the things I picked up from him. It’s something that really stood out about him.

I asked [Larionov] last year if he remembered him, and he said that he did. I told him it was my aunt’s husband, and [Larionov] said to tell him he said hi.

GK: I understand that your mother is a piano teacher. Do you play?

VP: Yes, she gives fortepiano lessons. I do play a little. The latest thing I learned, that I can say with certainty that I play well, is Let It Be by The Beatles. Also a few months ago, I learned a small part of [Queen’s] Bohemian Rhapsody. 

GK: If someone else plays on Team Russia, you can have a quarantine band.

VP: (Laughs) There’s no piano here. I have to get back to learning. It must be a few months already that I haven’t played.

GK: Music aside, do you have other passions off the ice?

VP: The boys and I love to go to escape rooms, whether they are intellectual or scary ones. Other than that, not really. There simply isn’t a lot of time. Recovery takes up most of it. But when I do have some time to spare, I always find something to do. For instance, this summer I rode a water bike and it was fun. Like I said, I always find something to do. 

GK: How is your track record with escape rooms? Do you normally get out?

VP: It doesn’t happen every time, but it does happen. 

GK: What is the funniest prank you’ve experienced or played on someone else? 

VP: Good question (long pause). Tough to think of something off the top of my head. There’s just a lot of funny stuff going on in the locker room, especially in terms of banter between the boys. Oh, here’s a funny story. One time I went on the ice for a warm-up with tape on my helmet. There’s a goalie named Alexei Melnichuk, and he taped it to the back of my helmet. I just skated around with it for the whole warm-up.

GK: Every player I’ve interviewed so far has shared one lesson they believe hockey has taught them about life. What is yours?

VP: Whatever happens, just listen to yourself. There are no right or wrong decisions. You make every choice yourself, and you have to learn to make your own decisions. That’s all. All decisions regarding your own career have to be made by you.

GK: Spoken like a true captain. What do you hope to show us at World Juniors? 

VP: It’s not about showing myself. I want the team to play well. I will do everything for them, and I know that the other players will do the same. Everyone will play to win.

Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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